Department of Justice’s Decision Undercuts, Weakens Federal Watchdogs

Statement of Danielle Brian, Executive Director, Project On Government Oversight

The Office of Legal Counsel’s memorandum restricting what access Inspectors General will have to certain investigative records makes a mockery of our government’s internal watchdog system. The memorandum clashes with Congress’s unambiguous and long-standing intent for Inspector General offices to have complete and timely access to executive branch records, as enshrined in the Inspector General Act and subsequent laws.

IGs cannot be effective watchdogs on behalf of Congress and the American public if they have to negotiate with agency leaders for access to records on a case-by-case basis. Nonetheless, the Office of Legal Counsel has determined that IGs must consult with the very officials they're supposed to oversee in order to remove restrictions on the dissemination of sensitive material.

The Office of Legal Counsel’s memo crosses the line. Where the law says that IGs shall have access to "all records, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations, or other material" related to the office's oversight duties, the word "all" means "all."

It’s time for Congress to step in and reaffirm its intent that an IG’s authority to access agency records overrides restrictions contained in other laws. Congress should make it clear that IGs should have access to grand jury and electronic surveillance records. In addition, Congress should specify that agencies do not waive the attorney-client or other common law privileges when records are turned over to IGs.

Congress must take swift and bipartisan action so that IGs can continue to function as aggressive watchdogs.

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