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What Role Are Inspectors General Supposed To Play In America's Democracy?


Inspector general - for a not especially sexy job title, IGs have certainly made a lot of headlines lately, specifically the IG of the Intelligence Community, who reported the whistleblower account of President Trump's phone call with the president of Ukraine to Congress. NPR's Brian Naylor reports the independent government watchdogs play a key role in Washington.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: There are some 75 inspectors general in the federal government. The concept dates back to George Washington, who named Baron Friedrich Von Steuben Inspector General of the Army. Under a 1978 law, IGs are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Clark Ervin served as an inspector general both at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He says in today's political climate, IGs play a key role.

CLARK ERVIN: I think the events of the last few weeks or so have shown just how important that there be an institution apart from partisan politics that will speak truth to power and will ensure that the three branches of government are coequal and that the American people are assured that the laws in the Constitution are followed.

NAYLOR: Ervin oversaw numerous investigations and audits during his turns as IG. Here's one of the things he told me he was most proud of.

ERVIN: My team and I issued audit reports on the ability after 9/11 rather easily to sneak concealed weapons through our airports, even though obviously, there was heightened scrutiny at the time for just that.

NAYLOR: In the more than two and a half years of the Trump administration, inspectors general have been busy. They've investigated former interior secretary Ryan Zinke's business dealings, the travels of former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and the office redecorating of housing secretary Ben Carson. The Department of Justice IG Michael Horowitz was in charge of the probe into whether former FBI Director James Comey mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails and other related issues. Danielle Brian, director of the Project on Government Oversight, gives Horowitz high marks for calming the storm.

DANIELLE BRIAN: There was almost sort of a fevered pitch in Washington on both sides sort of accusing the other side of wrongdoing, and when Michael came out with his thorough but well-documented report - and he came into it with, you know, really a level of credibility - it helped to sort of reduce the anxiety around Washington. It was credible, it was taken seriously, it was authoritative, and it sort of put the matter to rest.

NAYLOR: Brian also praises the IG of the Intelligence Community, Michael Atkinson, for the way he dealt with the whistleblower's report, even though he's come under fire by some on the right for his handling of the matter. Ervin was one of eight former intelligence community IGs who signed a letter in his support. One troubling issue for Brian is the number of vacant IG positions in the federal government - 11 by her count, many filled by acting IGs.

BRIAN: Sometimes those actings are actually trying to try to get that permanent position, and so they're not going to be - they don't have the incentive to be tough and do serious investigations that might be politically complicated if they think, well, but then, I'm less likely to get the job.

NAYLOR: A job that plays an important role at a time when facts themselves are under fire.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.