What Happened to Government Transparency? All We See Is Illegal Stonewalling

In recent years, it's become easier for wrongdoers to get away with abusing their government-given power.

The Obama administration has made it increasingly difficult for federal watchdogs to obtain records.

Government scandals are getting harder to investigate as the Obama administration turns away from promises of government transparency. Here's what's going on.That's because it wants to prevent unauthorized disclosure of sensitive personal information. But this contradicts the intent of a government oversight system in place for 37 years.

The current law was set up in 1978 following the Watergate scandal. The idea was to install inspectors general at the government agencies and give them the power to investigate any scandals within that agency. Each inspector general was authorized access to all agency records.

But in recent years, agencies have balked at turning over information they deemed confidential, such as grand jury reports, wiretaps, credit reports, and in some cases, emails.

This has disrupted at least 20 investigations of government scandals in the past five years.

Then, in July, the U.S. Department of Justice made things worse.

How the DOJ Made Government Scandal Investigations Harder

The ongoing disputes between the agencies and the watchdogs over access to records led to a series of Justice Department reviews.

On July 20, the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel issued an opinion that "all records" did not necessarily include the "confidential" categories, legitimizing what had been unofficial Obama administration policy.

"This is by far the most aggressive assault on the inspector general concept since the beginning.... They've become defanged."

"This is by far the most aggressive assault on the inspector general concept since the beginning," Paul Light, a New York University professor who has studied the IG system, told The New York Times. "It's the complete evisceration of the concept. You might as well fold them down. They've become defanged."

It's especially galling coming from the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, who has consistently promised a more transparent government.

"Every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known," President Obama said in a 2009 welcoming message to his senior staff.

But within a year something happened that left those words ringing hollow...

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Obama Administration Stonewalling a Long-Standing Issue

That policy for openness started to go backwards as early as 2010, when Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine was looking into Federal Bureau of Investigation abuses in counterterrorism programs. The FBI told Fine that as some confidential records were legally protected, he would not be allowed to see them.

In the years that followed, more watchdogs encountered similar roadblocks as they sought to investigate various government scandals.

Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration refused to hand over emails from senior officials regarding a raid in Honduras in which four unarmed villagers were killed and several private planes shot down.

In another government scandal at the Peace Corps, an investigation into alleged sexual assaults against overseas volunteers ran into trouble when the agency's lawyers balked at turning over abuse reports.

Many agencies have viewed the July DOJ opinion as a license to hold back even more information, including some not covered by the opinion.

But the ability of the Obama administration to stonewall investigations of government scandals may be coming to an end.

The Inspectors General Strike Back

In August, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, which represents the watchdog agencies, sent a letter to Congress requesting that it step in with specific legislation to restore their right to full access to all government records.

And the Senate responded. In September, a bipartisan bill was introduced to amend the language in the Inspector General Act of 1978.

"The Justice Department opinion is contrary to the law and to the reason Congress created inspectors general - an independent overseer of the executive branch," bill cosponsor Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) told Government Executive. "The action we're taking with this new legislation leaves no room for misinterpretation."

With strong bipartisan support, this bill is very likely to pass.

President Obama could always veto the bill, but that would expose his claims of having "the most transparent administration in history" as a fraud.

Of course, if the president was truly sincere about transparency in his administration, we wouldn't need legislation to compel his agencies to comply with government scandal investigations.

The Bottom Line: Agencies within the Obama administration increasingly have been stonewalling investigations into government scandals by withholding certain confidential records. Given that the president often brags about the transparency of his administration, it's absurd that the issue has gone this far. Now the inspectors general are fighting back and have convinced Congress to introduce a bill that will restore their access to all records.

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About the Author

David Zeiler, Associate Editor for Money Morning at Money Map Press, has been a journalist for more than 35 years, including 18 spent at The Baltimore Sun. He has worked as a writer, editor, and page designer at different times in his career. He's interviewed a number of well-known personalities - ranging from punk rock icon Joey Ramone to Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Over the course of his journalistic career, Dave has covered many diverse subjects. Since arriving at Money Morning in 2011, he has focused primarily on technology. He's an expert on both Apple and cryptocurrencies. He started writing about Apple for The Sun in the mid-1990s, and had an Apple blog on The Sun's web site from 2007-2009. Dave's been writing about Bitcoin since 2011 - long before most people had even heard of it. He even mined it for a short time.

Dave has a BA in English and Mass Communications from Loyola University Maryland.

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