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This the third part of an on-going series on the militarization of the federal government.

About 7 a.m., July 18, two early-bird staffers arrived for work at the flood control command center of Clearwater County in rural northwest Idaho. They were immediately accosted by what they thought was a gang of thugs running toward them, shouting and waving their arms.

The “thugs” turned out to be six armed federal agents, packing 9 mm Glock sidearms and protected by bulletproof vests. With them were two Idaho state police corporals, in case — as county commission chairman Earl Pickett later declared — there was a “confrontation” between the agents and county sheriff deputies.

Their behavior was “totally uncalled for,” said Nancy Butler, reporter for the weekly Clearwater Tribune, in a phone interview. “They [the agents] didn’t just come over and knock on the door — they came running over the hill at the back of the building and crawling along the ground through the sagebrush. The whole scenario just floored me.”

“They didn’t know what was happening,” said Butler, so the frightened staffers ran inside and locked the door. The office workers called the county commissioners and Sheriff Nick Albers, who also serves as commander of the center. On his way to the center, Albers was stopped by state police and served with a search warrant.

The agents decided not to kick the door down, but waited until the officials had arrived. Then the door was unlocked. The agents hauled away about 40 banker-size file boxes of county records mostly relating to 1996 flood recovery work, leaving behind a confused and forlorn group of county officials and office workers — some of them in tears — scratching their heads and wondering why.

“The perception in the community is that we’ve been invaded,” said county prosecutor John Swayne. “If they had walked in with 21 auditors to look at our records, that would have been fine. We have nothing to hide.” Swayne explained that the raid seems connected with a federal grand jury investigation, “but we still have no idea what they want or who they are investigating.”

The raid was part of a growing trend, due in part to the expansion of a 1994 pilot project of the Justice Department, in the militarization of the federal government. There are nearly 60,000 armed federal agents, reflecting an increase of almost 2,500 in the last year.

Investigators in 24 federal agencies have been granted expanded law enforcement powers, including long-term deputization to carry firearms and employ the kind of tough-guy tactics associated with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

And these powers can be used not only against ordinary citizens, but against local government employees as well — even when the task is as routine as serving a search warrant.

So which agency was behind the assault on Clearwater County’s flood recovery center? It was conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Office of Inspector General, a tiny agency within a larger agency whose overall mission has little to do with law enforcement.

Nor is FEMA’s inspector general unique. Twenty of the 32 agencies listed by the General Accounting Office in its recent publication on investigative personnel in federal organizations have similar offices of inspector general.

The GAO report is limited to agencies having 25 to 699 special agents. In addition to the 20 agencies listed by the GAO are five inspectors general with less than 25 investigators. They, too, are authorized to make arrests, execute search warrants and carry firearms. Together they account for nearly 2,000 of the 4,262 armed personnel cited in the GAO total.

Each office is headed by a person specially appointed by the president.

Inspectors general are basically watchdog agencies within a department. Most of them were created by the Inspector General Act of 1978, and later amendments, “to prevent and detect fraud and abuse” in government programs. Their overall mission is to guard against graft, bribery, kickbacks and other crimes against the government itself, whether committed by agency employees or by businesses and individuals receiving grants, contracts or government funds.

Some examples:

  • The Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General investigates criminal activity and abuse within USDA’s 300 programs — from food stamp trafficking and food safety violations to assault and bribery.
  • The Health and Human Services’ inspector general office watches out for false claims, false statements and kickbacks in Medicare and Medicaid programs.
  • The Small Business Administration’s unit tracks down fraud involving financial institutions, disaster loan fraud, fraud involving government procurements.
  • FEMA’s unit tries to ensure that funds delegated for disaster relief are not misappropriated. It was presumably allegations of the misuse of flood recovery funds that prompted the early morning raid on the Clearwater County flood control center.

By law, inspectors general investigators don’t have the authority to make arrests and serve warrants or carry guns unless they have been specially deputized by the Justice Department. Until recently this was done by request on a case-by-case basis. This can be time consuming, since requests take anywhere from 24 hours to several weeks.

In 1994 — in the name of efficiency– the Justice Department began an experiment suspending that requirement. Investigative agents in seven inspectors general were given blanket deputization for one year. The pilot agencies were the departments of Labor, State, and Transportation, the Veterans Administration, Social Security Administration, HUD and the Small Business Administration.

“We started with those because they had the bulk of requests for case-by-case deputation,” recalled Charles Masten, inspector general of the Department of Labor and chairman of the Investigations Committee of the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency. “The seven-agency program was to be extended for a year if there were no problems. When there weren’t any (problems), it was extended to 16 other agencies for one year — to 1996. Then to 1997.”

Lacking what he terms a “legislative fix” — permanent deputization through a statute — blanket deputation is perceived as the next best thing. “It’s been a very efficient move for the government,” Masten said.

A recent memorandum of understanding between the Justice Department and 24 of the 27 presidentially appointed inspectors general and the Justice Department extends the blanket deputization for 25 of the 27 presidentially appointed inspectors general through September 30, 1999.

Even NASA has received it. NASA was one of three inspectors general not granted annual blanket deputation in 1996 because it didn’t have special agents deputized on cases 50 percent of the time — a criterion for authorization.

Why NASA? Is the agency arming to protect the government from bribery by space aliens? No.

“Our law enforcement efforts are used to prevent procurement fraud and computer intrusion,” explained Rick Triplett with NASA inspector general’s office. “We have to be able to move quickly, so we need the traditional tools of other law enforcement agencies.”

But U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, questions the use of “traditional tools” as they were wielded in her own bailiwick. Chenoweth, whose congressional district includes Clearwater County, blasted the FEMA agents for behaving “like a bull in a china shop.”

“I understand that FEMA has an important responsibility to ensure that federal funds are handled consistent with law, but … FEMA has proceeded against a local government and private citizens in a threatening manner,” she wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno. “It is exactly this type of unnecessary, heavy-handed show of force that feeds the distrust of the federal government.”

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