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State Department Inspector General Steve Linick on October 2, 2019.
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Inspectors general, explained by a former inspector general

A former State Department watchdog on what they do — and why they matter.

Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Late Friday night, President Donald Trump fired State Department Inspector General Steve Linick. It was the fourth abrupt dismissal of an inspector general in about as many weeks, and the latest case in which Trump claimed he’d lost confidence in the IG when it very much seemed like something else was going on.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed recommending that Trump fire Linick. That’s an important detail, because it seems Linick — who, as inspector general, was in charge of oversight at the State Department — might have been zeroing in on Pompeo himself, including the secretary’s alleged use of a political appointee to run his personal errands. Linick was also reportedly probing the administration’s $8 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which sidestepped Congress.

Congressional Democrats are now investigating Linick’s firing.

But Linick is not the first IG to go. In April, Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general, who had brought forward a credible whistleblower report about the president’s inappropriate phone call with the Ukrainian president that ultimately led to Trump’s impeachment.

Trump had “lost confidence” in Atkinson, too.

Michael Atkinson, inspector general of the intelligence community, on October 4, 2019.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Earlier this month, Trump also moved to replace the acting inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, who had written a report highlighting shortages of personal protective equipment and coronavirus tests in US hospitals, which Trump called “wrong.” And Trump replaced the acting Defense Department inspector general, who’d been tasked with overseeing the $2 trillion in funds from the coronavirus stimulus package, making him ineligible to oversee pandemic spending.

Trump’s purge of inspectors general is unprecedented. But his ire for these internal watchdogs is not.

Republican and Democratic administrations alike have had testy relationships with inspectors general, whose oversight responsibilities were established in a 1978 law. Inspectors general are supposed to root out graft, malfeasance, and mismanagement coming from inside the departments they oversee. That can sometimes mean running afoul of the president or Cabinet secretaries.

President Ronald Reagan fired inspectors general across the government when he first took office in 1981, looking to put in his own people in the then relatively new executive positions. Congressional outcry forced him to rehire a bunch of them. When George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency in 1989, he sent a standard letter to all presidential appointees asking for their resignations. But the IGs pushed back, citing “the independence of their office” — a view Congress backed.

President Donald Trump leaves for Camp David on May 15, 2020, the day he fired State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

All administrations since have had gripes with their IGs, though Trump may be pushing the norms further than his predecessors.

To better understand the dynamics, I spoke with Clark Ervin, a former inspector general for the State Department and the first inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security during the George W. Bush administration.

During his tenure at the DHS, Ervin issued some very critical reports about failures and mismanagement at the new agency. The Bush administration declined to nominate him for the post permanently, and some questioned whether his rebukes of the agency were the reason.

Ervin explained what IGs do, how their investigations come about, and why aggressive, apolitical oversight of government agencies should matter to all Americans.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Jen Kirby

We often refer to inspectors general as “watchdogs.” Is that accurate? What is the job of an inspector general, exactly?

Clark Ervin

I think “watchdog” is the right term. There are 74 or so inspectors general [in the federal government], and it’s good to remember that they fall into a couple of buckets. For the larger agencies, like State and the Department of Homeland Security, where I was the IG, the inspector general is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. That’s important because the whole point is for them not to be under the thumb of, or be beholden to, the agency.

The statute says that as the IG, you report to the agency head, and you also report to Congress. But that’s “report” in the narrow sense, meaning you are to keep them informed. You’re to keep them aware of what it is you’re doing, because what you’re doing is looking at the performance of their respective agency.

At smaller agencies, like the Smithsonian Institution, the inspector general is appointed by the agency and does answer to the agency head, and therefore does work that the agency head tells him or her to do. But purposely, at the larger agencies it’s different.

Jen Kirby

What other protections exist for inspectors general?

Clark Ervin

In addition to the presidential nomination and Senate confirmation, there are lots of other institutional protections and enhancements that are given to larger-agency IGs. For example, they have their own general counsel — their own lawyer to advise them so they’re not dependent on the agency’s general counsel for legal advice. You also have your own press shop.

Nowadays, inspectors general have considerable budget authority. The agency head sends the budget for the whole department, including the IG’s budget, to Congress. But uniquely, the IG can submit its own request and explain to the Congress why it disagrees — if it does — with the lower suggested appropriation the administration’s made.

And in recent days, with the Linick firing, there’s been focus on this provision in the law that requires the president to give 30 days’ notice when dismissing an IG and to give reasons for the firing. That came from reform in 2008.

The supposition, surely, on the part of Congress at the time was that the 30-day notice, it gives you time to rethink. And then having to give reasons, that was intended to dissuade presidents from just willy-nilly getting rid of inspectors general for nefarious and overtly political purposes.

Jen Kirby

You mentioned IG reform in 2008. The original inspector general law was passed in the 1970s, correct?

Clark Ervin

Exactly, yes, it was 1978. It was one of the post-Watergate reforms.

Jen Kirby

Why did Congress make those tweaks 30 years later, including putting that 30-day provision into the law?

Clark Ervin

It was Congress’s intention, and there was bipartisan support for it, to further empower IGs and to dissuade presidents from retaliating.

As a legal matter, everybody [in the executive branch] serves at the pleasure of the president, so the president can legally get rid of an IG. The point is, though, the IG was intended to be an independent authority and distinguishable from other executive-branch people in that regard. And therefore, let’s make sure that IGs aren’t gotten rid of willy-nilly by putting this in.

Jen Kirby

And IGs can serve indefinitely once they’re appointed and confirmed?

Clark Ervin

It is often the case that inspectors general stay for a long period of time because they really are considered to be apolitical — and most of them think of themselves that way. So it is frequently the case that an inspector general will be in office for years, and therefore, given how our political cycles work, serve eventually under a president in a party different from that under which he or she was appointed.

I’ve often said that if you’re an inspector general and you do your job correctly, and you’re one of those inspectors general who wind up serving for quite a long time, then over time, you’re going to alienate Democratic administrations and Republican administrations. You’re going to alienate Democrats in Congress and Republicans in Congress.

Eventually you make everybody mad at you, which in my judgment means you’re an effective inspector general. You do what the statute requires you to do, and that is to call things as you see them, let the audits and investigations speak for themselves, and the political consequences come what may on that.

Jen Kirby

How do IG investigations come about?

Clark Ervin

There’s several sources for that. One is the inspector general himself or herself. We’ll have ideas — “I’m interested in this, and I want to look at this.” So they can. So that’s one source.

Each IG office has a whistleblower or hotline kind of mechanism. You get usually anonymous allegations, and there are people who screen those for credibility — does this seem like there’s something there that is worth following up on? So that’s a source.

Congress will also frequently ask the inspector general to look at something. There are 535 members of Congress, and in theory, all you would do is respond to congressional requests if you got one from everybody. As inspector general, you’re supposed to undertake an audit or investigation if requested by committees of jurisdiction — so whatever the authorizing or appropriating committee is for your agency.

If you get a request from the committee itself, the committee chairman, you’re supposed to do that. Otherwise, my practice was, if I had the resources to do it and I thought it was a worthy thing to do, then I would honor requests from any member of Congress, whether they were in the minority or majority, whether they were on the relevant committee or not. So that’s another source.

And then sometimes — in my view, all too rarely — agency heads will ask inspectors general to look into a matter.

I won’t be going into government again, I’m sure at this point, but I always said I would’ve liked to be a Cabinet secretary because I’d like to get the relationship between a Cabinet secretary and inspector general off right. I would make a point of asking inspectors general to look at things.

I never understood why there tends to be this animosity between agency heads and inspectors general, because to me, it’s a free internal consulting service. Tell me what’s going on. Tell me the truth about what’s going on in my agency so that I can get after it. I don’t necessarily have to take your word for it, but if you have reported an audit or investigation and it’s credible, then I’d be crazy not to implement your recommendations. And I can be a hero for doing so.

Jen Kirby

In your experience, how often as IG do you look into something and say, “Oh, never mind, nothing to see here”?

Clark Ervin

I can’t give a percentage, of course, but yes, that certainly does happen. I think it’s more likely to be the case that something that you think is a big deal at the outset turns out to be less of a big deal once you get into it.

The inspector general community has this system for doing preliminary evaluations, particularly of hotline reports, those hotlines where people anonymously can call or send an email and raise a concern. Sometimes those are legitimate, and sometimes they’re not really.

Other times, there will be an allegation that seems credible and seems important and is certainly within the jurisdiction, but once you do some preliminary digging, you find there’s really nothing to it. That kind of thing happens all the time. I think it’s less likely that something that appears to be a small matter becomes a big one, but it can work both ways.

Jen Kirby

What do you say to the common criticism of IGs: that if you dig deep enough, you’ll always find something?

Clark Ervin

Well, to that I would say that if there is nothing to find, an IG won’t find anything. It should hardly be a criticism of an IG if he or she uncovers wrongdoing; the onus is on people to do no wrong, in which case there would be nothing to find.

Jen Kirby

Since IGs are in a somewhat adversarial role, how hard it is to get people to cooperate on IG investigations, particularly in politically charged cases?

Clark Ervin

There’s two kinds of people under investigation. The first would be agency employees, and they are legally supposed to cooperate. They’re supposed to submit to interviews by the IG, and those are sworn interviews. There’s the penalty of perjury for lying, and they’re supposed to provide documents. The statute gives the inspector general the power, without subpoena, to compel the production of the documents from the agency.

That said, sometimes agency employees resist both the interviews and the documents, but you can, ultimately, go to court to get them to enforce what the statute says. That typically doesn’t happen, because even recalcitrant administrations generally accede to that. I can’t think of any instances, at least public ones, where even the Trump administration has resisted that.

For non-federal employees, the hook that gives the IG authority to go after them is their receipt of government money. If you’re a contractor of the agency, or if you’re a grantee of the agency, then the fact that you’ve got that money gives the IG the authority to require you to appear to give an interview.

But generally, people will comply. Most lawyers who have any sense will recognize that it’s in their interest for their clients to appear for these interviews. But there is, as you know, subpoena power to compel the production of documents. That’s generally the way you catch employees and private entities.

Jen Kirby

Does the inspector general have any obligation to be transparent or notify an agency head about what’s being investigated?

Clark Ervin

If you’re going to undertake an audit or an investigation that concerns a hot-button issue that could be read about in a newspaper, I think the general practice is to give the agency head and the appropriate congressional committees a heads-up, so that they know you’re looking into this matter and so it doesn’t come as this complete surprise once the report issues. I made this a practice.

When we’re talking about a criminal investigation, you’re not supposed to keep the agency or Congress involved along the way. Audits are different; you can and frequently do get check-ins on that kind of thing.

Inspectors general are supposed to issue public reports of the audits that they do and the other kinds of examinations and reviews, so you often send draft reports. For example, if you’re doing an audit on Customs and Border Protection, you will send a draft of that report before you finalize it to the head of CBP, or copy the secretary and give them an opportunity to review it for factual accuracy.

Also for their take on it, whether they agree or disagree. If they point out some things that you agree are factually inaccurate or incomplete, then you should revise the report to reflect that.

If it’s simply a matter of disagreement about something, then they’re entitled to their opinion, and inspectors general are supposed to include that pushback in the report, so that once it’s finalized, the Congress and the American people can see the back-and-forth between the inspector general and the agency.

On criminal investigations, those reports are supposed to be kept confidential, and really only the stats from those criminal investigations are supposed to be reported on a semi-annual basis. Inspectors general have to do a report of all their activities over the course of a six-month period, twice a year. So you’ll say, “During the six months, we initiated X number of criminal investigations that resulted during this period, Y indictments, and P convictions.” That’s generally how it works.

Jen Kirby

I thought IGs could only refer criminal investigations to law enforcement. What exactly is their role in uncovering criminal allegations?

Clark Ervin

As far as law enforcement is concerned, inspectors general are fact-finders. So if during the course of an investigation, they find evidence of what appears to be criminal wrongdoing, or for that matter civil law-breaking, they are statutorily obliged to refer that to the Department of Justice. It’s the DOJ’s determination whether to pursue.

Sometimes the IG, once they open a case, will work right at the beginning with DOJ and keep the DOJ involved in the fact-finding process. More often, the whole fact-finding process will be done entirely by the IG, and the DOJ will be contacted only if and when there’s evidence that’s uncovered.

And then sometimes, Justice will begin an investigation itself and will enlist the inspector general and his or her team of investigators to do fact-finding. So it works three different ways.

Jen Kirby

Why do you think there is that tension between the IG and the agency heads? It does seem a little bit counterintuitive — as you said before, they’re a free consulting service.

Clark Ervin

Well, it’s certainly counterproductive. I don’t know whether it’s counterintuitive — it’s counterintuitive to me. But maybe that’s just because I was an inspector general.

I think the default tendency is to think that anything that is critical of the agency I oversee, is necessarily by definition, ipso facto, critical of me. And that’s just not right.

If you either explicitly — certainly by denying it — or implicitly endorse whatever deficiencies the inspector general has called out in the reports, then you’re complicit in it, if you ask me. But rather your response should be, “If this is true, well, thank you for telling me this, let me get to the bottom of it.”

It’s not a personal criticism of the agency head. It is a criticism — if that’s what it is — of the operation or management of a given program or operation that, generally speaking, takes place at a lower level. It’s not like Cabinet secretaries are running — I don’t know, pick a program — they’re not sending out Social Security checks, or something.

Jen Kirby

It sounds like the tension between agency heads and IGs is not a new phenomenon.

Clark Ervin

No. It happens in Republican administrations. It happens in Democratic administrations. It happened to me in my administrations. It happened all the time because it’s human nature. People don’t like oversight, regrettably.

They don’t really understand. They don’t understand what the role of inspectors general is. And it’s a real shame, really, because they can be such an important force to make government work better and on behalf of the taxpayer.

And I’ve been saying a lot in response to inquiries about this, that if any good thing comes out of this, the hope would be that certainly lawmakers, policymakers, but even the average American will have come to learn what inspectors general are, why they’re important, and we’ll come up with a bipartisan consensus that more needs to be done to empower them and to respect them.

So you know, like I said, maybe some good will come out of this. There have been efforts in the HEROES Act, the House legislation from last week — we’ll see if it winds up in the next law on the virus — that would require for-cause termination for inspectors general, with cause specified: moral turpitude and malfeasance and felony conviction, that kind of thing.

I think it’s obviously open to interpretation. There’s ultimately no way to legislate — how shall I put it? — character. It all depends to some degree on how people interpret, enact, and in turn, how Congress reacts to it. You have the law, but if a president does something different and there’s no consequences for him doing so, then the law is hollow. It’s the whole tree-falls-in-a-forest thing.

Jen Kirby

Is there a way to strengthen protections on inspectors general? Specifically, what, if anything, could Congress do to beef up protections?

Clark Ervin

In addition to that for-cause provision, Congress can use its appropriations power, decide not to fund something that’s a priority for the president. That happens from time to time. That’s not really in the IG context, but that is a powerful tool that the House, in particular, has in [its] toolbox. The Senate can put a hold on nominations of importance to the administration.

And hearings, which shines the spotlight. There have been times when every president, including this one, have backtracked on things they planned to do once there was enough public and bipartisan outrage about it.

And I would just note, I really try to be nonpartisan in everything I do and say, and as I’m sure you’ve seen, in recent days that’s happened. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), to his credit, has been a proponent of the IG community for decades. I worked with him closely when I was the DHS inspector general. I was Republican; he was Republican. And I was being critical. He was supportive of that, he was supportive of me — he was my number one supporter in the Senate.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) sent that letter to Trump before the Linick firing, urging him to respect the independence of inspectors general. In light of this Linick development, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), predictably and commendably, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) have expressed some concern.

Jen Kirby

Is Trump’s firing of Linick and these other IGs an unprecedented moment?

Clark Ervin

I do think this is materially different — the numbers, the context, the frequency, and the sequence. Is tension between an administration, between an agency and inspector general, new? Is it unique to this administration? Absolutely not. It’s a bipartisan thing that’s been going on for decades.

President Barack Obama famously fired the inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service right at the beginning of his tenure in 2009, and that was questioned because the allegation is that the inspector general was retaliated against for having investigated and referred to DOJ for prosecution someone who was politically connected to the Obama administration.

Things like this happen from time to time in administrations, but as I say, the numbers, the backdrop, the sequencing, the statements, all of that makes it not par for the course.

Jen Kirby

What do you think, with these current firings, will the fallout be for the inspector general community?

Clark Ervin

The concern, of course, is that this could have, and may well have, a chilling effect on existing inspectors general and make them less likely to be independent and aggressive in their oversight and [more likely] to steer clear of undertaking audits or investigations or coming to conclusions in those audits or investigations that is likely to draw the ire of the administration.

It is certainly possible to dissuade people from accepting offers to be inspectors general in the future if they see that doing so can put them in the crosshairs of an administration. There’s an effect on existing inspectors general and there can be an effect on inspectors general down the road.

Jen Kirby

How should we think of IG findings? At State, for example, the president now gets to handpick an IG, and throw an acting IG in there in the meantime. How might that diminish the work of inspectors? Should the public now be more skeptical of their work writ large?

Clark Ervin

I think what [I] would say is the proof is in the pudding. Let’s see how these successors perform in office, and if they prove themselves to be independent and aggressive, then terrific. That’s great. If they prove not to be, then obviously that calls into question the motivation for their having been appointed.

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