Inspectors general -- internal watchdogs at federal agencies -- are not just auditors willing to plow through government documents to find fraud and waste.
Many also have the legal authority to go undercover, conduct surveillance and even carry guns.
"This is a whole dimension of IG activity that most people are unaware of. I think IGs are typically portrayed as auditors and investigators who wade through piles of paper, but in fact there is a law enforcement aspect to their work," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, which Aftergood posted on his blog yesterday, listed more than three dozen IG offices that possess law enforcement authority, allowing them to make arrests, seek warrants and carry firearms.
Among them are those policing the energy and environmental world, including IGs at the departments of Energy and the Interior, U.S. EPA, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The CRS report found that in September 2008, 33 IG offices had roughly 3,500 agents authorized to carry firearms.
"This is not just hundreds but thousands of agents carrying guns, so this is not just a footnote but a whole law enforcement structure that's unrecognized by the public," Aftergood said.
Several inspector general offices confirmed to Greenwire that their agents have guns when on duty.
Patrick Sullivan, EPA's assistant inspector general for investigations, said that EPA's agents carry firearms but have not fired them yet while on the job.
"We occasionally engage in undercover operations. We also arrest dangerous individuals known to carry firearms, particularly in threat cases," Sullivan said.
The watchdog noted last week that EPA IG special agents worked with the Newton County Sheriff's Department in Missouri to arrest a Joplin resident who had threatened EPA employees and contractors. That person surrendered two firearms.
Bill Roderick, former acting IG for the agency from 2006 to 2010, said weapons were necessary for the job. He remembered authorizing the purchase of rifles so agents could stand back and provide cover to colleagues who might be in a situation -- such as an arrest -- that could involve firearms.
"When you go West, it's more problematic. Everyone is more on guard there," Roderick said. He also signed off on surveillance and undercover operations, including one where "we had people present themselves as government personnel to speak with contractor personnel."
The EPA IG's office strives to keep itself independent from the agency and has been responsible for some significant investigations, including of an employee posing as a CIA spy (Greenwire, Feb. 20).
Agents for the DOE IG also carry firearms but have not fired them, according to Felicia Jones, media liaison for the office. The DOE watchdog has conducted some important investigations, with Jones citing individuals who have been charged with bribery, theft and child porn thanks to the IG.
Other IG offices declined to specify tactics they use during their work.
Stefanie Hoglund, a spokeswoman for the TVA inspector general's office, said the authority to conduct investigations is set out in the Inspector General Act and guidelines from the attorney general as well as standards from the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.
"The extent to which we utilize specific investigative techniques is a separate question, and answering this question may compromise our ability to investigate our cases. Consequently, we respectfully decline to answer these questions for our office," Hoglund said.
Under guidelines from the attorney general, IG agents must be trained in using firearms and investigative procedures. In addition, they must consult with the Justice Department before using electronic surveillance and receive approval before going undercover, according to the CRS report.
Being an IG agent can be life-or-death work at times. In 2006, William "Buddy" Stenter, an agent for the Justice IG's office, was shot and killed on the job in Tallahassee, Fla. He was part of a team of agents who were arresting prison guards responsible for a sex ring with female prisoners.
Lawmakers have sought to strengthen IGs' authority this Congress, giving subpoena power for certain circumstances (E&ENews PM, Sept. 17). Nevertheless, the watchdogs often want to have a cooperative relationship with their agencies and are loath to use a "seven-day letter," which alerts Congress to serious internal problems (Greenwire, Sept. 24).
Aftergood with FAS said he wonders whether it's necessary for IG agents to be carrying firearms.
"There is a question of a duplication of efforts here. Between local law enforcement, the FBI and agency security personnel, it's not clear if there's an additional need for more agents, but maybe the case could be made," Aftergood said.
Nevertheless, Roderick, the former EPA acting IG, said the agents need the security of a gun by their side.
"You can never tell when things are going to go haywire. I'd rather be safe than sorry," Roderick said.
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