The Justice Department has apparently decided that it gets to decide if it will be investigated.

Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Karl Thompson, who runs the Office of Legal Counsel, released a 58-page ruling (pdf) Thursday saying that inspectors general must ask for permission for access to wiretaps, grand jury and credit information.

“Congress meant what it said when it authorized Inspectors General to independently access ‘all’ documents necessary to conduct effective oversight,” Inspector General Michael Horowitz said. “Without such access, our office’s ability to conduct its work will be significantly impaired, and it will be more difficult for us to detect and deter waste, fraud, and abuse, and to protect taxpayer dollars. We look forward to working with the Congress and the Justice Department to promptly remedy this serious situation.”

The Justice Department ruling was immediately criticized by members of Congress from both parties. “The department’s refusal to provide records on a timely basis as required by law wastes months in bureaucratic roadblocks and frustrates the independent oversight Congress created inspectors general to provide,” Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) and Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Michigan) said in a joint statement, according to The Washington Post.

Inspectors general have been stonewalled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies as they search for wrongdoing. Horowitz testified to Congress about the problem, which held up investigations into such programs as “Fast and Furious.” Other cases involve the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“Imagine if we had a DOJ [inspector general] during Watergate looking at the FBI’s conduct and the Attorney General had this opinion to deny or delay access to this kind of information,” Brian Miller, the former inspector general at the General Services Administration (GSA) who cracked open a spending scandal in Las Vegas, told the Post. “Or the GSA administrator having the power to withhold certain information regarding the Las Vegas conference…The ‘Mother May I’ legal opinion sets a bad precedent and will slow effective oversight.”

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