Politics & Government

Justice Dept. watchdog traded basketball for investigating

Inspector General Glenn Fine.
Inspector General Glenn Fine. Office of the Inspector General / DOJ

WASHINGTON — As the Justice Department's internal watchdog, Inspector General Glenn Fine has overseen some of the most politically sensitive investigations of the Bush administration's terrorism tactics and of the FBI. Since Fine took office in 2000, he's served Presidents Clinton and Bush and outlasted Attorneys General Janet Reno, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales.

A former federal prosecutor and a longtime Justice Department lawyer, Fine also is known for his skills on a basketball court. In 1979, he was the San Antonio Spurs' 10th-round draft pick. Instead of joining the team, he went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. People often are surprised to learn about his basketball days when they meet him.

"I'm 5 foot 9. But I tell people that before I started this job as inspector general, I was 6 foot 9," he joked during a recent interview.

Fine, 52, recently sat down with McClatchy reporter Marisa Taylor at his Justice Department office to talk about the work of his more than 400 investigators, auditors and lawyers, his opinion that the inspector general should have more latitude to investigate department lawyers and how being a watchdog sometimes can mean eating alone. Excerpts follow:

Q. Are you planning on leaving at the end of the administration?

A. I don't think about that. I'm enjoying what I'm doing. I find it challenging and important and satisfying. At some point, I might say it's time for me to do something else, but I don't feel that way right now.

Q. Is there a reformist element in your background or personality that makes you a good watchdog?

A. Not really. I've been in the Department of Justice for a long time. I love the Department of Justice. I've been here over 15 and a half years. You have to recognize, and I do recognize, as an inspector general that I'm not going to be the most popular person in the Department of Justice. But once you come to grips with that role, that you're in it to try to improve the department and you're not going to get plaudits for doing that from everyone, you accept that role.

We do reports, and one side will attack them for being too hard and another side will attack them for being too soft. At one point, people will say you're engaged in a witch hunt. At another point, they'll say you're engaged in a whitewash. You're never going to get people to love what you do or love you. But you can get, and I do get, satisfaction out of the fact we are helping oversee and improve the operations of the Department of Justice. That's what gives me the staying power and the satisfaction.

Q. Are there certain investigations that you feel are significant in that regard?

A. One was the report on the treatment of detainees in response to the Sept. 11 investigation, which we issued in 2003. We looked very carefully at how illegal immigrants were treated after the Sept. 11 attack. I think it had a very positive impact on the Department of Justice and its coordination with Immigration and Naturalization Service at the time. I recognize it was a controversial issue very close in time to the Sept. 11 attacks, but I thought that our staff performed a very valuable service in uncovering a problem and making recommendations for improvement.

(The report is at http://www.usdoj.gov/oig/special/0306/full.pdf and http://www.usdoj.gov/oig/special/0312/index.htm)

Q. You just described being in the middle of criticism from both sides of an issue. Is there anything, in retrospect, you wish your office had been able to delve into more deeply and either couldn't at the time or didn't have enough information, and you realized later that your report could have been more in-depth or critical?

A. If we had more resources — we're always struggling with resources — we could do more. We have not grown the way the department has grown, the way the FBI has grown. So I think we're doing more with less, and it's always a struggle. I understand that people don't think first of increasing our office. They increase the FBI, they increase the department. But I believe there ought to be a commensurate growth in the resources of the oversight entities, and that hasn't always happened. So there are going to be times where we can't do all the things we want to do.

The second thing is we also don't have unlimited jurisdiction in the Department of Justice, and that sometimes affects our ability to delve into things. Every other inspector general does have unlimited jurisdiction in their agencies. We don't. In the Department of Justice, the Office of Professional Responsibility has jurisdiction over attorneys in the exercise of their legal duties.

We think we ought to have full jurisdiction within our department just like every other inspector general. I also think it can create a conflict of interest when an entity like OPR, which reports up the chain of command to the department and to the attorney general, is asked to review the actions of their superiors. That is what inspectors general are set up for. I think the limitation on our jurisdiction ought to be removed. If it had been removed, there are areas where we could have gotten involved and should have gotten involved.

Q. Can you cite any examples?

A. An example of that is the use of material witness warrants by department attorneys. That is something within OPR's jurisdiction, and I think that should be something we could examine.

Another example is the removal of the U.S. attorneys. Initially it was assigned by Attorney General Gonzales to OPR and we didn't hear about it. When we did hear about it, I said we think we have jurisdiction over this matter. Eventually, we agreed to investigate the matter jointly with OPR. But that's not the way I think the process should work. I think we should have the jurisdiction to investigate any allegation involving the department.

It reminds me of the opposition that we had to the idea of oversight of allegations involving the FBI. When we were created in 1989 we did not have unlimited jurisdiction within the department. Our jurisdiction has expanded gradually. For a period of time, we did not have jurisdiction over allegations of misconduct within the FBI. At the time, the reasons given were that the FBI was different, the FBI could investigate itself and that we didn't understand how the FBI operated. Finally in 2001, we received jurisdiction over the FBI, and it's clear that we have handled that oversight responsibly and effectively.

Q. There has been some impatience in terms of the pace of the investigation into the firings of the U.S. attorneys. At this point, can you say anything at all about whether that's going to come out soon?

A. Not really, other than we're working hard on it and we're deep into the heart of it. We've done an enormous amount of work and we are moving as expeditiously as possible.

Q. Are you able to characterize this investigation compared to others? Is it one of the most sensitive politically?

A. We recognize that it's a very important investigation and we take it very seriously.

Q. What about the scope of the investigation compared to other investigations? It's already out that there are different aspects of it: You have the civil rights division part of it, the statements of the former attorney general, the actual firings. Is it larger in scope than others?

A. It's hard to compare investigations. Suffice to say, it is very significant — significant in scope, significant in the resources that we have assigned to it — and we're moving very aggressively on this investigation.

Q. You've talked about significant investigations for your office. Were there investigations that were much more difficult than others, either for political reasons or investigative reasons? If so, what were they?

A. One that has been difficult and that is coming to a conclusion is our review of what the FBI witnessed and reported concerning alleged detainee abuse at Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan. That was a massive investigation, involving interviews and surveys of large numbers of FBI employees and also coordination and involvement with other agencies, which made it more challenging. We are in the final stages of getting comments on and declassification of the report, which is a lengthy report. That investigation has been a challenging one, and I look forward to getting that report out in the not-too-distant future.

Q. How does it work in terms of your professional relationships with the people you look into? Do you not have any real contact with the people your office looks into? Do you have lunch with them?

A. I normally eat lunch at my desk. I bring in my Tupperware with my leftovers and eat at my desk.

Q. You don't play basketball with anyone?

A. Not lately. I don't play basketball at all. I'm getting too old, and my knees hurt. So I don't play sports with them. But I do think we have professional relationships. I hope they respect the work we do. I know they're not going to love it and they're not always going to agree with it. But I hope they think we're tough but fair. For example, I have a very professional and open relationship with FBI Director Mueller. We argue about things, and he doesn't always agree with what we say, but he reads our reports and I think he takes them seriously, and that's the way it should be.


A recent McClatchy story about Fine's upcoming report on detainee interrogations.

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