Homeland security inspector general retires amid flap over travel ban report

The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general is retiring from his post as a battle continues over whether the department will allow the release of a report he wrote critical of the administration’s travel ban.

DHS watchdog John Roth will be stepping down, his office confirmed, though spokeswoman Arlen Morales said the decision has been in the works for some time and is not related to the fight over the travel ban report.

“He’s retiring after 32 years of federal service,” Morales told CNN. “He’s moving on. It’s his own decision.”

Reuters was first to report the news, citing an interview with Roth in which he also denied a link between the report and his retirement. Roth’s last day was Thursday, according to a source familiar with the matter and the Reuters report.

Roth’s retirement comes amid a struggle over whether the document he wrote can be released.

The inspector general finished the report in early October. On November 20, Roth wrote to three Democratic senators who had requested the investigation into the travel ban’s implementation to say the department was preventing the report’s release.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke confirmed that the issue was still being looked at on Thursday, testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee that the department wants to block the release of portions of the report, which found violations of law.

She testified that DHS has asserted attorney-client and executive privileges, noting the travel ban is under litigation.

Duke said she feels “comfortable” that the claims of privilege are “accurate,” but “to be absolutely sure … we have ordered a third-party independent review to make sure that the privileges that we need to redact that report are sound.”

After her testimony, a DHS spokesman said in an emailed statement that the department believes it will release the report “soon.”

“The Department of Justice is conducting a third-party review of the privileged documents in the report,” spokesman Tyler Houlton said. “We always intended to release this terribly flawed report — and likely will do so soon — but given the conversations covered in the report and litigation at issue with regard to the EO (executive order) we need to ensure that privileged material is considered and handled appropriately. This is normal, common and expected.”

Roth told the senators in his earlier letter that his report had found that the leadership of Customs and Border Protection within DHS had “virtually no warning” for the travel ban, which places varying restrictions on travel to the US by nationals from certain countries — many of them with Muslim majorities — and has been the subject of litigation since its controversial release in January and subsequent rewrites.

The inspector general said that while Customs and Border Protection overall made a good-faith effort to implement the ban and follow court instructions, it did violate court orders in preventing travelers abroad from boarding airplanes to the US. And while he was able to find that some accusations of misconduct in the US did not occur, Roth said the office “cannot rule out that isolated abuse occurred.”

Regarding DHS’s assertion of privilege, Roth wrote that he was “very troubled” by the department’s efforts to stop the report’s release. He said it was the first time in his tenure that such an event had occurred.

“In fact, we regularly have published dozens of reports that delve into the department’s rationale for specific policies and decisions, and comment on the basis and process on which those decisions were made,” Roth wrote. “Indeed, that is at the heart of what inspectors general do.”

Roth met with one of the senators, Democrat Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, on Wednesday. In the meeting, Roth mentioned his retirement but said he was simply ready to retire and the decision was unrelated to the report, according to Duckworth’s office.

Still, after the meeting, Duckworth said she was very concerned about the potential for the Justice Department to try to stymie the report’s release. She said most of the inspectors general’s work has to do with deliberative processes.

“If you’re going to invoke a privilege and say that, ‘Sorry, we can’t discuss that’ or ‘we can’t talk about that because it goes to the deliberative process,’ then what you’re doing is you’re just shutting down the ability of the IG to do work,” Duckworth said in an interview. “It would be a significant departure that could really degrade the ability of IGs across government to do their work, which would be really concerning.”

Depending on DHS’s next steps, Duckworth is considering writing to inspectors general government-wide on whether they have faced a deliberative process issue before and, if the report continues to be unreleased, whether there are legislative options to strengthen the Inspector General Act, according to her office.