Investigating the Investigators

Congress responds to complaints about inspectors general.

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Bowen prepares to testify to Congress.

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The budget for the Smithsonian Institution's IG has also been an issue. It was cut after IG Debra Ritt launched an audit of top-ranking Smithsonian officials. The audit eventually found excessive spending on travel and other expenses by top officials, leading to the resignation of Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small. That IGs must seek funding from the very agencies they investigate is contrary to the concept of independence, says Clark Kent Ervin, a former inspector general at the departments of State and Homeland Security. He argues that budget requests should be presented directly to Congress.

Other recent controversies have involved top agency officials interfering with the work of the inspector general. CIA Director Michael Hayden, for example, has launched a review of the conduct of CIA Inspector General John Helgerson and his office. Critics charge that the CIA is trying to silence a watchdog, speculating that Hayden may actually be seeking to evaluate the IG's scrutiny of the CIA's terrorist detention and interrogation programs. Whatever the case, the CIA staff's perception of the move could ultimately harm the authority of the IG office, says Frederick Hitz, a former CIA inspector general. "If this investigation goes on for a long time," says Hitz, "it could undermine the confidence the workforce has in the IG."

Reforms. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has approved legislation that would establish a council to review complaints against inspectors general. It would also standardize compensation for presidentially appointed IGs to prevent agencies from discouraging qualified candidates by offering low pay. It would require that full, unredacted IG reports be posted on the Internet and that Congress be notified of any proposed removal of an IG.

The Project on Government Oversight has called for other measures, including having all IGs be appointed by the president, allowing the IG to investigate all aspects of an agency's operations (the Justice Department's IG, for instance, can't investigate the attorney general), limiting IGs' terms, and allowing them to subpoena testimony as well as documents.