What is an inspector general?

With a major report from the inspector general for the Department of Justice looming, eyes in Washington — from President Donald Trump to the media — are on the agency watchdog.

Here’s a look at what the inspector general does and why the report matters.

What is an inspector general?

Put simply, an inspector general is a watchdog who is part of the government and simultaneously independent from the entity they are tasked with investigating. Somewhat analogous to internal affairs at a police department, the inspector general’s office for a given agency is tasked with looking into potential malfeasance by that agency or members of that agency, and issuing reports and recommendations on its findings.

On the federal level, the inspectors general are each assigned to a different part of the executive branch, with an inspector general’s office for the Environmental Protection Agency, one for the Department of Defense and so on. A 2014 report from the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency put the total number of “statutory IGs” at 72, from the original 12 established in 1978.

What do their reports do?

These inspectors conduct investigations and audits, either in the course of their work or in response to requests that they pursue a particular avenue.

They update Congress, the heads of the relevant agencies and the public on the progress of their investigations, and after going through relevant documents and interviewing key witnesses, they issue reports with recommendations for changes or other actions as the offices see fit.

Congress, in its oversight role over the executive branch, receives the reports and can pursue more information or changes in the course of its work.

How does this play out?

The inspectors general may be less well known than the agencies they’re tasked with covering, but their work has wide-reaching effects. A few examples from recent years:

A 2016 audit from the inspector general for the Department of Defense found that in the year prior, the Army had made nearly $7 trillion worth of accounting errors.
A report in February from the inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs found the chief of staff for then-Secretary David Shulkin had altered an email to an ethics official that led to taxpayers covering expenses for Shulkin’s wife on an official trip to Europe last summer.
A Justice Department inspector general report in April accused former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe of an unauthorized disclosure to The Wall Street Journal and of lacking “candor” when discussing the topic with investigators.

As noted on CNN last year, attention paid to inspectors general and requests for investigations have proliferated during the Trump administration, with voices inside and out of government calling for the watchdogs to look into potential lapses and violations.

This background is worth keeping in mind as one of the most anticipated inspector general reports in recent memory is due for release Thursday.

What is this report?

Michael Horowitz, the inspector general for the Department of Justice, said in a letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Schumer that his office anticipates releasing its long-awaited report into the FBI and Justice Department’s actions during the 2016 election by Thursday.

The report is expected to touch on some of the department’s most politically sensitive work and hit controversial election-era topics that Trump continues to relitigate, especially as the report relates to an array of former Justice Department and FBI officials involved in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices as secretary of state. Sources told CNN earlier in June that the report is expected fault former top Justice Department and FBI officials, including former FBI Director James Comey.