Guidance issued by the Biden administration was “important,” but an executive order could also help preserve IG independence, said Michael Atkinson.
A former high-profile watchdog fired by President Trump spoke on Tuesday about the importance of whistleblowers and inspectors general, and he suggested how the Biden administration could do more to support them.
Michael Atkinson, who was confirmed as the intelligence community inspector general in May 2018, came under fire by Trump for his handling of a whistleblower complaint in 2019 that sparked the first impeachment investigation against Trump and was removed in spring 2020. Atkinson spoke at a webinar hosted by The George Washington University Law School on Tuesday afternoon about the whistleblower complaint––a situation Atkinson knew from the start would be “career altering for many people”––as well as larger themes related to government oversight and ethics.
“I think the IG community has been quite resilient,” said Atkinson, when asked if the Trump administration and its handling of the Ukraine whistleblower situation caused any lasting damage to the IG community. “I think my answer might be different if there was a different administration in charge. It might be different if a different administration comes back in charge.” He said guidance from the Biden administration––specifically the Office of Management and Budget–– issued in December to agencies encouraging them to cooperate with their IGs was “important.”
Moreover, “I think the Biden administration probably could go one step further and issue an executive order that sets out the causes for IG removal that the Biden administration will use,” said Atkinson. “It won’t have the force of legislation, but it would set the right tone and it would send a signal not only to IGs, but whistleblowers as well that the Biden administration expects IGs to be independent and they will not be removed for exercising that independence.”
Independence from agency heads and Congress is one of the main components of being an effective inspector general, said Atkinson. “I think that if inspectors general can be fired for acting independently, then that’s a significant problem,” which can have a chilling effect on IGs and “in some ways, whistleblowers because whistleblowers need to trust the process and they need to trust that whatever IG they’re going to is going to be independent,” nonpartisan and objective. He said he feels he got fired because he did what he was required to do by acting independently.
When asked if Congress should take any action to better protect IGs from retaliation that is politically motivated, Atkinson said “yes,” but it’s “complicated” because this involves the separation of power between the executive and legislative branches.
Also, “what’s complicated is you have these inspectors general who are political appointees, but who by law are required to be independent” and “you really shouldn’t be fired for being independent,” he said. One possible suggestion could be term limits for IGs, said Atkinson.
On whistleblowers, Atkinson said, “all branches of government have an interest in good government and good government requires honest public servants willing to come forward and disclose alleged wrongdoing in an authorized way.” He said whistleblower laws, which were subject to scrutiny during Trump’s first impeachment inquiry and hearing, “survived the stress test, yet more could be done to protect whistleblower’s identities,” particularly by Congress.
Atkinson said he was not surprised he was removed. After that happened, Michael Horowitz, Justice Department IG who was then-chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, said in statement, “Atkinson is known throughout the inspector general community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight,” which “includes his actions in handling the Ukraine whistleblower complaint.”
Then in June 2020, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a long-time advocate for whistleblowers and oversight, put a hold on two of Trump’s nominees until he got explanations on why Atkinson and another IG were fired. The situation with Atkinson was one of many during the Trump administration that caused concern that Trump officials were politicizing oversight.
Atkinson is now partner at the law firm Crowell & Moring LLP, in Washington, D.C., where he is a co-leader of the firm’s National Security Practice Group and Whistleblower Working Group.