NPR's Talk of the Nation

When the Government Investigates Itself

Neal Conan, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

From the independent 9-11 Commission to the Senate hearings looking into the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, to the Justice Department's investigation into the leak of the name of a CIA operative, the US government is forever investigating itself. How do the three branches of government evaluate the legality, ethics and quality of one another's work from the possibly felonious to the just plain scandalous? When do investigations stay within an agency or department? And what about the military, which has its own set of courts, laws and punishments?

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Our first guest is Paul Light, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, a professor of public service at New York University. He's with us here in Studio 3A. And nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation.

Paul Light:
Nice to be here.

Neal Conan:
Investigations are—well, I guess they're as old as our government.

Paul Light:
Oh, they're older than our government. The very first inspector general in government was appointed by the Continental Congress to investigate procurement fraud at Valley Forge. It seems to have been that the soldiers got a lot colder than they would have been had they had the clothes that the Continental Army had purchased and the food and so forth. So it's been around a long time.

Neal Conan:
Now that office, inspector general—every federal department now has an inspector general right?

Paul Light:
Starting in the 1970s, we innovated, created this new entity called an Office of Inspector General. They're quasi-independent. They are headed by presidential, Senate-confirmed appointees, but they report simultaneously to Congress and the president. Many of them describe their reporting role as rather like straddling a barbed-wire fence. They have to be credible within the department because much of what they investigate is relatively small-scale, lower-level fraud, waste and abuse. But they are also responsible for looking up into the secretary's quarters for high-level abuse, and that is a serious problem for them and for government itself.

Listen to the entire interview