Analysis: GAO in tug of war over Intelligence audits

Monday - 7/12/2010, 4:10pm EDT

Steven Aftergood, director, Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists

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The Government Accountability Office is caught in a tug of war over auditing intelligence programs.

The White House is threatening to veto a pending intel bill that includes a provision that gives the GAO the authority to perform audits.

At the same time, the Defense Department has issued a directive explicitly giving the GAO access to highly classified programs.

Steven Aftergood directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

He says the congressional watchdog has been rebuffed by ODNI, the CIA and other agencies, but some in Congress want that to change.

"Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo (R-Ca.) in the House and Senator [Daniel] Akaka (D-Hawaii), in particular, have been trying to change this state of affairs and explicitly authorize GAO to conduct audits if the Intelligence committees request them. The Obama White House has said -- we don't accept that [and] we may veto the bill if it's in there."

Some have said this move is unusual, given the current administration's overall commitment to openness and transparency. Aftergood does note, however, that most don't go out of their way to ask for additional oversight.

"We don't call up the IRS and say -- well, I just filed my tax return, would you like to audit it? So, it's not surprising that there would be resistance from the agencies to more oversight. But, the fact of the matter is that the Intelligence budget has practically doubled in the last ten years, while oversight capacity has hardly grown at all."

In addition to filling what many call an oversight void, he says that the GAO would be helping members of Congress who simply don't have the staff and time to devote to properly monitoring the Intelligence Community (IC).

"If you divided up the Intelligence budget by the number of staffers, you'd come up with about a billion dollars worth of oversight per staff person. That's not a realistic burden to impose on even the most qualified congressional staff person."

The GAO regularly oversees classified Pentagon programs, and Aftergood says there has never been a report of security compromises.

Thus, no one is opposed to this because they worry about the congressional watchdog leaking information; rather, he says, the agencies just don't want more oversight.

In addition, he adds, has to do with the relationships between Congress and the IC.

"They have a very confidential and private relationship with Intelligence Community officials, and there's some concern that if outsiders are brought in . . . that that might somehow destabilize the relationship that the committees have with the Intelligence agencies and the Intelligence officials."

Aftergood says, while he understands why both of these concerns have risen, he also thinks that the legislation is written to make sure these concerns don't become realities.

"GAO would not be able to initiate investigations by itself. It would only be able to act at the initiative of the congressional committees themselves. So, there's no real concern about a lose cannon here, or anything like that. It's just a question of -- should Congress be able to make use of all the oversight tools it has at its disposal or not. I think the answer is clearly, yes, it should, and GAO is one of the best tools it has."

Aftergood adds that, in his opinion, the quality of Intelligence oversight is just as important as the quality of Intelligence itself.

Email the author of this post at dramienski@federalnewsradio.comv