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The Government's Busy Watchdogs: What They Do And Where They Struggle

Michael Horowitz, the Department of Justice inspector general, swears in to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last year.
Andrew Harrer
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Michael Horowitz, the Department of Justice inspector general, swears in to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last year.

These are busy times for Washington's inspectors general — one of the most important jobs you've probably never heard of.

Just on Friday, a Justice Department watchdog said former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe misled investigators about contacts between the bureau and a Wall Street Journal reporter about the FBI's probe into the Clinton Foundation. McCabe, whose lawyer said he acted well within his authority, was fired last month.


There are inspectors general in nearly every federal agency, 73 positions, though some of them are currently vacant. In fact, it's a job that traces back to George Washington, whose inspector general Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben is memorialized in a statue in Lafayette Square across from the White House.

Inspectors general act as independent watchdogs for their agencies.

"Perhaps the most important principle for every inspector general is ensuring our independence from the agencies we oversee, so that we can be effective watchdogs over them," Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz said.

It was Horowitz's office that investigated McCabe. He's also been involved in some other high-profile probes at the department, including former FBI Director James Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation and whether or not the Justice Department improperly obtained a warrant to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Horowitz said he could not comment on any of the ongoing investigations.

Horowitz was named inspector general by former President Barack Obama, and found himself the subject of a tweet in February from President Trump, accusing him of partisanship.

But Horowitz, who has served in various positions under both Republican and Democratic administrations, says his job is to ignore politics.

"You take an oath to do the job," he told NPR. "I am required under the law, and do day-in-day out here, to focus on what the facts are, what the evidence is, what the information is, without any regard to political views, partisan views." Inspectors general "need to be completely independent," he said. "We need to do effective oversight regardless of who's in power."

Another high-profile office is at the Environmental Protection Agency, which is being kept busy by various audits of administrator Scott Pruitt, including probing Pruitt's travel, from 2017 through the end of the year.

"I know that a lot of people are waiting to see the results of that," said Jennifer Kaplan, an EPA deputy assistant inspector general. "But as it is an ongoing audit, we don't draw conclusions until we're finished, and when we're finished you'll see our findings and you'll see our recommendations as well. And what, if anything, the agency said they are going to do with those recommendations."

Enforcing recommendations

The murkiness of enforcement after the reports come out is something that frustrates people inside and outside the oversight community.

Peter Tyler of the Project On Government Oversight argues that the duties of inspectors general are more important than ever, and they "do really good work, but the question is, does anybody listen?" He previously worked in the inspector general's office at the Department of Health and Human Services and said agencies should listen to the recommendations and make changes. "That does happen, but not enough," he said.

Kaplan, however, said EPA inspector general Arthur Elkins "likes to say we're something like the newspaper business, and I'll expand that to the media business. We have the leverage of having a trusted word. So when we put something out in public, and Congress sees it and everyone else sees it, then it's up to other people to decide whether it's important enough to assert more leverage on the EPA or the Chemical Safety Board to make change, if they're not already doing that."

Short on resources

Another frustration is a lack of money. Horowitz, who also chairs the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, said the 475 people in his office oversee a department with 110,000 employees, in addition to contractors.

"And so we — and I know other inspectors general feel the same way — are having to make very hard choices on where we do our work and where we look," he said.

And now, that work that has taken on extra importance in an era when facts are increasingly disputed.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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