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Lawmakers slam DHS watchdog following report calling for 'multi-year transformation'

Lawmakers slam DHS watchdog following report calling for 'multi-year transformation'
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers on Wednesday grilled the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) inspector general following a preliminary report from a government watchdog painting a picture of a dysfunctional office charged with reviewing a number of national security agencies. 

The Wednesday report issued by the Government Accountability Office includes an eyebrow-raising 21 recommendations for DHS’s Office of Inspector General, a significant figure for an entity charged with its own watchdog responsibilities.

DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari’s appearance before the House Homeland Security Committee follows a report by The Washington Post Tuesday finding that Cuffari rejected a recommendation from his career staff to investigate the role the Secret Service played in clearing protestors from Lafayette Square last June. 

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GAO’s report found that DHS OIG did not follow professional standards when conducting its investigations and lacks a strategic plan and a number of formal structures for managing responsibilities.

GAO said DHS employees expressed concern about inaccurate information or facts in about 23 percent of reports issued by the inspector general’s office in fiscal year 2020.

“Our recommendations are not just intended to be improvement around the margin,” said Christopher Currie, director of the homeland security and justice team at GAO. “Collectively the OIG must treat these as a multi-year transformation effort.”

Lawmakers expressed dismay over the sheer number of recommendations facing DHS OIG, noting many of the problems predate Cuffari, a Trump appointee who was confirmed in 2019.

They also pointed to complaints from employees ranging from poor practices to holding back on investigations.

“Employees have alleged that failure to develop, implement, and adhere to management policies has resulted in decisions that are arbitrary, show favoritism or bias, hurt morale, and negatively affect operations,” Chair Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonBiden administration, Congress unite in effort to tackle ransomware attacks First migrant families reunited in 'beginning' of larger effort Biden takes quick action on cyber in first 100 days MORE (D-Miss.) said during the hearing. “Inspectors general must not shy away from politically sensitive topics or allow political considerations to affect their work.”

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Cuffari acknowledged a number of the issues facing his office.

“We have left behind a tumultuous five year period in the IG’s brief history and our ship is headed in the right direction,” he said.

But he also sought to push back on reporting from The Post in which sources said Cuffari suggested that the Secret Service’s own director evaluate the response in Lafayette Square, where agents used chemical irritants to disperse demonstrators protesting George Floyd’s death.

“Any suggestion ... that I pulled punches on conducting robust oversight and Secret Service for political reasons is a complete falsehood,” Cuffari said.

He said he instead asked the Department of the Interior, which is investigating the U.S. Park Police response to the Lafayette Square incident, to examine the “small footprint” of Secret Service members involved in the response. 

Cuffari also faced questions from Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) and others about declining to weigh in on whether former DHS leaders Chad WolfChad WolfLawmakers slam DHS watchdog following report calling for 'multi-year transformation' Intel heads to resume worldwide threats hearing scrapped under Trump Sunday shows preview: Democrats eye passage of infrastructure bill; health experts warn of fourth coronavirus wave MORE and Ken Cuccinelli were properly serving in their roles. 

Cuffari declined a referral to investigate the matter, instead leaving the question to the courts. Judges later ruled each appointment did not comply with the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. 

“It's inexplicable that OIG would decline a referral regarding the proper exercise of power at the highest echelons of DHS. If the OIG is not willing to investigate the abuse of power at the highest levels of DHS, then what is the inspector general for?” Torres asked.

Torres also criticized Cuffari for failing to recommend when DHS whistleblowers should be reinstated to their positions. DHS has had a number of employees step forward to reveal wrongdoing, ranging from exposing forced hysterectomies of those in Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody to alleging top leaders politicized intelligence.

“I think common sense dictates that DHS is more likely to reinstate if it is recommended explicitly by the inspector general," Torres said.