White House criticized for not filling watchdog post at CIA

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The Obama administration has not floated any names of a possible nominee for CIA inspector general, behavior one analyst calls “discouraging.” (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

More than six months after the CIA inspector general resigned, President Obama has yet to nominate a replacement, prompting mounting concerns on Capitol Hill that the delay may be affecting sensitive internal investigations — including a probe into an errant drone strike in Pakistan that killed American hostage Warren Weinstein, sources told Yahoo News.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, in June urged Obama in a letter to nominate a new inspector general “as soon as possible,” so a Senate-confirmed official can oversee what she described as “highly sensitive investigations of interest to the committee.”

But the White House has yet to even respond to the letter, or float any names of a possible nominee, another indicator of what watchdog groups say is a troubling resistance on the administration’s part to aggressive oversight and accountability throughout the government, but especially within the intelligence community.

“This is extremely significant … and it’s discouraging,” said Steve Aftergood, an analyst who tracks U.S. intelligence agencies for the Federation of American Scientists. “The inspectors general at the intelligence agencies are even more important than [at] other agencies because the majority of their work is classified — and so they don’t get the same kind of oversight as elsewhere in the government. The [intelligence agency] inspectors general have also been the eyes and ears for Congress, so without a strong IG in place, the oversight committees are at least partially blinded.”

Inspectors general serve as internal watchdogs at government agencies, charged with investigating reports of malfeasance and mismanagement, including complaints filed by whistleblowers.

A senior administration official told Yahoo News that, “as with other inspector general vacancies,” the White House is “working with” a government-wide organization, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, “to identify and nominate a candidate for the CIA with a demonstrated commitment to independence.” (Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general who chairs the council, testified at a Senate hearing in early June that his group had already recommended a nominee for the CIA post and that “far too often” the process for appointing inspectors general “takes too long.”)

Finding a candidate for the CIA post in particular is apparently proving difficult, especially in light of the tumultuous tenure of the previous inspector general, David Buckley. Last December, he released a blistering report taking CIA officials to task for covertly hacking into computers used by Feinstein staffers to investigate the agency’s interrogation practices, which the Intelligence Committee concluded constituted torture that had been largely concealed from Congress.

CIA Director John Brennan had previously denied that any such computer snooping had taken place. And, in what was widely seen as an embarrassing rebuke to Buckley, an agency accountability board appointed by Brennan in January overturned Buckley’s findings. The board found that while the tapping into the Senate computer system was “clearly inappropriate,” it was not the product of intentional wrongdoing by any agency officials and therefore no one should be punished.

Buckley left shortly thereafter to join the accounting firm KPMG, although agency officials say his departure was long planned and unrelated to the hacking probe. The inspector general’s office has been headed since then by Christopher R. Sharpley, a career government lawyer who had served under Buckley and before that as a deputy inspector general for the Federal Housing Finance Agency, according to his LinkedIn profile. His name, however, does not appear on the CIA inspector general’s website.

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Feinstein did not identify the subjects of the “sensitive investigations” she referred to in her letter to Obama. But sources familiar with the issue say they include an ongoing inquiry into a CIA drone strike on a suspected al-Qaida compound in Pakistan in January that inadvertently killed Weinstein and an Italian aid worker, Giovanni Lo Porto — prompting a public apology from Obama.

The Weinstein probe is especially sensitive within the CIA because it potentially touches on the agency’s targeting decisions in drone strikes — an issue that has been immersed in controversy amid conflicting claims about the numbers of innocent civilians who have been killed during such operations. Feinstein and her aides have argued that only a strong, independent inspector general who has been confirmed by the Senate can take on entrenched interests within the agency and force them to disclose key details.

Asked for comment, CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani said the work of the inspector general’s office at the agency continues despite the vacancy at the top. “The Office of the Inspector General continues to be a trusted and respected resource for the Director, the CIA and Congress to promote effectiveness and accountability in the management of CIA activities and we look forward to the President’s appointment of a new Inspector General,” he said in an email.

Other watchdog groups say the situation at the CIA is hardly unique. Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group that monitors inspectors general, notes that the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs has been without a Senate-confirmed inspector general for a year and a half, and the Interior Department hasn’t had a confirmed watchdog for six and a half years (although the White House did recently nominate a candidate, who has yet to be confirmed).

“It’s clear to me it’s not a priority of this administration to have strong inspectors general,” said Brian.

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