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Justice Watchdog Looks Back On 10 Years In Post

Inspector General Glenn Fine (right) consults with staff before testifying on the firing of nine U.S. attorneys during a House Judiciary panel hearing in 2008.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Inspector General Glenn Fine (right) consults with staff before testifying on the firing of nine U.S. attorneys during a House Judiciary panel hearing in 2008.

Glenn Fine may be the most powerful law enforcement officer you've never heard of.

Over 10 years as the Justice Department's inspector general, Fine exposed widespread FBI civil liberties violations. He called out former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for failing to supervise employees who injected politics into hiring decisions. And he took the Marshals Service to task for not doing enough to protect judges.

This month is Fine's last on the job. He's decided to retire and pursue other challenges in the law. As he prepares to leave, he and some of his adversaries are starting to evaluate his tenure as one of the toughest watchdogs that the Justice Department has ever seen.

Michael Bromwich used to be the Justice Department's inspector general. He hired Fine.

"There were a lot of questionable and unfortunate things that were going on at the department, that led to important investigations that the inspector general's office did, and that Glenn led," Bromwich says.

"And that helped inform the public and the Congress as to some of the things that were going on that shouldn't have been going on."

Fine worked under both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations. He produced major reports exposing security flaws and privacy violations by the federal government. He trained his 400-odd employees to pick high-value targets. And he gave them the freedom to roam.

Some of his findings drew more attention than others. A report during the Bush years, about the way politics allegedly motivated the hiring of lawyers for the Justice Department's civil rights division and its summer internship program, was featured on the front pages of newspapers and on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

In an interview, Fine cited another of his most meaningful investigations, on the FBI's widespread use of national security letters to snoop on people. The bureau tightened its procedures after the report emerged.

A lot of people have underestimated Fine over the years — starting with his success in basketball. The San Antonio Spurs drafted him in the 10th round in 1979. Fine keeps a team poster on his wall to prove it.

"I'm quite short — I'm 5-foot-9 — and they don't believe I played basketball," Fine says. "So I've taken to telling people, 'Well, before I started this job as the inspector general, I was 6-foot-9.' "

If anything, a decade on the job has elevated Fine's stature, not diminished it. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Justice Department turned its focus on national security, and the inspector general followed suit.

Fine's office found fault with the roundup of immigrants after the attacks; the FBI's terrorist watch list system; and the adequacy of the Justice Department's preparations for a possible attack using weapons of mass destruction.

His work hasn't always been popular. Congressional Republicans and Justice Department leaders in the Bush administration grumbled about his politicized hiring reports. They said that Fine played to the media and to Democrats in Congress.

But Fine shakes off the critics. He said those kinds of complaints are to be expected in his line of work.

"That happens. Whenever you're doing a sensitive report, it's bound to make someone unhappy," he says. "We're not going to be the most popular people here in the Department of Justice. But our job is to do an aggressive, tough but fair review and to lay out the facts."

Washington lawyer George Terwilliger defended several people at the Justice Department who were under investigation by the aggressive inspector general. But he generally gives Fine good marks.

"Any time you're in that position, the person investigating your client is an adversary," Terwilliger says, "but I always found Glenn to be a worthy and respected adversary."

As for Fine's possible successor, Terwilliger says it's important that the White House picks a lawyer with experience leading big investigations. But he said there's another factor that's even more critical.

"As importantly as anything, I would hope they would be nonpolitical, because the position is subject to politicization and political abuse," Terwilliger says.

Justice Department sources said it could take a while for them to nominate someone to fill Fine's shoes — and the nominee must be confirmed by the Senate. Fine's longtime deputy, Cynthia Schnedar, will lead the office for the time being.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.