Pentagon Getting First Senate-Confirmed Watchdog in 7 Years

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The Department of Defense’s new inspector general, Robert Storch.
The Department of Defense’s new inspector general, Robert Storch. (National Security Agency Photo)

The Pentagon will get its first permanent watchdog in nearly seven years after the Senate confirmed President Joe Biden's pick for the job more than a year after his nomination.

The Senate on Wednesday evening voted 92-3 to confirm Robert Storch, the current inspector general at the National Security Agency, to become the Defense Department's inspector general. The three "no" votes came from Republican Sens. Mike Braun of Indiana, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri.

Storch will step into the role responsible for keeping an eye on the Pentagon's $800 billion-plus budget as the department remains unable to pass an audit and calls grow for greater oversight of the billions extra in funding to support Ukraine that Congress has given the agency.

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Storch's approval gives the Pentagon its first Senate-confirmed inspector general since the end of the Obama administration in January 2016.

For four years after that, the inspector general's office was led on an acting basis by Glenn Fine. But in April 2020, then-President Donald Trump pushed out Fine amid a broader campaign against government watchdogs that also saw Trump firing or pushing out the inspectors general for the State Department, intelligence community, Transportation Department and the Health and Human Services Department.

Since Fine's ouster, the Pentagon's acting inspector general has been Sean O'Donnell, who is simultaneously serving as the Environmental Protection Agency's IG.

O'Donnell's dual role raised concerns among good governance advocates, who argued the Pentagon job is too massive for split attention.

"We cannot expect a part-time watchdog to effectively conduct oversight of an agency for which the budget makes up the largest portion of annual U.S. discretionary spending," the Project on Government Oversight's Geoff Wilson wrote in a letter to the Senate this week urging Storch's confirmation. "It's a disservice to American taxpayers, who expect accountability from their leaders, and insufficient oversight prevents servicemembers from receiving the quality equipment required to do their jobs."

The Government Accountability Office also determined in June that O'Donnell's appointment to acting Pentagon IG violated the Vacancies Act, which limits who a president can appoint as an acting official for a Senate-confirmed job and how long acting officials can serve.

Storch has been the top watchdog at the NSA since January 2018, making him that agency's first presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed inspector general. Prior to that, Storch worked in the Justice Department's IG office and, before that, was a federal prosecutor.

Despite the broad support for Storch, his nomination languished for months because of a Senate GOP blockade led by Hawley against most Pentagon nominees. Hawley, who supported withdrawing from Afghanistan during the Trump administration, has been demanding Biden administration officials resign over the chaotic Afghanistan exit, as well as the creation of a Senate committee to investigate the withdrawal.

While objections from individual senators cannot prevent a nominee from being confirmed, they force the Senate to use up valuable floor time for roll-call votes on nominees who would normally be confirmed by voice vote, often delaying their approval for months.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: Biden Names Pick for Pentagon Watchdog, Filling Job That's Been Vacant for Half a Decade

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