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Look Who's Not Looking

Over the past two weeks, two of the most high-profile inspectors general in government have faced public firing squads. As the Washington Post reported on its front page on Friday, Stuart Bowen, the inspector general tasked with investigating Iraq reconstruction, now faces an investigation himself. Several government agencies are examining charges that his office was involved in massive mismanagement and waste, the very sins he had been tasked with uncovering in Iraq. Most puzzlingly, over twenty-five of his employees earned more than General David Petraeus did last year.

Meanwhile, at the State Department, Inspector General Howard Krongrad recently resigned amidst charges that he blocked investigations into serious problems in Iraq. For months, Krongrad had been accused of everything from ignoring fraud in the construction of a US embassy in Baghdad to preventing his staff from looking into allegations of arms smuggling by the embattled military contractor Blackwater. In a particularly charming episode at a House hearing in November, Krongrad claimed that his brother was unaffiliated with Blackwater, then abruptly changed his story after supposedly learning, during the hearing, that his brother did in fact work there.

Alas, Krongrad and Bowen’s cases are hardly unique. In Washington, inspectors general in each cabinet agency are supposed to serve a vital role, operating as the watchdogs inside the federal government who sniff out fraud, misconduct, self-dealing, waste, and a host of other criminal activities. But under the Bush administration--surprise, surprise--inspector general positions have been filled by White House loyalists or outright hacks, leaving agencies virtually unpoliced. And while the inspectors general do nothing, the administration says nothing. No one is watching the watchers.

During previous administrations, the White House appointed impartial inspectors general, many of whom had extensive backgrounds in the areas they would police. As a 2004 report by the Democrats on the House Committee on Government Reform revealed, in the Clinton administration, over 60 percent of Inspectors General had some past experience conducting audits--the essential task of an IG--and less than one-quarter of Clinton IG appointees had previous political experience, meaning they were not hardcore Clinton loyalists. Under Bush, the committee found that more than 60 percent of Bush IG appointees had previous political experience, like working for a Republican White House, and more than half of them had been contributors to President Bush or other GOP candidates. Less than 20 percent of the Bush Inspectors General had any previous auditing experience.

Given their background, it’s hardly surprising that most Bush inspectors general are not exactly probing deep for problems. Krongrad and Bowen (who, it should be noted, was Bush’s legal advisor during his governorship) are not even the most extreme cases. Janet Rehnquist, daughter of the former Supreme Court Chief Justice, wreaked major havoc as IG of the Department of Health and Human Services from 2001 to 2003. According to a story by the Associated Press, she delayed an audit of Florida’s pension fund after then-governor Jeb Bush asked her to, and nearly all the deputy inspectors general in HHS left under her watch.

At NASA, IG Robert Cobb, whose previous work experience includes a stint as associate counsel to the president, faced an investigation by the FBI and the presidential oversight office for allegedly retaliating against whistleblowers and shutting down some of his department’s most crucial investigations. In their final report, the investigators concluded Cobb had informed agency officials about internal investigations and shut down reports that might have hurt NASA. The investigation also found Cobb was so chummy with NASA head Sean O'Keefe that they’d meet regularly for private lunches and play golf together. Still, Cobb remains on the job. (Inspectors General at the Commerce Department and the Environmental Protection Agency also have faced investigations of possible misconduct.)

Over at the Pentagon, the Department of Defense’s former Inspector General, Joseph Schmitz (who, again, had no auditing background) has earned a monster of a rap sheet: He allegedly stonewalled Congress when it demanded information on whether Schmitz had stopped criminal investigations; he played down complaints about Halliburton’s overcharging for government contracts; and he essentially suggested that Abu Ghraib wasn’t a big deal. Shortly after Republican Senator Charles Grassley announced that he’d launch an investigation into this behavior, Schmitz resigned--and took a job with Blackwater’s parent company.

When Inspectors General do take their job seriously, though, they get punished for it. The CIA’s Inspector General, John Helgerson, has gained a reputation for doling out tough, unwelcome criticism. In particular, in 2004, he warned that the Agency’s detention policies might “constitute cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” So it’s no surprise that his office is the now the subject of a CIA probe. According to The New York Times, “The inquiry was ordered by the C.I.A. director, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, in response to complaints about aggressive investigations by Mr. Helgerson’s office into the agency’s counterterrorism programs.” (Partly because of the Helgerson fiasco, the House recently passed legislation designed to make Inspectors General more independent.)

The lack of real inspectors general has serious consequences. At their best, tough investigations put fear into contractors and employees, making waste and fraud less likely. They also provide vital information to Congress and the press. Just imagine if we’d had a better understanding of how decisions were being made when Iraqi reconstruction contracts were first being divvied out, say, or if we knew how badly managed FEMA was before September 2005. And imagine if the people whose job it was to investigate the most important government agencies were sharp-eyed and diligent, and not the beneficiaries of nepotism or political back-scratching. In case you’re wondering, there are just thirteen more shopping months left until the next inauguration.

By Joshua Kurlantzick