Skip to comments.Watchdogs: DOJ memo undermines agency probes
Posted on 08/05/2015 2:17:47 PM PDT by jazusamo
Agency watchdogs are up in arms over a Justice Department memo questioning the legality of turning documents they say are crucial to their investigations.
The new policy protecting certain portions of sensitive documents announced last month by the DOJs office of legal counsel came under fresh fire from lawmakers during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.
Lawmakers in both parties, including the top Republican and Democrat on the panel, disagree with the policy shift, saying it goes against the specific intent of the Inspector General Act of 1978. The law specifies that inspectors general have access to all records needed during an investigation.
Its difficult to figure out what problems the department was trying to solve, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said.
In the last 26 years, the [DOJs inspector general] has had access to some of the most sensitive information available to the department, he continued, adding that the there were no allegations that inspectors general had handled that information improperly.
Inside the hearing room, the audience was packed with workers from an array of agency inspector generals offices who had showed up in solidarity.
The first panel of witnesses consisted of the Justice Departments inspector general, the FBIs associate deputy director, the associate deputy attorney general and the Commerce Departments acting inspector general.
DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz, a vocal critic of the policy, said that the implications of the new policy could reach further than the Justice Department lawyers intended.
The office of legal counsel memo specifies that sensitive information falling under laws aimed at protecting consumer financial information, grand jury testimony, intercepted communications and wiretap data may be withheld from agency watchdogs.
But once some information becomes exempt from disclosure and inspectors general are no longer entitled to all documents needed in an investigation Where does that stop? Horowitz asked.
The FBI has identified 10 other categories that they have concerns about, he said.
Just yesterday, Im told, in our review of the FBIs use of the bulk telephony statute . We got records with redactions. Not for grand jury or credit information but for other areas the FBI has identified legal concerns about, he continued.
Both Kevin Perkins, the associate deputy director of the FBI, and Associate Deputy Attorney General Carlos Uriarte said they were having meetings with Horowitzs office and may support a legislative fix to the memo.
We are bound to follow the law and the [office of legal counsel] opinion as its stated, said Perkins said. So, there are discussions ongoing with the OIG But nothing that is insurmountable and nothing we cant overcome.
Uriarte also said the Justice Department would work together with Congress to come up with a fix.
The Commerce Departments acting inspector general, David Smith, also testified that the memos chilling effect has spread to an International Trade Administration investigation the office has been working on since the beginning of this year.
Specifically looking into whether the agency has been conducting quality and timely trade remedy determinations, it needed access to proprietary business information. Lawyers at the Commerce Department thought that handing over the documents could expose them to lawsuits even if company names were redacted.
Following the release of the Justice Departments policy memo two weeks ago, the office, still unable to obtain the information, had to terminate the investigation.
The policy shift has caused outrage throughout the inspector general community, in addition to outside government watchdogs as well.
The hearings second panel which featured a former inspector general, a professor from New York University and a watchdog group also urged Congress to move
DOJs interpretation of the law essentially hands control over to the subject of the investigation to decide whether or not they want to cooperate, said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).
Secret agency programs are particularly susceptible to waste, fraud, and abuse, but IG offices cannot uncover or correct these problems without access to agency records, Brian said her Wednesday testimony. Agency actions that deny access to those records violate our system of checks and balances.
Paul Light, a professor within the Robert G. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at NYU, said he thought the DOJ should just retract the memo, but it [would] not help their reputation in future memoranda.
I am not a legal scholar, but I am a legislative historian, he said. I will cut to the chase: The [office of legal counsel] opinion is wrong. Absolutely wrong.
I dont understand why we have to pass a law to say, We really meant it in 1978 when we said all. Now we really, really mean it, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said.
However, lawmakers appeared resolute by the end of the hearing to craft a legislative solution.
We intend to fix this, Grassley said. We will get it fixed.
Pure corruption. An Republican leaders never fight it.
No, you won't. For years now, you preening narcissists in Congress have given increasing power to the executive branch departments and agencies to make policy under the premise that you retain the ultimate authority with your oversight powers when in reality, your notion of oversight is grandstanding for the cameras by grilling some low level schlep at a committee hearing. So the schlep takes his lumps, you get a 30 second clip on the news, and the policies continue.
Now, when you've got an executive who is fully taking advantage of all the power you amassed for him in the executive branch, you decide things have gone too far and your solution: you're going to pass a law that he has to sign giving you back some of the power. Absolutely brilliant plan there, boys.
“The hearings second panel which featured a former inspector general, a professor from New York University and a watchdog group also urged Congress to move”
Strongly worded letters coming.
The effective tools they have are Impeachments and rescinding funds. If we ever see that happen, it will be when Democrats need to restrain a conservative president.
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