The Bridge: The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark

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Big, Bad Watchdog

There are certain offices in the federal government that operate completely off the radar of the average citizen. People don’t usually think about those out-of-sight offices. Most of what keeps any machinery functioning is hidden from view — that is, until the machine hisses, sputters, and falters.

Joseph V. Cuffari, inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, holds an office people don’t often think about. Inspectors general don’t typically make the evening news. But Cuffari dominated headlines last year when my colleagues at POGO broke story after story on his shocking misconduct. Instead of rooting out abuses of power, he seemed to be letting them fester. His story has become a cautionary tale of the dire need for oversight at every level of government. The consequential truth is, one bad part can break the whole machine.

In this edition:

  • The role of an inspector general
  • Failing to sound the alarm
  • Demanding accountability when a system fails
  • Plus, a new project from POGO

Today, we released the first two episodes of our new podcast, Bad Watchdog. The six-part miniseries illustrates a shocking pattern of misconduct by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, including failures that jeopardized Congress’s January 6 investigation.

Listen Now: Bad Watchdog

But first, some context. 

Inspectors general are responsible for independently overseeing specific departments of the federal government and alerting the public (and Congress) to any signs of waste, fraud, or corruption within the ranks. They’re the watchful eye and firm hand of accountability that’s a crucial mechanism for quality control in our government. They’re the public’s eyes on the inside. We trust them to serve as an agency’s moral compass and to hold agencies to the highest standards of ethics and efficiency.

Read The Bridge: Overlooked Oversight for more on IGs

Those are big responsibilities that demand high standards of ethics and integrity. When the stakes are that high, failure is bound to have massive consequences. This is especially the case for an agency like the Department of Homeland Security, which encompasses the Secret Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection — the largest law enforcement agency in the country. So what happens when the senior official tasked with keeping this enormous law enforcement agency in line is out of line himself?

A lapdog in watchdog’s clothing.

Cuffari was supposed to be the public’s line of defense against waste, fraud, corruption, and abuse in the Department of Homeland Security. Instead, his decisions as inspector general denied a chance at accountability for use of force at protests in Lafayette Square, inhumane treatment of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, and even alleged retaliation against his own staff. His inaction even jeopardized the investigation into the first breach of the Capitol in over two centuries.

Cuffari knew for months that the Secret Service had deleted key evidence — text messages before and during the insurrection on January 6, 2021 — but failed to tell Congress. In fact, in addition to failing to sound the alarm, he refused a request to try and recover the deleted evidence, quashed his own department's investigation into the deletion, and nixed a drafted alert to Congress about what had happened.

Episode 1: The Missing Text Messages

Cuffari was refusing to investigate an agency that he was supposed to keep watch over. He was thrust into the limelight when the news of this failure broke. But there was still more buried information that Cuffari was sitting on.

Episode 2: The Tip of the Iceberg

In Bad Watchdog, host and POGO Researcher Maren Machles works backwards from the deleted Secret Service messages and uncovers a troubling pattern of misconduct and the consequences of no accountability. Subscribe to be notified of new episodes as they drop every Thursday.

There’s a bigger picture.

We made Bad Watchdog because we want to make sure misconduct like Cuffari’s doesn’t get swept under the rug. Oversight is crucial to an accountable and effective government. That makes inspectors general invaluable allies to the public — but only if they carry out their role ethically and with integrity.

There are tangible consequences when those considerations take a back seat. The issues surrounding Cuffari’s decisions as inspector general are proof of that. This cautionary tale gives us all good reason to demand reforms for more effective oversight over our government — including over the inspectors general we trust to keep watch over everyone else.

Bad Watchdog weaves together two years of our investigative reporting into one compelling narrative on the real-world impact of failed oversight. Cuffari’s story is a frustrating one, no doubt — but it will also motivate you to demand more from those we entrust with power. Listen to the first two episodes of Bad Watchdog now.