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The Hill - Fast and Furious: An Opportunity for Justice Department to Ask Itself Some Tough Questions

Op-Ed

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By Representative James Lankford

Since Operation Fast and Furious came to light, it is apparent that the Department of Justice (DOJ) could benefit from institutional change. All government bureaucracies have silos of authority and individuals that reject the thought of outside oversight. But, every agency also understands that the federal government is a glass house with millions of taxpayers gathered around the windows to evaluate our performance and second-guess every decision. The American people trust when they can verify and lose trust when accountability and oversight are delayed or deflected.

Across federal agencies, we now have 73 statutory inspectors general [IGs], a significant increase from the 12 offices created by the Inspector General Act of 1978. In Fiscal Year 2009 alone, IG audits identified $43.3 billion in potential savings for the federal government and exposed agency deficiencies. Through our work to promote a transparent and efficient federal government, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee utilizes audit reports from federal IGs to assess and address flaws in the federal culture. The oversight process is crucial to righting an organizational culture that does not live up to the demands of the American taxpayer.

DOJ IG Michael Horowitz's testimony and report last week identified some potential institutional byproducts of Operation Fast and Furious. He confirmed our suspicions that Attorney General Eric Holder had no reason to withhold internal DOJ documents before or after February 4, 2011. Attorney General Holder failed to comply with our October 12, 2011 subpoena, a fault for which the House of Representatives held him in contempt of Congress on June 20, 2012. Attorney General Holder's uncooperative approach either exposed or set the tone for the rest of his department. It is easy to compare DOJ's reticent response to investigation to the open-book response of FAA, GSA and the Secret Service. All of them faced federal scrutiny during the past two years, but DOJ stalled while every other agency complied.

The IG reported that DOJ/ATF whistleblowers faced significant challenges within the agency. The first ATF response to congressional investigations was to distract and delay. In early 2011, DOJ wrote correspondence to Congress that hindered rather than assisted the investigation. Agencies purposely cut out other agencies from information throughout the Fast and Furious investigation. DOJ leadership shielded essential information from Attorney General Holder. In general the "circle the wagons" culture changed "Fast and Furious" to "Slow and Tedious."

ATF whistleblower John Dodson reached out to Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) of the Senate Judiciary Committee in early 2011. Employees with information about the scandal were crucial to discovering what happened in Arizona and Mexico. Once Senator Grassley and Chairman Darrell Issa of the House Oversight Committee started investigating ATF and DOJ, agency leaders immediately started damage control and intense scrutiny of the internal whistleblowers. It took more than a year after Senator Grassley and Chairman Issa uncovered ATF and DOJ mistreatment and mishandling of whistleblower protection for DOJ's newly selected IG Horowitz to appoint an ombudsman to serve as an advocate for whistleblowers.

Ombudsman Robert Storch's responded by ensuring a prompt IG address of whistleblower complaints, apprising whistleblowers of the IG's investigation of their allegations, monitoring claims of retaliation and educating department employees of their rights as whistleblowers. One way to address a culture of silence is to allow people their right to speak. This is an area in which the DOJ took positive steps.

Fast and Furious should be an opportunity to ask the hard questions about the structure of DOJ and all its agencies. It is a moment to learn and repair; let's not miss it.

It was obvious that Phoenix ATF took on a responsibility that was beyond their capability to manage. Why were they allowed such wide authority? What is the vital mission of ATF, and are they supported and supervised appropriately for that mission? Is there a conflict of interest between ATF's regulatory and criminal enforcement functions? Does ATF have clear guidelines and non-redundant responsibilities? The FBI has clear guidelines for investigations, but ATF lacks the same consistent guidelines, why?

Attorney General Holder's reticence to cooperate with congressional investigations and his unwillingness to provide requested documents encouraged investigators to ask the "why" question. For the future we must resolve how DOJ can conduct confidential investigations and still have accountability to the American people.

Let's get back to the days where justice, not bureaucracy rules at the DOJ.


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