The Latin aphorism attributed to Juvenal, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? translates as “Who watches the watchmen?” or “Who guards the guards?” That was my first thought when reading about the 47 inspectors general who signed a letter of complaint to the Obama administration. Since 1978, more than 70 federal agencies and departments have inspectors general attached to them—actually an entire office rather than one person, whose task is to identify and investigate the bureaucratic Big Three: waste, fraud, and mismanagement. Sounds like a great idea, until you delve further and learn that about half of the inspectors general were appointed by the agencies themselves. Who watches the watchmen, again?
But that’s one aspect that makes this letter so interesting. Addressing themselves to ranking members of the House and Senate Oversight committees, “The undersigned federal Inspectors General write regarding the serious limitations on access to records that have recently impeded the work of Inspectors General at the Peace Corps, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Justice.” In other words, those three agencies have stonewalled their respective Office of Inspector General (OIG) by delaying or restricting information the OIG needs to do its jobs. The letter goes on to suggest that this is not just a problem with the Peace Corps, EPA, and DOJ, but also most other federal agencies. That explains the abundance of signatures—almost two-thirds of all federal inspectors general, all of whom owe their jobs, directly or indirectly, to the administration. The letter is unprecedented, and got almost no press.
The OIG complaint isn’t news to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. While trying to squeeze “lost” emails out of former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner, he, in a separate case, also subpoenaed emails from Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Tavenner was in charge of the rollout of HealthCare.gov, and the committee was trying to understand why the website’s debut was such a disaster in spite of warnings and alarms. Just last week (the subpoena was issued in October) the Department of Health and Human Services informed the committee that the relevant emails were “accidentally” deleted and “might not be available to HHS.”
Add frustrated inspectors general and aggravated congressional committees to the Associated Press, which last spring ran a detailed analysis on the number of requests for public information that were delayed or obstructed by the administration. Under the Freedom of Information Act, any legitimate interested party may request unclassified documents from federal governmental agencies, which then have 20 days to turn them over. Out of 678,391 requests for information in 2013, the Obama administration withheld or censored 244,675 files, or 36 percent, claiming irrelevant legal exemptions or ignoring the requests altogether.
Even now, when directly challenged by journalists, the Obama White House claims to be the “most transparent administration in history.” Maybe it depends on what they mean by “transparent.” Still, I can’t help noticing a pattern here. What do they have to hide?