GAO Seeks Greater Role in Oversight of Intelligence

Congressional oversight of intelligence should be augmented by the assistance of specially-cleared investigative teams from the Government Accountability Office, say some congressional leaders, and GAO officials appear eager to assume the task.

“The need for more effective oversight and accountability of our intelligence community has never been greater,” said Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) earlier this year. “Yet the ability of Congress to ensure that the intelligence community has sufficient resources and capability of performing its mission has never been more in question.”

Sen. Akaka introduced pending legislation (S. 82) that would reaffirm the ability of the GAO to conduct audits and investigations of U.S. intelligence agencies at the request of a congressional committee. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House (H.R. 978). Proponents say the legislation could receive favorable consideration next year. (The 2008 intelligence authorization bill, passed in the Senate today, does not address the matter.)

“I believe that there are many areas in which GAO can support the intelligence committees in their oversight roles,” said David M. Walker, Comptroller General of the United States and head of the GAO. Among the areas he identified are intelligence acquisition and contract management, human capital management, information technology architectures and systems, and business transformation efforts.

“We have significant knowledge and experience that can be of benefit to the Intelligence Community in connection with a broad range of transformation issues,” he stated.

Mr. Walker expressed his support for the Akaka bill and for an enhanced GAO role in intelligence oversight in a previously unpublished March 1, 2007 letter (pdf) to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But the idea of greater GAO involvement in intelligence oversight was sharply discouraged by Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell, who argued that the GAO could damage delicate relations between the intelligence agencies and the oversight committees.

“If not moderated, self-initiated action by the GAO or action on behalf of non-oversight Committees could undermine the ability of Intelligence Committee leadership to direct or stay abreast of oversight activities, and could risk upsetting the historic balance struck between the two branches of government in national security matters,” DNI McConnell wrote in a March 7 letter (pdf) to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The DNI’s concerns are groundless or else could be remedied by simple modifications to the Akaka bill, responded Mr. Walker (pdf) on March 16.

The GAO/DNI correspondence was entered into the record of a March 21, 2007 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee which is soon to be published. Copies were obtained in advance by Secrecy News.

The history of GAO attempts to engage in intelligence oversight dating back to the 1950s was examined in depth by Frederick M. Kaiser in “GAO Versus the CIA: Uphill Battles Against an Overpowering Force,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 15:330-389, 2002.

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