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Inspector General’s Role in Secret Service Scandal has Familiar Ring

Allegations that an inspector general probe into the Secret Service prostitution scandal was subverted and its findings suppressed to protect the Obama Administration from political fallout have a ring of déjà vu.

Inspectors general (IGs) are supposed to serve as independent watchdogs within the executive branch.  However, The Washington Post’s account of the Secret Service probe closely parallels a story the Project On Government Oversight reported in June 2013 on an investigation by the Defense Department IG that involved former Defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta, the movie Zero Dark Thirty, and the alleged disclosure of “Top Secret” information about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. 

As POGO reported, the Defense IG refrained from publishing the results of that investigation until after the last presidential election.  Then, after POGO posted a draft of the IG report concluding that Panetta mishandled classified information, the IG omitted that information from the final, publicly released version of its report. 

Later, after one of its employees acknowledged having given a draft of the bottled-up report to overseers at the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees, the IG’s office accused the employee of having made an “unauthorized disclosure.”

Like the Secret Service matter, the Zero Dark Thirty probe had the potential to reverberate during the last presidential campaign.  Republicans and other critics were arguing that the Obama Administration was exploiting the bin Laden raid for political gain to the point of releasing excessive detail about the operation.

In a March 2014 report, POGO provided additional context on the IG report:

Though the final version made no mention of the Panetta findings, CIA documents released under the Freedom of Information Act to Judicial Watch show that the Defense IG believed them strongly enough to refer them to the CIA.

"We are referring to you for appropriate action the unauthorized disclosures of DoD information by the former Director of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to a movie producer not authorized to receive the information," James R. Ives, the Defense Department’s acting deputy inspector general for Intelligence and Special Program Assessments, said in an undated memo to the CIA’s deputy inspector general.

While it is unclear when the Ives memo was sent to the CIA, it is clear from the contents of the memo that the Defense Inspector General’s office had established by September 2012 that Panetta’s remarks at the event attended by the filmmaker contained Top Secret information. That means the Defense IG had confirmed the finding before the November 2012 presidential election and months before the OIG released its official, Panetta-free report in June 2013.

Now, The Washington Post is reporting allegations that IG investigators at the Department of Homeland Security were directed to delay a politically sensitive report on the Secret Service prostitution scandal until after the 2012 presidential election and then to leave out information that was potentially embarrassing to the White House.

The article by Carol D. Leonnig and David Nakamura says:

The lead investigator later told Senate staffers that he felt pressure from his superiors in the office of Charles K. Edwards, who was then the acting inspector general, to withhold evidence — and that, in the heat of an election year, decisions were being made with political considerations in mind.

“We were directed at the time . . . to delay the report of the investigation until after the 2012 election,’ David Nieland, the lead investigator on the Colombia case for the DHS inspector general’s office, told Senate staffers, according to three people with knowledge of his statement.

Nieland added that his superiors told him "to withhold and alter certain information in the report of investigation because it was potentially embarrassing to the administration."

Edwards told Senate staffers that any changes to the report were part of the normal editing process and that he sought to keep the focus of his investigation on DHS employees, according to statements he made to Senate staffers that are part of the public record.

In both the Zero Dark Thirty and Secret Service matters, the IG offices were headed by acting inspectors general, whose independence was compromised by the fact that they would need the administration’s support to be named to their positions on a permanent basis.  A number of key inspector general positions were long left in the hands of interim IGs.

Panetta left office in 2013 while the Defense IG was still sitting on the Zero Dark Thirty report.  He is currently promoting a memoir of his years in the Obama Administration. 

Image by Flickr user Light Brigading.

By: David S. Hilzenrath
Chief Investigative Reporter, POGO

David Hilzenrath David Hilzenrath is the Chief Investigative Reporter for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Government Accountability

Related Content: Inspector General Oversight, DOD Oversight

Authors: David S. Hilzenrath

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