WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has been without its chief watchdog for more than a year, even as the military spends billions of dollars a month in Iraq and controversy simmers over warrantless surveillance, missing weapons and friendly fire deaths.
President Bush's nominee for the inspector general job is being held up because answers he gave lawmakers have raised concerns with a key senator about his independence.
The inspector general's job was created by Congress more than a quarter century ago to be an independent watchdog to investigate fraud, mismanagement and abuses like the infamously overpriced hammers and toilet seats that became past symbols of Pentagon waste.
The Defense Department's last inspector general, Joseph Schmitz, stepped down in August 2005, and Bush named David Laufman, a federal prosecutor with GOP credentials, to take over the job months ago.
The current inspector general's office has been criticized as being slow to get staff on the ground to investigate Pentagon issues in Iraq and as shying away from examining the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance program.
Laufman's nomination came to a halt after he testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee this summer that the inspector general's law requires him to consult with the defense secretary before embarking on cases involving national security and other sensitive matters.
Career employees inside the inspector general's office alerted Democratic Sen. Carl Levin's office that such consultations would be a major departure from current practice. They said they had discussed their concerns with Laufman but could not change his mind.
Levin, D-Mich., who probably will take over as chairman in January when Democrats assume control of the Senate, said Laufman's willingness to talk to the secretary jeopardized his independence.
"I'm very, very surprised by your answers," Levin said. "I think it's different from the prior practice. And I think it represents a departure in terms of the independence of the inspector general."
Levin was correct that the current inspector general office hasn't been consulting that way. Laufman was correct in noting the federal law's language suggests he should.
The senator also is challenging Laufman's veracity because career employees said they raised concerns about the issue with Laufman. Laufman testified he shared his answers with the career staff but could not recall getting any feedback on the issue.
There has been no action on the nomination since, leaving the Pentagon's top watchdog job vacant.
Levin declined to be interviewed, but his office says he has serious reservations about the nomination. The current committee chairman, Republican John Warner of Virginia, is checking with senators this week to see if there is enough support for Laufman to proceed.
Laufman, a veteran prosecutor who won accolades for convicting a Virginia man of plotting to kill Bush, is now taking the offensive in trying to convince lawmakers he'd be the independent investigator they want.
"For too long, there has been a void of aggressive oversight and accountability at the Department of Defense — precisely when we've needed it the most," he told The Associated Press. "It's time to put politics aside and bring new leadership."
Laufman has brought to senators' attention a directive — renewed in 2004 by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's office — that requires the inspector general's general counsel office to be staffed by lawyers who work for the secretary, rather than independently hired lawyers.
Laufman is promising to try to reverse that order to increase the watchdog's independence.
Likewise, Laufman has told senators he wants to aggressively investigate the friendly fire death of former pro football player Pat Tillman and is willing to examine the NSA's anti-terror surveillance program.
The inspector general "has the necessary jurisdiction to investigate the NSA electronic surveillance program," Laufman assured senators, adding he'd first want to study the matter before deciding whether and how to investigate.
Finally, Laufman said he would model himself after Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction whose investigations of lost weapons and wasteful spending during the Iraq war have rankled the Bush administration.
"The outstanding work done by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, particularly under extremely difficult circumstances, is a model of what real oversight is about," Laufman said. "If confirmed, I look forward to partnering with Mr. Bowen and serving as a force multiplier for oversight on Iraq."
Before joining the Justice Department, Laufman served on two investigations that cleared Bush's father's administration of wrongdoing, and he later served on the bipartisan panel that toughened House ethics rules in the mid-1990s.
His nomination is getting support from fellow inspectors general, including two credited with aggressively pursuing the Bush administration.
"David is the prototype for an IG," said Interior Department inspector general Earl Devaney, whose own investigation exposed aspects of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. "His investigations and his background are filled with opportunities that demonstrated his integrity."
Devaney said the lengthy vacancy of the Pentagon inspector general job also should worry people. "It is too important a job, and having the cop on the beat is just something remarkably logical," he said.
Added Bowen: "I've met David Laufman, and he's explained his vision for oversight in Iraq. He would be an excellent IG."