Hill Watchdog Grassley Blocked by Administration Privacy Claims

Article excerpt

Byline: Kelly Riddell, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

President Obama entered the Oval Office in 2009 promising his White House was committee to "an unprecedented level of openness" that would "strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government."

Fast-forward five years, and Mr. Obama's administration stands accused of using a broad interpretation of federal privacy statutes to frustrate one of the most aggressive critics of government fraud and greatest champion of whistleblowers -- Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley.

The Department of Justice has repeatedly invoked privacy laws to stonewall Mr. Grassley, ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, from pursuing investigations ranging from the "Fast and Furious" gun-running scandal to the questioning of judicial nominees, internal e-mails and documents obtained by The Washington Times show.

Although some in Washington view these tactics as politics as usual, private watchdog groups say the Obama administration's expansive use of the privacy act to limit congressional oversight is unprecedented and especially egregious given Mr. Obama's promises of openness and transparency.

"Sen. Grassley has forged a reputation since the 1980s as being completely bipartisan on oversight -- he's held every single president accountable from Reagan to Obama," said Stephen Kohn, an attorney and executive director of the National Whistleblowers Association. "Going after Grassley [by way of the Privacy Act] is just demeaning to a guy who is known in the whistleblower community as their No. 1 advocate. It's a real step back for oversight."

A Justice Department spokesman said Mr. Obama was following the practice of previous administrations to allow disclosures of such information to congressional committees only if those disclosures are requested by the committee chairman.

Mr. Grassley is the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, is the chairman. All requests, the department said, must come through him.

The Privacy Act of 1974 was passed by Congress to safeguard individuals from the government snooping around in their personal information. The act has been used politically by previous administrations to bar ranking members of Congress, who are in the minority, from launching oversight investigations. However, if an investigation is supported and issued by a committee chairman, then that ranking member can proceed.

When a whistleblower came to Mr. Grassley's office to report the Fast and Furious scandal -- a failed gun-running sting by the Justice Department that lost track of more than 1,000 government-issued guns, one of which later was used to kill a U.S. border agent -- Mr. Grassley went to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, California Republican, who agreed to start an investigation through his committee and invited Mr. Grassley's staff to participate in the investigation.

It was only when the Obama administration tried to bar Mr. Grassley and his aides from attending some of those meetings -- citing the Privacy Act -- that the senator cried foul. …