WASHINGTON (AP) — Washington never stops investigating itself.
The probes that go public — what happened at the Internal Revenue Service, or in Benghazi, Libya, or with the seizure of journalists' phone and email records — are just a sampling. Thousands of federal workers spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year checking up on their peers. And Congress is watching, too.
Is this gotcha gallery trustworthy? Are investigators running amok, or toadying to the powers they're supposed to check? Or just treading water in a turbulent sea of some 2.1 million government workers? Opinions are as different as the thousand-and-one flavors of waste, fraud and abuse.
There are, however, ways to judge the quality of an investigation: how its leaders are chosen, how much independence they have, whether they have the resources and the authority they need and display the will to follow a question to its end.
A guide to Washington's scandal-hunting apparatus:
They mostly do routine reviews that don't much interest the public or the media. But they also investigate things like:
—IRS targeting of tea party groups.
—The Justice Department's "Fast and Furious" gun-trafficking operation.
—An over-the-top Las Vegas conference that led to the resignation of the General Services Administration chief.
—NFL quarterback Michael Vick's dog-fighting ring.
Federal law calls for 73 inspectors general to watch over the work of Cabinet departments, agencies and commissions. They field a staff of about 14,000 auditors, analysts, lawyers and others, including armed criminal investigators. Their budgets total more than $2 billion, according to a 2011 report for Congress.
What do they do?
They investigate crimes such as fraud and bribery by federal workers, contractors and people who abuse the government's services. They call out mismanagement and wasteful spending and recommend better ways to do the public's business. They get tips from whistle-blowers and cases referred by Congress.
Who chooses the inspectors general?
The president nominates them for Cabinet departments and some other prominent agencies, with Senate confirmation. Others are appointed by the leaders of the agencies they investigate. By law, Congress gets 30 days' notice before an IG can be fired. Lawmakers complained that President Barack Obama didn't give notice or an adequate reason when he abruptly fired the AmeriCorps inspector general in 2009.
Pros: IGs report to Congress as well as their agency chief, and their independence is protected by law.
Cons: They are chosen by the administration they will investigate. A president can pick a weak investigator or leave a post unfilled. The State Department slot has been empty for five years, sparking complaints that an office run by a temporary fill-in is less powerful and autonomous.
Government expert Paul Light of New York University says the quality of inspectors general varies greatly. "Some of them are very aggressive," he said, "and some are very timid."
Even the hard-chargers tend to stay in the background. That leaves it to lawmakers or the media to spread the word about IG reports, which Light describes as "mind-numbingly difficult to read" and "sleep inducing."
They're like superstar IGs.
Unleashing a special counsel automatically pushes a controversy to potential scandal level.
Under Justice Department rules, special counsels are called in to handle potential criminal cases that pose a conflict of interest for the department. They are appointed by the attorney general, who can turn to an outside lawyer or pluck someone from within the department.
The most famous special prosecutor probe: Watergate.
A recent example: Patrick Fitzgerald, then a U.S. attorney in Illinois, investigated George W. Bush administration officials in connection with the leak of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity.
What about Kenneth Starr?
Starr wasn't a special counsel — he was a more powerful "independent counsel" appointed by a panel of three federal judges. Congress created that post after the shock of Watergate, when President Richard Nixon ordered the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox in what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre."
Congress allowed the independent counsel law to expire in 1999; the special counsel rules took its place.
Independent counsels had come to be seen as out-of-control. Democrats were embittered by the five-year, $70 million investigation, primarily run by Starr, that stretched from President Bill Clinton's Whitewater land deal through his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and its cover-up.
Republicans felt burned by an earlier independent counsel, Lawrence Walsh, who spent six years and $47 million investigating the Reagan administration's secret Iran-Contra operations.
"It was a great mistake to create a power to prosecute without any accountability," said Lanny Davis, an adviser in the Clinton White House who now specializes in managing political crises. "You don't want the attorney general investigating himself. But you want accountability within the executive branch."
A special prosecutor, on the other hand, has wide latitude and can only be fired for "good cause." That's unlikely — firing a special counsel would risk touching off a political storm. The attorney general also holds sway over a special counsel's budget and jurisdiction.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and a few other Republicans have said a special prosecutor is needed to probe the IRS and the Justice Department's leaks investigations. Attorney General Eric Holder has shown no interest in appointing one.
No mystery here. If you've heard of a government probe, Congress probably had a hand in it. Lawmakers relish their oversight duties and promote their investigations. The big ones often merit creation of special or select committees and sometimes go on for years.
Some historic probes:
—Hearings on the 2008 financial crisis.
—Church Committee probe of domestic spying and abuses by the CIA and FBI.
—Senate Watergate Committee.
In addition to the IRS, Benghazi and AP phone records, lawmakers lately have been looking into why Apple Inc. doesn't pay more U.S. taxes, sexual assaults within the military, and the Boston Marathon bombing.
Pros: As a constitutional check on the executive branch, lawmakers wield tremendous power to investigate what they please. They hire expert staff to do the legwork and subpoena witnesses to testify. They also command nearly 3,000 employees at the Government Accountability Office, which audits and analyzes government operations. A congressional hearing done right can rivet the nation's attention.
Cons: When investigations come across as politically motivated attacks, their influence is diminished. Likewise, lawmakers may go too easy on a president from their own party. It's easy to sling reckless charges, even at small fry who get swept into a hearing and besmirched.
THE BLUE RIBBONS
The big ones helped Americans ease calamity into history. They include:
—9/11 Commission on the 2001 terrorist attacks.
—Rogers Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
—Warren Commission on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
—Roberts Commission on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Lots of blue-ribbon-style commissions are flops, however, too weak or too partisan to command attention or created mostly for show.
Sometimes presidents attempt to head off a more damaging investigation by creating a quick and relatively sympathetic panel, such as Ronald Reagan's Tower Commission on the Iran-Contra scandal, said political scientist Kenneth Kitts, author of "Presidential Commissions & National Security: The Politics of Damage Control."
"You have to know who is picking these panel members," he said. "In many cases, if you know who is serving, you can predict how they're going to come out on an issue."
And independent panels set up at lower levels of government, such as the State Department's commission on the Benghazi attacks, will carry less weight.
At their best, the panels assembled by a president or Congress, or both, are the ultimate investigations — nonpartisan, with the stature and authority to chase down the truth and inspire reform.
Sometimes they're messy. Light, who analyzed the impact of 100 national commissions for an upcoming book, points to the 1981 Greenspan Commission on saving Social Security as an example of success forged through bitter concessions and painful negotiation.
In the end, the type of investigation matters less than the people who carry it out.
"What I tend to see in the ones that work is good leadership and political will," Light said, "and just plain guts."
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