John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, doesn’t believe in redactions. If lives are at risk, he says, he doesn’t publish. Otherwise, he says, “why not?”
Sopko, who spoke at an event on transparency and security on Tuesday night, said withholding information can be more dangerous than publishing it. He recalled a story Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., has told about just such a case: “A young lady took her father to a VA hospital … where he got an infection. The hospital killed her dad. But the IG had issued a report, did an investigation, and identified all those problems [with the hospital.] It was never released. If he had published that report, that man would be alive,” said Sopko.
“That’s why we publicize,” he said. “We’re one of the few agencies who don’t gloss over things, who don’t spin things. We tell it like we see it. Happy talk is not going to win the war, balloons and kites are not going to win the war. Reality is what the Afghan people want and need.”
Sopko’s job is to conduct oversight of the U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan after the war. But every inspector general in every part of the government has the power to do what he does, he said. They just don’t. “Every inspector general can do this, and I think they should,” he said. “They should be doing this. I learned that you’re not going to change the government unless you publicize [its problems.]”
He referred to the Inspector General Act of 1978, which he said established the position and described its duties: reporting criminal violations, making semiannual reports available to the public, disclosing information, and immediately publishing serious or flagrant problems. “The 1978 Act gave tremendous power,” he said. “I don’t think the IG’s have lived up to that act.”
Sopko singled out the Office of Personnel Management, which just suffered a massive data breach involving over 20 million personnel files and pieces of sensitive information. Sopko said something like that might have been prevented or at least better prepared for if the inspector general there had published more reports. “When’s the last time you saw the OPM inspector general do anything? You don’t even know there is an OPM inspector general.”
Since Congress created the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in 2008, it has been issuing shocking reports about the problems in Afghanistan and the money being wasted by government agencies. Just last month, Sopko sent a letter to the U.S. Agency for International Development asking why $769 million dollars were spent to support education, when there are fewer schools in Afghanistan than the agency said. Sopko sent another letter to USAID in early July, asking why the agency’s information about its health clinics was wrong. Sopko’s agency regularly reports on construction problems, misuse of funds, lack of oversight, failed projects and systemic problems in the country.