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Rethinking Intelligence: Interview with Clark Kent Ervin

Clark Kent Ervin is Director of the Aspen Institute’s Homeland Security Program. He previously served as the Inspector General to the State Department from 2001 to 2003, and as the first Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security from January 2003 until December 2004.

Published: July 14, 2014

Interview Transcript

Clark Kent Ervin is Director of the Aspen Institute’s Homeland Security Program. He previously served as the Inspector General to the State Department from 2001 to 2003, and as the first Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security from January 2003 until December 2004. From 2008 through 2011 he served on the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the author of Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

Mike German, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, interviewed Danielle Brian on July 14, 2014. The following is an edited transcript of that interview.


Q: Hi, my name is Mike German. I'm a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School and today I'm with Clark Kent Ervin who was the Inspector General of the U.S. State Department. He was the first Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and served on the wartime commission investigating corruption and fraud in contracting in the war zones. You're also the author of Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack, which is written after your time as the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security. And you quote Secretary Colin Powell during your swearing in ceremony where he said, "If our foreign policy is to be sustained and if it is to be successful around the world, it has to have the trust of the American people.” The work of the Inspector General contributes invariably to building that crucial public trust. How important is independent oversight to the success of the national security mission?

ERVIN: I think it's absolutely critical Mike. There's no question, but that the work of the Inspector General, the work of G.A.O., the Congressional investigative and auditing arm of the work of the Congressional oversight committees, the work of the press. These four institutions are critical to ensuring that the men and women who are entrusted with securing the United States do things within the law and within the confines of our security — not just our security but also our civil rights and our civil liberties. And I think there has been a lot of concern, needless to say, in recent years about whether the government has crossed the line. And there would be less concern I think, on the part of the American people, if they were convinced that oversight was as vigorous as it possibly can be with regard to security issues.

Q: And despite the necessity of it to the success of the mission, these agencies tend to resist that kind of aggressive oversight. How did that impact your ability to identify problems and get them remedied?

ERVIN: Right. Well I write in the book about the contrast really, the very clear, almost black and white contrast, between how I was received at the State Department as Inspector General and how I was received at the Department of Homeland Security by the senior management there. Generally speaking, of course there are always exceptions, but generally speaking, thanks to Secretary Powell's leadership — and I should underscore that it really starts at the top — the signal that the Secretary General Powell sent in that public swearing in ceremony where he made it clear that he himself and through him, the President, thought that oversight was critically important. And as you say that oversight was not just important on its own, but important to the success of the foreign policy mission of the United States communicated that message likewise to everybody in the building. And so as a consequence of that, generally speaking, I'd say 90% of the time or thereabouts I had the full cooperation of the rest of the management and those reporting to management in the Department of Homeland Security and carrying out the inspections and the audits and the investigations and very sensitive foreign policy arenas that I needed to carry out in my job as Inspector General of the State Department. By way of contrast, the Department of Homeland Security, the impression that Secretary Ridge had and others on his leadership team, was that I was being an antagonist; that these were personal criticisms that I and my team were making of them and their stewardship of the Department of Homeland Security. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. Likewise, my job as Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, just as my job at State at the time, was to objectively, independently, in a non-political, non-partisan fashion, assess how well or how badly actually the department is doing in carrying out its critical part of the national security mission. To be fair, I think it is a natural part of human nature for people to resist criticism of any kind, and certainly national security agencies are national security agencies, and because that's the case they are more in the cross hairs of the Congress, they are more in the cross hairs of the American people because of the stakes than any other kind of government entity in our system. And so that's an additional reason why they were particularly resistant to criticism. But that's an explanation, it's not an excuse and it's absolutely critical that there be due oversight because otherwise we have the kinds of abuses we've seen in recent years. And it's not just the abuses as bad as that is, but as a consequence of those abuses there is less public trust in government and less willingness on the part of the public to do their part of the bargain. It is the government's job to secure us. It's the American peoples' job to support the government in carrying out that very difficult work and appreciating the difficulty that they, the government, have in walking this very fine line between security and liberty.

Q: And you mention all of our responsibility and the way that our government is structured. It sets up competing branches that check and balance one another.

ERVIN: Purposely.

Q: Purposely because we determined, when our country was founded, that that was the way to make a more effective and more accountable government. How would you evaluate Congressional oversight of the Homeland Security and national security agencies?

ERVIN: Generally positively. Certainly the armed services committees, House and Senate, Foreign Relations committees, House and Senate Intelligence committees, House and Senate. Generally speaking, I think that those committees have done a very good job of overseeing their respective parts of the national security apparatus in the United States. Generally speaking, those committees stand in sharp contrast over the years, and in particularly sharp contrast to recent years, with regard to the very, very toxic partisanship that we see in other kinds of committees in the Congress. Generally speaking, those committees worked in a seamless bipartisan, nonpolitical fashion to exercise due oversight over their, as I say, respective pieces of the apparatus. I would say that that's true also of the House and Senate Homeland Security committees. They likewise, are non-partisan, objective, very, very diligent, very able people who had born into these very complicated homeland security issues, gotten up to speed about their respective parts of it and provided, generally speaking, I think, what is helpful, constructive counsel and criticism on occasion to the Department of Homeland Security.

That said, the one footnote exception I would add for the homeland security oversight committees in the House and Senate is that — and the leaders of those committees and the members of those committees would be the first to agree with what I'm about to say — their effectiveness is hampered by the fact that as you know, jurisdiction with regard to the Department of Homeland Security is not in contrast to those other committees concentrated just on those two committees; but instead, in large part because of the diffuse mission of the Department of Homeland Security, something like a hundred or so different committees and sub-committees claim some part of the jurisdiction-oversight jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security.

That presents a huge challenge to the Secretary and to the other leadership of the Department of Homeland Security  preparing for those hearings, responding to information requests. It detracts from the mission. It's not just a time suck, but also there can be and there have been examples of conflicting mandates being given to the Department of Homeland Security because of the plethora of committees involved in it. So, you know, it was the one remaining recommendation of the 9/11 Commission all these many years later — exactly a decade after the commission — that there be consolidation of congressional oversight of Homeland Security in the same way that there is over DOD, the intelligence community in the State Department. That's yet to happen in Congress. And that I should add it's a bipartisan thing. It was pushed in the Bush Administration consolidated, pushed in the Obama Administration consolidated. And the Congress has been Republican hands and Democratic hands and yet, it has yet to be done.

Q: And you mention in your answer “partisanship.” Do you see that as something that's getting worse?  

ERVIN: I do see partisanship generally speaking getting worse on the domestic side. There is no question about that. I don't see a lot of partisanship with regard to homeland security issues, with regard to terrorism issues. There has been a lot of criticism of course of the Obama Administration on foreign policy and national security generally speaking. I agree with some of that criticism frankly, but I think the partisanship with regard to that criticism is much, much less than it is with regard to domestic affairs. And that's as it should be.

Q:  Right. So, for the leadership of these Congressional Oversight Committees, you would think that the Inspector General is their best friend: their eyes and ears within the agency to bring out and identify problems that need to be corrected. But you didn't have that experience.

ERVIN: Actually, you know I did.

Q: Oh, did you?

ERVIN: Generally speaking, yes, I did not always have the cooperation of the department leadership at the Department of Homeland Security, whereas generally speaking I did at the State Department. But almost invariably I'm really hard pressed to think of a counter example. I did have the cooperation and full support of both Republicans and Democrats on the committees that I worked with at both at State and at the Department of Homeland Security. I remember for example working very, very closely-certainly at State, and I think likewise at the Department of Homeland Security with Senator Grassley, a Republican. I was a Bush Administration appointee, and both those slots; he was a Republican and of course, essentially to cooperate with me on occasion meant being likewise just as I was being critical of the Bush Administration; yet he was a stalwart supporter in that regard. So no, I think the congressional cooperation that I had was really quite sound in both slots.

Q: And how about on the Homeland Security committees?

ERVIN: On the Homeland Security committees likewise. I formed very, very close-at the time when I was there, I believe that representative Peter King (R-NY) was the Chair of the committee, I believe that's right and Benny Thompson was then and remains the ranking member of the committee now that the Chair is Michael McCall. He's still the ranking member. And I had his cooperation then. He's been stalwart on these issues.

Q: Great. How important is public awareness when you're an Inspector General? Obviously you did a laudable job of making a lot of your reports public, or at least as much of them as possible,  in generating the public support necessary to demand reform.

ERVIN: It's absolutely critical, and that is one of the issues that an Inspector General has to wrestle with and that is to what degree, if at all, should he or she turn to the press to serve as an ally in the effort to make sure that the Congress and the public are fully aware of what it is the Inspector General is uncovering. I made a point on my very first day as State Department Inspector General to cultivate the press. I got to know the key reporters who were covering the department and therefore the office of Inspector General. I never of course would violate any of the laws governing classification, never disclose any classified information.

Q: Sure.

ERVIN: But I was very proactive in reaching out to them to make sure that they were aware of what we were finding, that our reports had been issued because I found, all too often unfortunately, especially at the Department of Homeland Security, that there was a television story about or a major newspaper — New York TimesWashington PostWall Street Journal —  story about a report that we had done that then you had the full attention of the department and the full commitment of the department, at least rhetorically to fix the problem. But for that, all too often in the Department of Homeland Security's case, I wouldn't have that cooperation.

Q: Okay. Speaking specifically about intelligence, in your book you say, “Our intelligence in law enforcement agencies are sharing information and cooperating with each other as never before. Yet bottlenecks, institutional resistance, bureaucratic bungling and technological challenges to collecting, analyzing and using information that can detect and foil another terrorist attack are made.” Recently we've seen reports by the Department of Justice Inspector General and the House Homeland Security committee that show some failures, for lack of a better word, regarding the Boston Marathon bombing, that would seem to suggest that some of this dysfunction in the intelligence community remains because the systems that were set up to receive warning to get information about travel all work. And yet there wasn't the response that we would hope would be there.

ERVIN: Right.

Q: How do you see the development of this intelligence network? You know, because now the intelligence community is much larger as you said, it often national security is homeland security and yet they're not necessarily always integrated as well as they should.

ERVIN: I guess how I would respond is to say that it's a lot better. There's no question, but as you know there was a wall, a metaphorical wall, between the various parts of our government between and among agencies preventing them from sharing information before 9/11 and that's one of the reasons why we failed to anticipate that attack and respond to it adequately on the day. There has been a sea change in that regard. Generally speaking, there is a huge push as you know to cooperate, to share information, and so it's gotten better. But you could write that at any time, it will always be the case that despite advances, there will still be some bureaucratic resistance, there will still be some technological challenges. That's kind of the nature of the beast. There will always be bureaucratic obstacles, because at the end of the day, bureaucracies are people and that's a core part of human nature and a couple of things about technology. Technology is difficult. It evolves very, very rapidly. The government evolves, when it evolves at all, very, very slowly. So that's a perennial problem. The issue is, is it moving in the right trajectory? One thing I would add by way of footnote is that the backlash. And I know we're going to talk about this, the backlash against the revelations uncovered by Snowden. It may have a chilling effect on the sharing of information, so in the same way that generally speaking we Americans have this — I've called it a whipsaw effect — between hysteria in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and in the immediate aftermath of plots that are foiled, and complacency. It's the same thing we have that on occasions, a whipsaw between a tendency not to share information at all and a tendency to share information so much that it becomes a problem in and of itself. So these are very difficult issues to work through.

Q: Okay. One of the problems that you identified is that the intelligence homeland security national security agencies don't evaluate whether the programs that they have are actually effective.

ERVIN: Right.

Q: So how can the American people who are often asked to sacrifice their privacy in the name of national security programs know that these programs are effective if the agencies don't even know?

ERVIN: Right. Well that's a very good question. I think the answer is there should be a multi-agency, multi-actor evaluation process with regard to all of these programs or at least the most important programs. And by that I mean that as you said, the agency itself should continually evaluate the effectiveness of counterterrorism programs, national security programs. The agency should do that as a priority matter. But secondly, there are Inspectors General. That's what they do. That's in a nutshell what the whole point of an Inspector General is. It's what G.A.O. is supposed to do. That's what congressional oversight is supposed to do. That's what the press is supposed to do. That's what outside advocacy groups like POGO, Project on Government Oversight. Like the ACLU are supposed to do. And so, there is no shortage of actors in the American political governmental system designed to do that. And a variety of those actors do do that on a regular basis. I think that the problem — and there are a number of problems — but one of the key problems is that when the Inspector General calls attention to a problem, when G.A.O. does, when congressional committees does, all too often there is not enough attention paid to that until there's a crisis. And a crisis gets on the radar screen, generally speaking, when there is intense press interest, which gets back to my early argument about how important it is I think for oversight bodies to enlist the press. For example, the latest example of course is the VA scandal, which dominated the headlines for weeks, starting about a month or six weeks ago or so. How did that get to be a scandal? It got to be a scandal because some very intrepid reporters at CNN made that a front page metaphorically story for weeks. But the Inspector General's office, we subsequently learned, and I wasn't at all surprised to learn this, for years had pointed to precisely these problems. It's just that congressional committees hadn't paid much attention to it, and certainly the Veterans Administration, the agency hadn't paid much attention to it. If all of these internal oversight efficacy assessments — for want of a better term — components of agencies worked as they should, and if these other outside external oversight bodies worked as they should, and if due attention were paid to it by the Congress, by the American people, then we would jettison programs that are ineffective and we would enhance programs that have proved to be effective.

Q: And one of the problems with operating in that crisis environment is there's often an imperative that you acknowledge and to do something.

ERVIN: Yes.

Q: You mention the creation of the AHS without really evaluating whether that something is actually going to help.

ERVIN: Precisely.

Q: Or after you've done it does help.

ERVIN: Yes.

Q: How much does the imperative to do something, to solve a short term problem, impact our ability to reach our long term goals?

ERVIN: A lot. That too is part of human nature, and we Americans —  I talked in the book also about kind of the nature of the American people. And you know I'm not a psychiatrist or a psychologist but there's a bit of pop psychology in what I writebut it’s generally a good trait that we want to do something. We want to get something done. There's a crisis we want to respond to it and that's a good thing. But, as you said, the cost of the crisis nature of the atmosphere at that point, there's such an urgency to act that there that one doesn't feel as though he, she, the institution has sufficient time to really think it through and to plan it out.

You know, I'm sure you've read these reports about exactly how the Department of Homeland Security was cobbled together in 2003; but literally a handful of guys — I think it was all guys, I know a few of them. Andy Card was one of them, then the White House Chief of Staff got together, you know, over several sessions in a small conference room to say, “You know, this component of this agency's in, this component of this agency is out.” It was just like that, and that's no way to run a railroad. Nothing is complicated and as important as the security of the United States.

Q: And even some very important issues like the decision to go to war. You quote in your book, former Congressman and CIA Director Porter Goss where he said the Iraq War, “while not a cause of extremism has become a cause for extremists.” You know especially in such a critical decision making, how do Americans assess whether these choices that are being made are actually helping improve security?

ERVIN: Right.

Q: Especially over time.

ERVIN: Well again that's precisely why a vigorous and essentially unfettered press is so critical. That's why effective nonpartisan, apolitical congressional oversight's so important. That's why G.A.O. oversight's important, that's why the Inspector General oversight's important. It all goes back to that, it seems to me.

Q: And… you had mentioned that for example the VA's scheme that the Inspector General had done a number of reports. In your experience, is Congress very good at looking back at those reports for some of the recommendations, rather than trying to come up with something immediate for that?

ERVIN: No, that's a very good point. Yeah, one of the pet peeves of Inspectors General, and I know this is true for G.A.O. as well, is that as you implied there are generally scores, if not hundreds and perhaps even thousands, depending on the agency we're talking about of unimplemented Inspector General recommendations over time. That was one of my huge problems when I arrived at the State Department trying to get that number down to a manageable number of those that had not yet been implemented. And so generally no, the Congress does not look back at that. Generally speaking it is a crisis-animated, press-driven process.

Q: And part of the problem for Americans, and you mentioned the Snowden leaks, you know, we've been involved in this vigorous debate about the proper scope of intelligence programs, particularly weighing that privacy versus security. But you make a point in the book that it's important to preserve our civil liberties and in fact if we don't, we're actually handing a victory to our enemies.

ERVIN: That's right. That's right. But you know I want to stress, and I think I stressed this in the book, you know it's a very, very fine line to walk. There's no question about that, and certainly one should never violate our classification laws. That's a critical thing, and I think there's no question about that in the Snowden case, that that was done. And I think that frankly, personally, I think there has been a huge compromise in national security as a result of that. And further, I think it is so lessened in the American peoples' confidence in their government now, that the government's hand is tied behind its back to a considerable degree all these many years after 9/11, at a time when there is no end of security threats facing the country both from terrorists and also from traditional nation-state actors. So I think this time in which we're living and sitting right now is an especially perilous one and I'm very concerned about it.

Q: How much is secrecy a problem that, you know with these leaks obviously inside and trying to weigh where that line was had been debated for a decade or more and yet when the American public finally hears about it, it creates a controversy that creates that crisis situation that creates the problems for our future development. How much does secrecy create a problem?

ERVIN: That's a very important question and I've thought long and hard about that, and here is my answer to it, it's not perhaps not the greatest answer, but it's the best answer that I can think of, and that is that all too often I found as Inspector General, and I think other Inspectors General would agree with this and G.A.O., Congress, the press would agree with [that] — all too often, things are kept secret in our government. Republican Administrations, Democratic Administrations. Not because making it public would compromise the security of the United States, but instead because making it public would embarrass the administration. It would embarrass the government. There's been some screw up or there's been some ways to inefficiency, some financial abuse. Happens all the time. Happens everyday, it's happening right now as we sit here. That's one thing. On the other extreme of the pendulum is secrecy that is designed to prevent classified information from winding up in the hands of our enemies. It would be perfectly fine if it were possible to share that with the American people and keep it away from terrorists and other enemies, but as a practical matter you can't do that. I am for the kind of secrecy at that end of the pendulum as opposed to the secrecy that is intended just to avoid embarrassment; and to me the line is always clear between the two. I've never in my four years as an Inspector General, in my three years added to that as a member of the contracting commission; so you know, you can argue that I've had seven years, nearly a decade of intensive, really full time oversight of not just the government generally, but the national security portion of the government and I've never seen an example of it be unclear what kind of secrecy rationale is an issue.

Q: And you've written in your book and spoken about the pressures, direct pressure sometimes as Inspector General not to report things. So you can imagine as an employee of one of these agencies the type of pressure not to report problems, even to the Inspector General.

ERVIN: Yes.

Q: The intelligence agencies are exempted from the Whistleblower Protection Act. Do you think that there are enough protections for intelligence agency employees so that they can feel comfortable reporting through the proper channels rather than leaking to the press?

ERVIN: Well, you know, I’m concerned about it. I don't purport to be an expert in the various particular provisions of the intelligence community that might provide additional protections if any, to employees beyond what there is. But the notion of that generally speaking, whistleblower protections, are not available to members of the intelligence community whereas they are elsewhere troubles me. And I would urge the relevant congressional oversight committees to do something about that. Again, it's clear what kind of problem we're talking about. It's one thing to disagree with the program as a matter of policy. It's quite another thing to see ways  abuse and criminality occur and not feel empowered to report that because of concern about your own, the consequences, the personal consequences to you and your family if you do so.

Q: And one of the things that the president's review group looking at the NSA programs talked about, which I think was an important part of the debate that we haven't really been talking about, is that when we talk about security, we mean not just security from outside threats but security from an unwarranted government intrusion into your private life. Because of all the secrecy and because of the important issues that are involved, how do we make sure that — and frankly because of the history, there's a long history of intelligence authorities being abused to suppress political activity — how can we set up a mechanism or is there a mechanism to make sure that there isn't in that closed system a tendency to violate rights again?

ERVIN: Right. My thoughts there are that it really matters a lot whom you have in key slots. It matters a lot whom you have in as an Inspector General especially, and also members of these congressional oversight committees. And what I mean by that is this: There are basically two kinds of Inspectors General, and that is the kind who I strive to be; that is you share the politics and the ideology of the president of the administration that appointed you, otherwise you wouldn't been appointed. But once you're you're nominated, confirmed by the Senate and take up the job, then you leave your politics and your ideology at the door and you call things as you see them. If you have that kind of person as the Inspector General, someone who recognizes that by statute he or she is supposed to be independent and objective, then the American people can be assured that there will be due transparency with regard to his or her oversight of the department. There are Inspectors General, regrettably in my judgment, who regard themselves as employees of the agency, employees of the Secretary or agency head in the same way that everybody else in the agency is an employee essentially of the Secretary or agency head. And in that instance, the public can't be assured of the objectivity and therefore value of the work that that Inspector General does. The same is true for congressional oversight committees. It's to what degree does partisanship and politics figure into the oversight that that particular member, that particular committee exercises over the relevant agency. You know I think the gold standard in our country for congressional oversight of course is the Watergate committees, in that as Republicans essentially I’m exaggerating a little bit to make the point, but it was largely Senator Baker who just passed away recently who — and Southern Democrats who generally, like Senator Ervin, who are generally supportive of the Nixon Administration on domestic policy at least — who were the strongest in advocating for getting to the truth in that matter. All too often we’ve fallen away from that. As I said, less on the national security side and the domestic side, but to some degree the national security side too.

Q: One of the interesting things with the Snowden leaks is that you know, when there was a public outcry about the scope of these programs, somewhat the people who were responsible for oversight became the biggest advocates of those programs, partly because it's their own legacy of oversight that is being challenged. Does that have an effect with the sort of crisis mode that there is, I guess capture would be the biggest—

ERVIN: Circling the negative.

Q: The biggest word that they feel, that rather than independent overseers they're actually advocates for the intelligence community.

ERVIN: Yes, that can happen. You know I must say that I haven't seen a lot of that personally in response to the Snowden revelations. Generally speaking, my perception is those members who have been the fiercest backers of the intelligence community after the revelations were generally supporting the intelligence community before them. That's my perception.

Q: Okay. In addition, when there's ineffective oversight, there is the risk of waste, fraud, and abuse. And with the U.S. wartime commission on contracting, you found significant waste and abuse in the war zones, somewhere between $31 and $60 billion wasted. Large sum of money. How does that affect the effectiveness of the mission?

ERVIN: Well it affects it hugely. For example, we're seeing Iraq implode before our very eyes. Needless to say, you know, I think we spent something like $25 billion alone to train the Iraqi army and we've seen that it's essentially collapsed over the last few weeks in response to a very determined threat from ISIS and a number of other affiliated Al Qaeda-like groups. And that just shows that the billions we spent specifically on that part of the war — that's to say nothing of the other parts of the war effort that we spent Iraq were for naught — and that's because so much of the money was ill-planned, ill spent, not due oversight given over to it. So literally people are dying in Iraq today because the money that we spent to try to prevent that went awry. So these are life and death issues and our military presence is going to end for all practical purposes, even if we leave behind a few residual troops. It's going to end for all practical purposes at the end of this year in Afghanistan. And there is great concern, as you know, that the very same thing will happen there. And we pointed to all of these issues as you say, during the course of the commission, and here we are. So these are critical life and death matters, and furthermore I guess the other thing that I underscore is that it's not as if we're now and have been for all these many years more than a decade wasting these money in these two particular war theaters and around the world with regard to the war on terrorism and national security challenges that we face. But we're doing so now at a time of great fiscal challenges. And so, I wrote in the book, and I wrote the book in 2006, so it's nearly a decade ago — every dollar wasted is a dollar that could have been spent to make America more secure. It's even more so now than it was then at the time I wrote that book. Relatively speaking, America was flush. We're anything but flush now and so we've got to be smarter about how we spend our necessarily limited dollars to make the most of them and to make sure that the programs that we invest in are ones that are effective and efficiently run.

Q: And one of the shocking things I found in reading that that some of the money spent for contractors was then spent for protection actually providing funds to the insurgents and the warlords that were fighting U.S. troops.

ERVIN: Absolutely. And furthermore that happened in some cases knowingly. Our contracting officers, our people in DOD, State department USAID were aware of that, so that's really shocking.

Q: And with internal control so weak that that type of thing can happen is incredibly dangerous for our troops on the ground, how can we be sure that other areas of liberties, privacy, even just the effectiveness of the agencies isn't being undermined by this lack of internal controls.

ERVIN: We can't be. There's because of that, there's every reason to be suspicious about whether what we don't know is even more troubling, more concerning than what we do know.

Q: And obviously all Americans want these agencies to operate at peak efficiency and effectiveness.

ERVIN: It's in their interest.

Q: Exactly. So why is reform so hard?

ERVIN: Reform is hard because people are people. You know this bureaucratic resistance we talked about, the tendency of people at the topmost level of government as I said earlier, to think that any criticism of the department is a personal criticism of them. They're concerned about their reputations after they leave government.  They're concerned about their career prospect. It's hard because the American peoples' attention span is very, very, very short. We move from crisis to crisis to crisis. There's not a lot of sustained attention to this. The news media's attention is also likewise attenuated. These are hard, difficult, nitty gritty kind of questions and it requires sustained oversight on a daily basis and that's tough, human nature being what it is.

Q: And do you have recommendations for what could make it a little better?

ERVIN: This may sound simplistic, but my recommendation is that the Congress, the press, and the American people take the work of Inspectors General, the reports that they issue every single day and that are available on their websites, seriously. Likewise the work of the G.A.O., likewise the work of the Congressional committees, because if you don't, depending on what agency you're talking about and what issue you're talking about, the day will come when there will be a crisis that will be front page in the newspaper and you know, beginning of the newscast and then everybody will say well why didn't we know about this? Why is this coming up all of a sudden? And those in the know like I and you will be able to say well  there have been X number of I.G. reports about that, X number of G.A.O. reports, X number of congressional oversight hearings about it, and yet nobody paid attention until it was right there in your face on a television screen, iPad tablet screen, or newspaper.

Q: And it is incredible going through those reports and your reports particularly. I think you really deserve a lot of commendation for — in a very difficult environment — when the agency was just being created. If a member of the public was interested in these issues, what would you have him read other than the reports obviously?

ERVIN: Well other than that, you know this may sound really kind of elementary and simplistic and I guess it is, but I think it's the right answer, and that is when you talked earlier about our founding fathers, the genius that they had to conceive of a system that was intended to be and can be and has on occasion been at its most effective and its most efficient and its most economical because of the checks and balances that are built into our system. Now it's up to human beings in every generation to animate the structures, the structure of government that's been created, but the structure of government that was created if we live up to it, if we animate it, is ideal. And so, what that means is that the responsibility of each individual is to be an informed citizen, to be an enlightened citizen. And so that's a long-winded way of saying it. I think the additional thing that the average citizen should do is to become informed. It is shocking just how ignorant the average American is about what's going on in his or her country; what's going on in his or her government. And that means that you've got to take an active interest in it. You got to read one of the best newspapers in the country, The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, because it's those papers really that cover news of national and international significance — with no affront intended for local newspapers, but that's just not their focus and there's a role for local papers. But talking about national papers and national news and international news now. There is, thanks to the web, blogs and social media, there is access to more information than ever before, that's for sure, and that's a good thing. The downside of that is there isn't the filter that there used to be provided by very reputable organs like The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal because things that you read in the blogosphere and social media are not all the same level of accuracy. But generally speaking, certainly the means are available to those citizens who want to take advantage of those means to inform themselves. And unless and until they inform themselves, they will be in the dark about what the government is doing and the government will be less effective than it can be because the government needs the oversight not just to these institutions but also of the average American if it's to do the right thing, because at the end of the day we have a Democratic system which means people get elected according to the will of the people.

Q: And obviously private groups who help compile and explain that information like the Aspen Institute where you're Director of Homeland Security.

ERVIN: And the ACLU and POGO and organizations on right as well. It's all part of the genius of our system.

Q: Great. Well thanks very much for being with me.

ERVIN: Thank you Mike.