FOR THE past several months, Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) and the Democratic staff of the Senate's governmental affairs subcommittee on general services, which he chairs, have been reviewing complaints against the inspectors general charged with being the watchdogs of federal agencies. The report they have just unofficially released contains some unsettling findings, including a "disturbing pattern of wrongdoing by several offices of inspectors general." The subcommittee staff accuses various agency watchdogs of misconduct ranging from wrongful disclosure of confidential information to the "improper destruction of evidence, the initiation of phony investigations against whistleblowers and the intimidation of witnesses." The report also substantiates some complaints that the inspectors general often duck strong cases, conduct deficient investigations and turn in final reports coated with whitewash.

In the authors' view the system has been compromised because the watchdogs lack total independence from the agency heads on whom they depend for evaluations and bonuses. The report also says that federal workers may not trust their inspectors general because they expect that little, if anything, will be done if they complain and that if they do step forward, their identities could be disclosed and reprisals might follow.

Sen. Sasser has said that the report confirms what he has suspected all along, namely that "many of these government watchdogs have become political lapdogs." He also charged that "many inspectors general offices are engaged in damage control for their agencies and political patrons or are knee-deep in the very abuses they are supposed to prevent."

So both Sen. Sasser and the Democratic subcommittee staff have reached some extremely damaging conclusions about a 12-year-old program that up until now seemed to have enjoyed a good deal of congressional support. The attention to possible abuses in the inspector general system is much welcomed and overdue. We would like to see interest broadened to include the Democratic and Republican subcommittee members themselves, who should hold public hearings to allow the watchdogs, whistleblowers and the targets of each to get their views fully on the record. The committee should also hear from the agency heads, especially those in the Cabinet who nominally supervise these watchdogs. And after testimony is taken, the subcommittee should launch a serious effort to reform the inspectors general system -- a system that is now out of anyone's control.