President Trump’s current campaign of reprisal against his critics within the federal bureaucracy has become a Soviet-style purge, a vendetta, that resembles the actions of an old-fashioned Mafia boss targeting perceived enemies. Former FBI director James Comey, who started his career in government fighting crime families, warned us in 2018 that an early encounter with the president was reminiscent of these bosses. In his book, “A Higher Loyalty,” Comey described Trump’s requirement of a “silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.”
The campaign against government Inspector Generals (IG) is merely the latest phase of a war against governance that has been waged for the past three years. The campaign initially was against the Department of Justice and the justice system itself, undermining the foundations of our rule of law. Trump’s war against the intelligence community was designed to politicize intelligence, which will compromise our national security. His anti-intellectual campaign against science and reason has put all of us at risk in the pandemic crisis. The vendetta against all those who testified against him in the impeachment trial or brought news critical of him now includes the IGs and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), far more serious targets than is commonly understood.
The mainstream media have insufficiently explained the fundamental importance of the role of the Inspector General, particularly in the national security bureaucracy that dominates discretionary spending and can resort to secret funding. National security institutions, such as the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency, are reluctant to admit that they have made mistakes, let alone allow the lifting of the veil on illegal practices. There are institutional concerns that drive this reluctance: vulnerability to legal action; reduced budgets, setbacks to programs considered important; and the possibility of holding high-level individuals accountable.
Secret institutions are even more reluctant than most to acknowledge fault, and they have more opportunities to evade responsibility than less opaque institutions. They can control the message with classification barriers; claims of national security protection, such as the omnipresent “need-to-know;” and a publication review process that restricts military and intelligence personnel from legitimate criticism of their institutions.
The Inspector General’s role is to ensure that his/her organization functions effectively, efficiently, and in compliance with law and regulation. The IG is charged with holding individuals within an organization accountable when they transgress, and holding the institution accountable when it fails to comply with law, regulations, and its own professional standards. The Senate intelligence committee could never have produced its authoritative study of the CIA’s unconscionable use of torture and abuse without the research of the Office of the Inspector General at the CIA. The unfairly maligned and censored IG investigation of the 9/11 intelligence failure led to unacceptable pressure on the CIA’s OIG by the Bush and Obama administrations prior to the current campaign.
Indeed, the IG is important to any government agency, but none more so than those in the Intelligence Community, where effective oversight is difficult at the best of times. The public has no access to the secrets of these organizations; the media are granted only the access the organization permits; and congressional oversight committees are carefully cultivated by senior managers of the agencies they monitor. Until I testified to the Senate intelligence committee in 1991, the committee didn’t even have full access to relevant IG reports.
The IG is the best line of defense against transgressions, but it is the rare director of an agency who is willing to protect the inspectors and investigators of its Office of the IG. Smart managers should recognize that their IGs can help them stay within legal and regulatory boundaries—and help them operate more effectively.
Until very recently, President Trump paid little attention to the work of the IGs. In his first three years in the White House, he failed to use his statutory powers to name more than a dozen IGs to key institutions, and was particularly critical of the role of intelligence. In his first year in the White House, Trump proclaimed that he knew “a lot more than intelligence people do,” and then- presidential press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained that “intelligence has never played a role in Donald Trump’s life.” Truer words.
But the courageous work of the IG for the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, who made sure that the CIA whistleblower’s complaint reached the Senate intelligence community, despite the opposition from the Attorney General and the Office of Legal Counsel, has highlighted two weeks of reprisals against the kind of truth-telling that IGs as well as intelligence officials must command. The acting director of national intelligence, Thomas Maguire, was removed merely for allowing one of his deputies to brief the congressional intelligence committees on continued Russian interference in U.S. governance, a neuralgic subject to the president. The $2.2 trillion stimulus bill will not be thoroughly scrutinized because Trump has corrupted several layers of oversight with the removal of Glenn Fine, a professional IG, who was appointed by a senior group of IGs to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, and the insertion of a Trump loyalist in the White House, Brian Miller, to oversee a $500 billion rescue fund for distressed industries created as part of the coronavirus stimulus bill.
The Congress must investigate Trump’s personnel actions. It is unlikely that the Senate intelligence committee, which is led by Richard Burr, (R/NC), who is facing his own ethics issues, will do so. When I testified against the confirmation of Robert Gates as CIA director in 1991, several Senators who opposed Gates refused to challenge the nomination because they were facing ethics charges as part of the “Keating Five,” the savings-and-loan scandal in the 1980s. So, once again, it is up to Rep. Adam Schiff, (D/CA), to lead the way. At the closing of the impeachment trial in February, Schiff warned that “If truth doesn’t matter, we are lost. And if right doesn’t matter, we are lost. The Framers couldn’t protect us from ourselves if right and truth don’t matter.”