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The Defense Department Finally Has a Permanent Watchdog

by Nextgov
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After almost seven years, the Defense Department has a confirmed, permanent watchdog.

On November 30, the Senate voted 92-3 to confirm Robert Storch to be Defense inspector general. He was most recently the National Security Agency IG and before that, deputy IG and whistleblower ombudsperson at the Justice Department. He also held leadership roles on the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.

“The DoD, of course, has the critical mission of securing our national defense-a core function of government-and given the tremendous size and scope of the defense enterprise, the department, in one way or another, does essentially everything that government does,” Storch said during his confirmation hearing back in February. “This requires its OIG to have all the tools in the oversight toolbelt functioning well to effectively oversee those critical and diverse efforts.”

He championed his previous work at NSA OIG to increase independence and transparency. Additionally, “I am honored to have been nominated to be an IG by presidents of both political parties and, if confirmed, I shall continue to be true to the principle of nonpartisanship that is a hallmark of the IG system,” Storch stated.

The Pentagon has had acting IGs since early January 2016, at the tail end of the Obama administration.Glenn Fine, removed by President Trump as acting IG in spring 2020 in a decision that caused much controversy, wrote in Government Executive in October that “it’s long past time” for the Senate to confirm a Defense IG.

“The delay in approving a permanent Defense watchdog illustrates the dysfunction in the nomination and confirmation process, particularly with regard to inspectors general,” Fine wrote. “Reforms in that process are also needed.”

Sean O’Donnell, Environmental Protection Agency IG, had also been serving as acting Defense IG following Fine’s removal. The Government Accountability Office said over the summer that O’Donnell was serving illegally, but then the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel released an opinion in October saying otherwise.

“O’Donnell concluded his service with the DoD Office of Inspector General and will continue his leadership and contributions to the oversight community as the Senate-confirmed inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency,” Megan Reed, spokesperson for the Defense IG office, told Government Executive on Monday.

Geoff Wilson and Julia Gledhill of the nonprofit Project On Government Oversight wrote to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., last week urging Storch’s confirmation and noting they were “deeply troubled” by the amount of time Defense has gone without a permanent IG, which is the longest gap in its history.

“Acting inspectors general aren’t properly incentivized to engage in the long-term strategic planning needed to tackle grave oversight issues associated with repeated audit failures, corporate price gouging, and billions of dollars in overseas military assistance,” they wrote. “Additionally, acting inspectors general may not receive the level of respect necessary [to] do their jobs effectively.”

In the almost seven years since the Pentagon has had a permanent watchdog, its “spending has increased by more than $200 billion” and “in the past nine months alone, the United States has committed over $65 billion to assist Ukraine in its fight against Russia, much of which flows through the Pentagon.”

O’Donnell wrote in the semiannual report for the office, published last week, that oversight of assistance to Ukraine has been a top priority for them.

The heads of the Defense, State and U.S. Agency for International Development watchdog offices briefed congressional staffers from both chambers and parties on November 18 about their oversight partnership related to the billions of assistance provided to Ukraine since Russia waged its war as well as their trip to Belgium and Netherlands earlier in November to meet with U.S. allies and international oversight partners.

“This briefing highlights our commitment to transparency and information sharing among our oversight agencies and with our congressional stakeholders and the American people,” O’Donnell said in a press release on November 22. “Consistent communication of our individual and collaborative work is essential to conduct agile, independent, and proactive oversight of aid to Ukraine.”

This comes as some Republican lawmakers have been calling for more oversight of Ukraine assistance. Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., outgoing chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said over the weekend that this push is misplaced and is “part of Russian propaganda.”

The lack of a permanent IG over the years is not an issue unique to the Defense Department, although it’s had the longest vacancy of the agencies without permanent watchdogs. According to the tracker on Oversight.gov, 11 agencies are lacking a permanent IG, five of which require an appointment by an agency’s head.

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