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White House Threatens Veto Over GAO Role in Intel Oversight

March 17, 2010 

 

Walter Pincus wrote in yesterday's Washington Post about the White House threat to veto the Intelligence Authorization bill, specifically a provision to ensure that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) can audit intelligence agencies. However, the article stops short of challenging the White House’s characterizing of the provision as "broadening the GAO's purview."

In fact, statutorily (31 USC sections 712, 717, and 3523(a)), GAO already has the purview to conduct oversight of all federal agencies, including the intelligence agencies. But, since the 1960s, the intelligence community has successfully fought off attempts at oversight, leading both houses of Congress to now come together to craft legislation to remedy the problem, which has also been highlighted by 911 Commission Vice Chair Lee Hamilton. 

One of Congress’ most critical oversight tools is the GAO, which provides methodologically sound, non-partisan, in-depth reviews to Congress. GAO has experts in financial management, acquisitions, information sharing, human capital, strategic planning, information technology, and other management issues that congressional committees may not have. Inside sources tell POGO that as of May 2009, GAO had 199 staff members holding a Top Secret security clearance, with 96 of those holding Sensitive Compartmented Information clearances.

Oversight of the intelligence community is led by the congressional intelligence committees, but other committees of jurisdiction also play an important role.  For example, according to the 1976 resolution establishing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (S.Res.400, 94th Cong., 2D Sess.), “nothing in this resolution shall be construed as amending, limiting, or otherwise changing the authority of any standing committee of the Senate to obtain full and prompt access to the product of the intelligence activities of any department or agency of the Government relevant to a matter otherwise within the jurisdiction of such committee.” By extension, this covers the work that GAO does at the request of standing committees. 

Fast-forward to 2010, and it is clear that there are numerous Committees, in both the House and the Senate, with oversight and authorization responsibilities over intelligence community components in their jurisdiction: the Armed Services, Appropriations, Judiciary, Homeland Security, Foreign Relations, Science and Technology, Finance, Energy and Commerce, and Oversight and Government Reform Committees. Most of these committees happen to be investigative powerhouses who could use these reports to conduct oversight more effectively.  The proposed provisions, in both the Senate and House versions, would grant these committees explicit authority to request GAO audits and evaluations, in order to counteract the intelligence community’s actions to prevent statutorily allowed oversight.

In the words of co-sponsor Senator Sanders: "It is essential that we take advantage of the expertise of the GAO to be sure that our intelligence community is working as efficiently as possible. This legislation strikes a reasonable balance between the essential protections of national intelligence information and the role GAO plays in assuring taxpayer money is not wasted. The intelligence community should not be immune to efforts to continually improve government efficiency and assure that taxpayer dollars are spent on sound intelligence gathering and assessment procedures."

The Senate’s version would continue to allow management-related GAO audits of the intelligence community while only allowing audits of intelligence sources and methods and covert actions at the request of the intelligence committees. The House version goes further, allowing any committee of jurisdiction over the intelligence community the ability to request a GAO audit, and not limiting sources and methods oversight to the intelligence committees. Neither version does away with existing provisions that limit GAO’s audit work in the intelligence community, which is covered by a narrow set of circumstances. These sections include sections 3542(c) and 3524(d).

As a bipartisan group of Members of Congress have stated, blocking congressional oversight of the intelligence community could mask national security threats, civil liberties violations, misuse of taxpayer dollars, gaps in information sharing, and problematic management issues  that need to be addressed. In fact, one of the things that have lit a fire under Congress’ tail is the attempted December 25 terrorist plot and the intelligence community’s failure to thwart it. Another benefit of empowering more Committees with intelligence oversight is to give intelligence whistleblowers more places to turn.

Steven Aftergood writes in Secrecy News that Congress shouldn't be intimidated by the executive branch.

"Arguably, the Administration is acting rationally in attempting to minimize independent oversight of its intelligence activities.  Who would voluntarily seek out an independent auditor to look over his shoulder?  But that leaves it up to Congress to pursue its own institutional self-interest with equal or greater determination, and to take maximum advantage of the intelligence oversight tools that it has available, including appropriate use of the GAO."

Aftergood makes a fair point about the White House's behavior, but the White House should stop this fight against good government. There are perils to allowing an agency to be immune from rigorous oversight — small problems can easily fester into bigger ones. In this case, the Obama Administration has more to lose than to gain in resisting this provision in the bill. 

UPDATE: The head of GAO has just crafted a very strong response to the White House claims that the congressional reforms described above would result in "sweeping changes" in the GAO's authorities.


Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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