Is Congress reading the right papers?

On December 9, 2019, the Washington Post released the Afghanistan Papers, a six-part series on obtained documents regarding the United States’s decision-making in the war against the Taliban. The public and media immediately reacted and obsessed over what the Post described as government deception.[1] In this series, the Post relied on interviews of US officials to map the lack of understanding and process of the eighteen-year war. These interviews came from research done by the “Lessons Learned Project” at the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

Congress created SIGAR in 2008 with the mission of investigating waste, fraud, and abuse in ‑‑ and making practical recommendations for ‑‑ US government reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Starting in 2014, SIGAR launched the Lessons Learned Program to “identif[y] and preserv[e] lessons from the US reconstruction experience in Afghanistan.” As a part of this program, SIGAR interviewed US officials to gain a deeper grasp of how the US developed policies and where the government lacked information, resources, and understanding. Relying on these Lessons Learned interviews, the Washington Post pieced together the Afghanistan Papers. 

Role of SIGAR

Congress mandated SIGAR to investigate waste, fraud, and abuse in the government and issue actionable recommendations for the war in Afghanistan. This mirrors the responsibility of all inspector general offices created by the Inspector General (IG) Act of 1978. The 1978 law created the modern inspector general inside the federal government. IG offices are authorized to detect and deter “waste, fraud, and abuse” and ensure that their agencies faithfully execute their intended mission. IGs are supposed to remain impartial and non-political in their roles and conduct independent oversight. While IGs can create dense reports (viz., the most recent Lessons Learned report spans 154 pages) they contain a wealth of information about the functioning of government. For example, the Lessons Learned program has written reports on ex-combatant reintegration, division in mission responsibility, and counter-narcotic efforts.  

Role of the Press

The press, colloquially called the “fourth branch of government,” serves a vital role, most importantly (for our purposes) acting as an independent oversight mechanism. The role of the press is to discover and publicize the truth. In relation to government, this means investigating and sharing findings with the public. The press has investigated and exposed government wrongdoing ranging from false “Red Scare” charges in the 1950s to the National Security Agency’s gathering of American citizens’ information in the 2000s.

Situation Here

The Afghanistan Papers provide a textbook example of how IG offices and the press should interact. SIGAR’s role is not to sensationalize information or find the most provocative approach to presenting information. An OIG’s primary audience is Congress, and their reports aim to inform Congress of potential waste and abuse of government resources. The press conveys information to the general public and their stories aim to make the public care about the actions of the government.

SIGAR did not have a responsibility to release notes and interviews to the public directly. Those findings were conveyed to Congress through reports and testimony. In the aftermath of the Afghanistan Papers reporting, Congress seemed to awaken to findings that it should have been aware of had they read SIGAR’s work product. It should not take the press to point out what SIGAR’s work product has made clear all along. 

[1] When Googling “public response to the Afghanistan Papers,” readers will find articles by the Post, the Atlantic, NPR, the Guardian, CFR, American Magazine, Democracy Now, and the New Yorker all detailing the transgressions of the government.