The Most Important Public Servants You’ve Never Heard Of

We need to ensure that inspectors general can do an effective job of keeping other government officials honest.

Illustration showing two overlapping magnifying glasses, the intersection of the two circles producing the shape of a red eye.
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty

Inspectors general have been referred to as the most powerful public officials you’ve never heard of. In fact, IGs are a crucial part of our democratic system’s checks and balances: They expose government misconduct, fraud, and abuse, and they promote transparency in government operations. Over the years, IGs have uncovered wasteful expenditures in pandemic-relief funding, investigated alleged misconduct by the secretary of Veterans Affairs, and brought to light the FBI’s misuse of sensitive national-security letters.

Of course, IGs are not the only check on government—Congress, the courts, and the media also act as checks—but IGs are uniquely placed inside federal agencies, with unfettered access to all agency officials and records. They have the independent authority to investigate, audit, and report on the full range of government programs. An effective IG has the power to improve government and raise public trust in agencies; an incompetent or ineffective inspector general can have the opposite effect.

Recently, a series of allegations surfaced regarding the conduct of Joseph Cuffari, the IG at the Department of Homeland Security. According to the January 6 committee, Cuffari knew about the deletion of Secret Service text messages relating to the Capitol riot but did not notify Congress about it for months. Allegedly, he also prevented his own investigators from seeking to recover the text messages. Now the chair of the committee says that Cuffari is not cooperating with its investigation of the missing texts.

According to media reports, Cuffari is additionally being investigated for prior retaliation against employees in his office and allegedly is not cooperating fully with that investigation either. He also allegedly declined to open a review of the Secret Service’s use of force in the June 2020 Lafayette Square demonstration, and he allegedly removed negative findings about the Secret Service from other reviews.

We do not yet know all the facts in these cases, but these serious allegations are troubling. Cuffari was appointed IG at the Department of Homeland Security in 2019. He seems to have come to the attention of the Trump administration after working as a policy adviser to two Republican governors of Arizona—this is contrary to the 1978 Inspector General Act, which requires IGs to be selected without regard to political affiliation.

Cuffari also appears to lack the management experience to lead one of the largest and most important IG offices. He worked as a criminal investigator in the Department of Justice’s IG office for 20 years, but his most senior position there was as an assistant special agent in charge of running a small regional office, where he supervised five people or fewer. That job was five levels removed from the IG position.

The question of his experience aside, The Washington Post recently uncovered a previously undisclosed internal report alleging that during Cuffari’s time in the Department of Justice’s IG office, he violated ethics regulations and faced several other accusations of misconduct. According to the Post, these additional allegations were never investigated because Cuffari retired from that position shortly after the completion of the internal report in 2013.

Cuffari’s case highlights the need for reforms in the ways that IGs are selected, assessed, and removed. Cuffari’s appointment reflected a failure in vetting. IGs hold a great deal of power and guard their independence zealously. That is why the experience and character of each IG is crucial, and why it is important to select the right IGs for these positions. That is also why it is equally important to have a fair and efficient process for removing the ones who fail to meet the standards that the office demands.

I was an IG for 15 years, in four presidential administrations, both Republican and Democratic. I served as the IG of the Justice Department for 11 years (from 2000 to 2011) and also as the acting IG of the Department of Defense for four years (from 2016 to 2020). During that time, I witnessed the majority of my IG colleagues performing in an exemplary manner. Their work sent billions of dollars back to the federal Treasury and held government officials accountable for misconduct and inefficiency. Only a small minority of IGs were, unfortunately, not up to the task.

IGs have a challenging job in providing oversight of their agencies, one that does not make them beloved officials. I knew that I was not the most popular person in the Department of Justice cafeteria. Shortly after I became the IG there, I went to Capitol Hill to brief a senator about one of our reports. I took along my longtime colleague and deputy at the time, Paul Martin (he is now an accomplished and successful IG at NASA).

After I finished speaking, the senator said: “Good briefing, but now let me tell you what I think of IGs.” Jabbing his finger at me, he went on: “IGs must be independent. You will do things that I won’t like. You will do things other members of Congress won’t like. You will do things the attorney general won’t like. You won’t be liked. Nobody will like you. If you think you will be liked, don’t think that.”

At that point, Paul had heard enough and interjected.

“Don’t worry about that, senator,” he said. “Even I don’t like him.”

The senator burst out laughing, but I took his point to heart: The IG’s goal is not to be popular; it is to make an agency run better and hold powerful officials accountable.

The position of inspector general dates back to our country’s founding. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington relied on an IG, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, to train the colonial troops and to instill discipline in a ragtag army. Other U.S. armed services also created their own IG positions to uncover and report problems to their military leaders.

Civilian IGs are a relatively new creation, part of a series of post-Watergate reforms, enshrined in the IG Act. There are now 74 IGs throughout the federal government, located in virtually every agency. IGs are required to keep both the agency head and Congress informed of significant problems. At the larger agencies, IGs are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. IGs do not have a term of office. Unlike other presidential appointees, they are expected to remain even when administrations change, because their positions are supposed to be nonpartisan.

So how was Cuffari selected to be the IG at the Department of Homeland Security, one of the biggest, most challenging, and most troubled IG offices in the federal government?

A coordinating group of all federal IGs, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), is required to recommend candidates to the White House. According to the Post, the CIGIE was seemingly unaware of the earlier Department of Justice internal report on Cuffari’s alleged ethical misconduct and recommended him for an IG position after a less than hour-long interview. At a minimum, the process for selecting and vetting IG candidates needs improvement.

Unfortunately, the CIGIE does not have a dedicated budget or sufficient staff to vet candidates for IG positions. The Council needs a direct appropriation. This need not be a huge budget; just a few million dollars would pay off many times over.

Cuffari’s case also illustrates the need for a better process to investigate allegations of IG misconduct. The CIGIE has an Integrity Committee to coordinate investigations of IGs and their senior staff. But Integrity Committee investigations of misconduct are undertaken by other IGs on a rotating, volunteer basis. As a result, they take far too long, are handled inconsistently, and tend not to receive the attention they deserve because of other demands on the volunteers’ time.

Accordingly, the investigations of Cuffari now under way may drag on for months, if not years. CIGIE’s Integrity Committee needs a dedicated budget and sufficient staff to investigate allegations of misconduct quickly, credibly, and consistently.

At the same time, the independence of IGs, most of whom are doing their jobs well, needs better protections. The IG Act allows the president to remove any IG: The president is supposed to give Congress the reasons for the dismissal and wait 30 days before removal. But in 2020 President Donald Trump bypassed even that limited process in what the Post labeled the “slow-motion Friday night massacre of inspectors general”—in a matter of weeks, Trump replaced five IGs (full disclosure: I was one of them). Several of them were placed on administrative leave immediately.

The IG Act should be amended to require the president to provide a full and specific explanation for removing an IG, not just a statement of a general loss of confidence as is commonly the practice now. The full 30-day waiting period must also apply, and more protections should be put in place to prevent the immediate removals enacted by putting IGs on administrative leave.

A related problem is that many IG positions are filled by acting officials for years. For example, the Department of Defense has not had a confirmed IG for more than six years; in President Barack Obama’s administration, the permanent State Department IG position remained open during his entire first term. The president should nominate IGs more quickly, and Congress should make confirmations a priority.

But it should not be a job for life. After the 11 years I’d served as the Department of Justice IG, I believed that a change would be good for the organization (and for me), so I stepped down. Other oversight officials have fixed terms—the FBI director’s term is 10 years, for example, and the term of the head of the Government Accountability Office is 15 years. IGs, too, should have term limits.

And because some IGs remain in their posts too long—or because, for whatever reason, some underperform—we need a better way to assess them and remove ineffective ones, even absent a substantiated investigation of misconduct. An amended IG Act could require the CIGIE to create a committee of senior, well-respected IGs to issue and enforce standards of efficiency and effectiveness, as well as to make recommendations to the president to remove any IGs who do not meet those standards. This would be fairer than the current practice of relying on recommendations from agency heads, who may have a motive to remove an IG who aggressively pursues critical oversight in the agency.

To be clear, many government leaders support the work of IGs. I will never forget my first meeting with one new attorney general at the Justice Department to brief him about my role and the independence of IGs.

“So you are telling me that I can order around everyone else in this building,” he said, “but I can’t tell you what to audit or investigate.”

“Yes, that is what the IG Act requires,” I said.

“Okay, I get it,” he replied, “we follow the law around here.” And he did.

In short, we need to ensure that the right IGs are selected and that ineffective ones are removed in a fair, efficient, and nonpartisan way. The inspector-general system plays a crucial part in the health of our democracy by promoting transparency in government and acting as a check on government officials. When they do the job right, IGs make government better.

This article has been adapted from the author’s recent essay for the Brookings Institution.