Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) spoke at a recent hearing where an official from the GAO raised concerns about the independence and competence of the State inspector general’s office that she said date from the mid-1970s. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)

As the State Department gears up to take over new responsibilities in Iraq from the military over the next year, the Obama administration’s failure to nominate a top internal watchdog for its diplomatic work in the Middle East and elsewhere has begun to attract new criticism.

The inspector general’s position in the department has been unfilled since 2007, longer than any of the other 72 such positions in the government. Harold W. Geisel, a deputy who formerly worked as a U.S. ambassador, has run the office instead, and he says he has doubled its staff and tripled its investigations.

But the Government Accountability Office, lawmakers from both parties and nonprofit groups have recently stepped up calls for the White House to appoint someone independent of the foreign service to ride herd over any spending problems and other diplomatic-related mischief in the Middle East and at U.S. outposts around the globe.

“I am particularly concerned with adequate oversight in this area given the billions of dollars that will be at stake as operations in Iraq are transitioned from the Department of Defense to Department of State,” at the end of this year, said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

She spoke at a recent hearing where an official from the GAO raised concerns about the independence and competence of the State inspector general’s office that she said date from the mid-1970s. Geisel testified there that he, too, would like to see a permanent inspector, which he said would enhance the standing of the office’s conclusions.

The open slot at the State Department is one of 11 unfilled inspector general appointments at major federal departments and agencies, including the Justice Department, the Troubled Assets Relief Program, Homeland Security and Afghanistan Reconstruction. The Labor Department slot has been unfilled since July 2009 and the Housing and Urban Development slot since last October, but many of the others have been open only for a few months.

One high-ranking official familiar with the selection process said the State Department’s current leadership had opposed filling the top slot because it prefers the office to remain under Geisel’s supervision. A committee of existing inspectors general long ago put forward a short list of recommendations for the job, but the White House has not acted on them, the official said, asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

But State Department spokeswoman Heide Fulton said that the department “is not holding up the appointment of a new inspector general.” The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

In a report prepared for the House hearing, GAO auditors said again that inspections conducted overseas by State’s office of inspector general had sometimes been conducted under weak standards, and they faulted the department for staffing its inspection teams with foreign service officers who rotate in and out of the assignments. “How can they be trusted to provide objective, unbiased reviews of State Department operations when their career advancement hinges on the type of assessment they give to programs or peers?” Ros-Lehtinen asked at the April 5 hearing.

The GAO’s report also said the department had conducted an inadequate number of audits, which are more rigorous than inspections, to assess key work, although it said the problem appeared to be diminishing.

A peer review of State’s work by NASA’s inspector general’s office, published late last year, separately found that numerous inspections in the Middle East had been mischaracterized as audits, and that “the evidence contained in audit files did not support audit conclusions.” It also found that some of those who performed the work for the inspector general’s office had failed to sign routine statements promising that their analysis would be independent of any influence.

“The NASA OIG’s findings would be troubling in any circumstances, but they are especially concerning now because the State Department’s responsibility in Iraq is expected to increase substantially,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group. In a letter to the White House, she said her group is “convinced that under the current leadership, State’s OIG will not be up to the task.”

Geisel testified at the hearing that the vigor and independence of his office’s work was demonstrated by recent reports that criticized the department’s construction of the Baghdad embassy, snooping by State employees into celebrity passport applications and the attempted 2009 terrorist bombing of a U.S. airliner by a Nigerian who improperly obtained a visa.

He said the office’s use of subpoenas had increased. He also defended the use of foreign service officers in the work, including ambassadors who he said had a special ability to tell their currently serving counterparts, “Guess what: You are wrong.”