According to a recent Washington Post story, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (IG) has allowed officials from the Secret Service—the very organization the IG is investigating—to participate in the inquiry. While not illegal, former IGs and legal experts have called it unusual, since collaboration with agencies under investigation is usually limited to consulting technical experts, rather than officials.
Inspector General John Roth declined to comment to the Post on this specific matter. A spokesperson was quoted in an unrelated context, saying that “In certain circumstances where we believe our independence will not be affected, we may use the components’ internal affairs agents as a force multiplier, relying on their help with investigative steps such as interviewing employees and gathering documents.” This is necessary since, as the spokesperson also stated, “Our office has about 200 investigators with responsibility for investigating criminal and other serious misconduct in a department with more than 240,000 employees.”
The investigation revolves around the distribution of Representative Jason Chaffetz’s (R-UT) personal information from a restricted Secret Service database. Contained in those records was the fact that Representative Chaffetz, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, had previously applied for and been rejected from a position in the Secret Service. It was just days after Chairman Chaffetz had grilled the new Secret Service Director, Joseph Clancy, about the agency’s problems in a congressional hearing that the information—along with satirical posters—was widely circulated across the entire Secret Service, and then leaked to The Daily Beast. During the investigation, an email from Secret Service Assistant Deputy Ed Loery—sent two days before the leak—came to light, in which he explicitly encouraged the information to be leaked. An excerpt from the email read: “Some information that he might find embarrassing needs to get out. Just to be fair.”
In the wake of the scandal, Director Clancy has apologized, and agents who accessed or disseminated Representative Chaffetz’s personal files have been reprimanded, placed on one- or two-day suspensions, or told to expect other disciplinary measures.
But the inquiry has gone farther than holding Secret Service agents and officials accountable for disseminating restricted information. Despite prior statements from Inspector General Roth to encourage whistleblowers, the investigation has been used to identify and question whistleblowers who have contacted the media on prior occasions. The OIG has used administrative subpoenas (which do not require a judge’s approval) to retrieve cellphone records of any agents who communicated with the Post reporter who is responsible for covering several stories regarding security lapses in the Secret Service.
In this context, the involvement of Secret Service officials in the IG investigation becomes far more concerning. Secret Service officials have been present at the questioning of several of these agents, which could expose their identities to their bosses and could very easily intimidate whistleblowers from coming forward in the future. According to Brady Toensing, the lawyer of a whistleblower who had previously given information to The Washington Post, DHS has “diagnosed the issue as a leak problem rather than misconduct and ineptitude. Consequently, it is hell-bent on finding and silencing whistleblowers.’’
As Danielle Brian, Executive Director of the Project On Government Oversight, stated while testifying before the Senate in August:
…Congress must constantly watch the watchdogs to ensure, for instance, that IG offices are not using their investigative powers in a way that harms whistleblowers or protects the agencies….Any expansion of IG authority should be coupled with other measures to hold IG offices and agencies accountable, such as stronger protections for whistleblowers, improved practices for investigating whistleblower retaliation claims, and stricter transparency requirements for the online posting of IG reports.
The DHS IG investigation is an unfortunate reminder of how far we still have to go. We still need independent IGs and courageous whistleblowers to ensure accountability and transparency in our government.