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Watching over Justice

He wasn’t a household name even to political junkies, but for 10 years Inspector General Glenn A. Fine played a unique role in exposing wrongdoing and partisan meddling in the Justice Department. Fine’s retirement demands that the Obama administration and the Senate choose a similarly vigilant watchdog to succeed him.

Many of Fine’s contributions dealt with excesses in the war on terrorism. It was Fine who issued a report finding fault with the FBI for cutting corners in the use of “national security letters” — subpoenas used to obtain records without a court order. He and his staff documented similar abuses in the bureau’s use of “exigent letters” to obtain telephone records — proof, he said, of an “egregious breakdown” in oversight. In response to Fine’s findings, the FBI initiated corrective action.

Fine didn’t limit himself to investigations of the FBI. In conjunction with the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, he released a report in 2008 saying that the George W. Bush administration’s dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys “severely damaged the credibility of the department and raised doubts about the integrity of department prosecutive decisions.”

Fine’s willingness to identify wrongdoing when he found it made him more credible when he exonerated the subjects of an investigation. For example, in a 2008 report on the role of FBI agents in the “enhanced interrogation” of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan and Iraq, he concluded that the vast majority of agents refused to participate in interrogation methods that violated FBI guidelines.

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All inspectors general play an important watchdog role, but in the Justice Department, the office is particularly important because it monitors policies that can infringe on civil liberties. In nominating a replacement for Fine — one who could serve over several administrations — President Obama and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. need to find a candidate who will be both apolitical and aggressive in holding the department to high standards.


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