Sidelined Watchdog Had Rocky Tenure at Pentagon

Sidelined Watchdog Had Rocky Tenure at Pentagon
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Sidelined Watchdog Had Rocky Tenure at Pentagon
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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Sen. Chuck Grassley, a longtime champion of whistleblowers and congressional oversight, has joined Democrats in criticizing President Trump’s firing of several inspectors general, that cadre of internal agency watchdogs tasked with being the first line of defense against government waste and corruption.

Yet, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee has held his fire over Trump’s decision to sideline one of the watchdogs, Glenn Fine, the former acting watchdog at the Defense Department who resigned earlier this week after Trump demoted him. Fine was set to oversee the $2 trillion in coronavirus disaster relief funds, but when the president demoted him at Defense, Fine was automatically disqualified from serving on the relief funds oversight panel.  

While Grassley hasn’t said whether he agrees with Trump’s decision to demote Fine (pictured above), he is renewing his criticism of his tenure as the DoD IG.

“Unfortunately, neither Inspector General Fine nor his predecessors have demonstrated courage and leadership by forcefully addressing problems that I’ve consistently brought up for years,” Grassley told RealClearPolitics in a statement this week. “I hope the next inspector general puts forward stronger recommendations than we’ve grown accustomed to, with actual teeth that force some real change in the Defense Department.”

And, when it comes to the Defense Department’s inspector general’s office, Trump still has more house-cleaning to do to ensure effective leadership, Grassley argues.

“There are also senior staff that ought to go and an office culture that has led to bad outcomes because they’re still around,” he said. “It’d be alarming to have any of the problem characters in that office elevated in Mr. Fine’s absence.”

While those words may seem to contradict Grassley’s broader criticism of Trump’s abrupt recent firings of several other inspectors general, including State Department IG Steve Linick and Intelligence Community IG Michael Atkinson, it comes as no surprise to those who have closely followed Grassley’s oversight of Fine and the Pentagon’s watchdog office.

In early April, after Trump fired a number of inspectors general, Grassley led a bipartisan group of lawmakers expressing outrage and concern over their removals. They called on the president to provide a detailed written explanation for his decisions to remove the watchdogs. Grassley sent a letter to the White House, citing Atkinson’s removal, that argued that the president wasn’t following a law requiring presidents to provide a written explanation for their reasons for firing an inspector general at least 30 days before removing them. He sent a similar letter after Trump fired Linick in mid-May.

But Grassley for weeks had remained mum about Fine’s removal as pandemic IG, a position he attained by a vote of his fellow IG peers, as well as Fine’s demotion to deputy IG at the Pentagon, even as headlines decried the move. The New York Times referred to Fine, who was first appointed by President Obama in 2015 but never confirmed by the Senate, as a “watchdog known for his independence,” and NPR lamented the firing as “another pushback against oversight.”  

When Fine resigned from the job earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal quoted him as saying he was leaving because he was worried that his successor would take the office and the investigations in a different direction.

Such a shift could come as welcome news to Grassley. His office for years has tangled with Fine and the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General, with the most recent flashpoint taking place in March. That’s when the Iowa Republican called on Fine to address longtime allegations from lawmakers and outside groups across the political spectrum that he was presiding over an office that created a “toxic” environment for whistleblowers and had demonstrated what he called a pattern of alleged investigative misconduct, retaliation and bullying.

The plea for Fine to clean up the Pentagon’s IG office came several months after the apparent suicide of Steve Luke, a senior Pentagon IG investigator who had become a whistleblower himself. That investigator had been corresponding with Grassley’s office, charging top DoD IG officials in his leadership chain with trying to coerce him into a finding that would ruin the career of the head of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and one he said was not substantiated. The case was ultimately closed as unsubstantiated, and it’s unclear whether top officials, including Fine, unduly tried to influence the outcome.  

The investigator was left rattled by the experience. He had a meeting scheduled with a Grassley staffer when on Jan. 7, 2019 he was found dead in his car in the parking garage of the Mark Center building, home to the IG’s offices.

Foreign Policy magazine carried a lengthy article on Luke’s complaints about the IG office and his subsequent suicide, which noted that his wife doesn’t blame the suicide on office stress alone, although she feared that it hastened his decision to take his life. The story cited an email Luke sent to a Grassley staffer in which he said then-Defense Secretary James Mattis had taken a personal interest in the case and he felt like it would have ruined the official’s career “had it not been for my willingness to say to my supervisors, ‘No, this isn’t right.’” Grassley in the piece called the investigator’s death “tragic” and said, “the abusive culture [at the Pentagon IG] has apparently been allowed to exist unchecked for far too long.”  

The late investigator’s complaint about the leadership of the Pentagon IG was all too familiar for Grassley. For years his office had been hearing similar internal criticisms about top IG officials meddling in controversial investigations of senior Pentagon officials – including allegations that officials doctored an official report to prevent an admiral from being denied a second star.

The DoD IG declined to comment for this story. A spokeswoman for the DoD IG’s office in March told Foreign Policy that Grassley’s statement “raises inaccurate allegations and unfairly makes inferences that are simply not supported by the facts.” She said the latest Federal Viewpoint survey of government employees showed significant improvements over recent years in the way in which IG employees view their workplace and the number of IG employees that felt they could make a disclosure about suspected wrongdoing without fear of reprisal.

In recent years, Grassley has been so concerned about the DoD’s IG leadership that he has twice taken the unusual step of calling out the actions of Marguerite Garrison, the Pentagon’s deputy inspector general for administrative investigations, in remarks on the Senate floor.  

“All these IGs aren’t saints,” one government official familiar with the matter told RCP. “Too many want to get along with the agency they’re overseeing. They may be hoping to get a better job and they don’t want to rock the boat.”

Trump’s flurry of IG firings didn’t come without some warning. Over the last six months, Trump has made no secret of his distrust of high-profile inspectors general. In a mid-December tweet, the president accused Michael Horowitz, the FBI’s IG, of overlooking bias at the bureau in his final report on the way the agency handled its investigation into alleged Trump campaign ties to Russia. He also reminded the public that Obama had appointed Horowitz.

Since last fall, Trump also has publicly lashed out at Atkinson, one of his own IG appointees, over his displeasure with his decision to officially rule as credible the impeachment whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine, the driving force behind the House impeachment investigation.

But another reason behind Trump’s IG purge over the last two months is the Trump camp’s frustration over the longstanding impasse into a whistleblower reprisal case against defense analyst Adam Lovinger, sources familiar with the matter told RCP. 

Lovinger, who was removed from Trump’s National Security Council early in the administration, has spent nearly three years waiting for the Pentagon IG to wrap up the case and issue his final report. Before being suspended from the NSC, he had formally complained about lucrative contracts the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, or ONA, was doling out, including those to FBI informant Stefan Halper.

Halper is a former professor and an FBI source who met with and recorded Trump associates Carter Page, Sam Clovis and George Papadopoulos as part of the FBI probe into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.

Lovinger was ousted from his role at the NSC and stripped of his security clearance for allegations that he brought classified material onto an airplane, a charge his lawyer says was never substantiated.

Last year Grassley began investigating the ONA and whether it illicitly paid Halper to spy on the Trump campaign. He requested that the DoD IG initiate its own investigation into the ONA contracts – and that request resulted in an audit that found that the ONA could not provide sufficient documentation that Halper was conducting his work in a legal manner. 

It’s unclear whether Grassley was fully satisfied by the audit. He has continued to press the DoD for more information about the ONA contracts.

Grassley and others who work closely with inspectors readily acknowledge their jobs to ferret out government corruption and malfeasance are often thankless ones, and they deserve protections because of it. 

“Government accountability isn’t only a Republican issue or a Democrat issue. Inspectors general shouldn’t be politically motivated or politically targeted. And those of us in Congress have a duty to promote accountability, regardless of who is in office,” Grassley said this week in response to a letter from the White House counsel asserting that the way the administration fired the watchdogs was legal.

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, says the inspectors general have become more politicized during the Trump administration, “like a lot of aspects of Washington.”

“Generally they do produce information that is helpful, but it really becomes a matter of whether the agency acts on their recommendations,” he said.

Schatz, however, says the IGs don’t and shouldn’t operate like “lifetime appointed judges.”

“These are individuals who are appointed by the president, most get confirmed by the Senate, and they can be removed from office like any other presidentially appointed employee,” he said.

The Project on Government Oversight, or POGO, a good government watchdog, generally defends inspectors general and has expressed alarm over Trump’s decision to fire several of them in recent weeks. 

But POGO too has singled out the DoD IG for harsh criticism in recent years. In 2016, one year into Fine’s tenure there, POGO sent a letter urging him to fix the office’s broken culture that it said fails to protect whistleblowers, prevent misspending and protect rank and file military servicemen and women.

The group specifically asked Fine to make fundamental changes to the leadership of those running investigations and pointed to a 2015 Government Accountability Office report that found that the DoD IG had dismissed 84.6 % of its cases.

“Since POGO sent that letter, we’ve gone back and forth with the DoD IG trying to figure out why their substantiation rate is so low,” said Rebecca Jones, who serves as a policy counsel for POGO. “It raises alarm bells when we see an IG office dismissing a large number of cases given the vast expanse of the DoD budget.”

After Trump demoted Fine and fired several other IGs, Jones says her concern now is that Trump’s choice to replace Fine -- Sean O’Donnell -- has not served as a full-fledged IG of a big agency before. She also blames Congress for failing to tighten restrictions on the ways in which presidents can fire IGs after President Obama fired a watchdog during his first year in office, which spurred complaints in the media and Congress.

“If senators feel strongly about the importance of IGs, as they claim to, and Grassley’s track record shows that he does, they need to put stronger protections in place to prevent this type of gamesmanship,” she said.

House Democrats are trying to add language to the next coronavirus relief package that would prevent the president from firing inspectors general without just cause.

Grassley told RCP it’s “probably necessary to clarify the existing law’s intents and requirements” when it comes to presidents’ ability to fire these watchdogs without a detailed explanation and 30-days’ notice, but he also doesn’t want to put too many limits on executive power.

“I worry overly restrictive requirements placed on the executive’s appointments power might just end up overturned in court, leaving us with bad precedent,” he said. “I hope my Democratic colleagues in the House are as zealous about protecting inspectors general when there are presidents of their own party.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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