The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Trump’s broadside on inspectors general scrutinizing Afghanistan, silence from those under fire

John H. Sopko was appointed special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction by President Barack Obama in 2012 and has spent years carving out a reputation as a critic of government. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

During his first Cabinet meeting of the year, President Trump said it was "insane" that the government watchdogs tasked with exposing waste, fraud and abuse in the Afghanistan war release their reports to the public.

“What kind of stuff is this?” the president asked about the reports, adding that “the public means the enemy” when it comes to who can read them. He did not specify the reports to which he was referring, but he told acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan that he did not want watchdog reports from his department detailing the war to be released anymore.

So far, the response from the U.S. officials overseeing the production of such documents has been succinct: No comment.

There is an inspector general’s office for each of the military services and the Defense Department as a whole, but no IG has examined the Afghanistan war closer than John H. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR). The position was created by Congress in 2008 to carry out independent oversight of the war and the more than $115 billion the United States has spent on reconstruction. Its investigations unit says it has carried out nearly 1,000 investigations, resulting in at least 106 criminal convictions.

Sopko’s office declined to comment about Trump’s remarks. So did Kathie Scarrah, a spokeswoman for Glenn A. Fine, who has temporarily filled the duties of the Defense Department inspector general since January 2016.

A Pentagon spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Koné Faulkner, said he had nothing to add to the discussion. The Pentagon has often attempted to steer clear of conversations concerning Trump’s comments about the U.S. military, citing its tradition of staying out of politics. Two spokesmen for Shanahan did not return requests for comment.

The president’s remarks — made during a meeting in which he also claimed that he “essentially” fired former defense secretary Jim Mattis last month, despite Mattis having submitted a resignation letter — marks a new area in which Trump has injected himself into military issues in ways other presidents have not.

Trump said that he has told Shanahan that when an inspector general goes to Afghanistan, “they do a report telling every single little thing that’s happening, and they release it to the public.” The reports released to the public do not include classified information, but the president still took exception to them.

"The enemy reads those reports. They study every line of it,” Trump said. “Those reports should be private reports. Let them do a report, but they should be private reports and be locked up, and if a member of Congress wants to see it he can go in and read.”

Mandy Smithberger, the director of the Straus Military Reform Project for the Project on Government Oversight, called Trump’s comments “deeply concerning.” The American people deserve to know whether U.S. efforts in Afghanistan are achieving their goals or resulting in a fair return on investment, she said.

“Classification decisions should be based on what information must be kept secret to keep our troops safe, but not as a way to obscure the public debate about our current wars,” Smithberger said. “We hope that Congress will continue, as they have in the past, to make sure these decisions are based on what serves the public interest.”

Though Trump did not name him, the main subject of his ire is probably Sopko, who was appointed as SIGAR by President Barack Obama in 2012 and has spent years carving out a reputation as a pugnacious critic of government, much to the displeasure of some government officials.

"I don’t like to embarrass people for the sake of embarrassing people,” Sopko said in a 2014 interview with The Washington Post. “I’m not evil. I don’t like to pull the wings off of flies, either. But embarrassment has been a recognized tool in the criminal justice system.”

Sopko’s office has catalogued a gradual erosion of the Afghan government’s control of the country, which fell to 55.5 percent as of November, according to SIGAR’s findings. The watchdog’s strategy of marketing and releasing details about SIGAR investigations to the media through “special projects” publications without full reports has been decried by critics, who said it allowed him to publish unverified accusations.

The Pentagon’s new defense spending bill reined in his ability to do so, a detail first reported by Politico. Lawmakers included language in the National Defense Authorization Act stating that any product published by an inspector general related to money spent on the Afghan security forces that the United States train must adhere to standards set by the Government Accountability Office or the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.

The legislation, in the National Defense Authorization Act, left a provision for quicker release if there was a waiver — but only if the Defense Department inspector general grants it.

James Dobbins, a former U.S. ambassador who served as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Obama administration, said it is likely someone expressed frustration to Trump about the special inspector general reports, and the president seized on it.

“There is no doubt that these reports do discomfort officials, including military officials,” Dobbins said. "I remember the State Department being the target when I was there. Sometimes they’re fair, and sometimes they’re not fair, and we release statements on them making sure that the facts are out there.”

Dobbins said Congress and the American public have a strong interest in the reports being released. Trump has the power to appoint people in IG roles, but the activities of their offices are governed by federal law, which grants them access to their own department’s internal documents.

It’s not clear that the president will follow through on his comments or whether he would prevail if he did so, said Dobbins, who is now a senior fellow at the Rand Corp. Sopko’s silence did not surprise him.

“I think he’ll let others make the case," Dobbins said. "There is a strong interest in these reports on the part of the public and in the Congress.”