One of the simplest and most effective ways to strengthen congressional oversight of intelligence agencies would be to task cleared staffers from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which is the investigative arm of Congress, to undertake specific audits or investigations of intelligence programs. Perhaps the clearest indication of the power of this approach is the fact that the intelligence agencies hate the idea and the White House has threatened a veto if it is adopted by congress.
Senate intelligence committee leaders have already yielded to executive branch opposition on this point, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is insisting that the GAO has a role to play in intelligence oversight, and she says she is trying to ensure that Congress does not willingly surrender one of its most sophisticated oversight tools. See “Pelosi Faces Off with Obama on CIA Oversight” by Massimo Calabresi, Time, June 25 and “Acting Spy Chief Plans Departure” by Siobhan Gorman, Wall Street Journal, June 25.
An unreleased opinion from the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel reportedly holds that intelligence programs are outside the purview of the Government Accountability Office and that intelligence agencies should therefore not cooperate with the GAO.
Although the GAO previously reviewed FBI counterterrorism programs prior to the 2004 intelligence reform legislation, “GAO has been essentially blocked from conducting its current work,” complained Sen. Charles Grassley (R-ID). “The DoJ Office of Legal Counsel is arguing that GAO does not have the authority to evaluate the majority of FBI counterterrorism positions, as these positions are scored through the National Intelligence Program (NIP) Budget.”
The FBI confirmed that the GAO’s access to some previously auditable programs has been denied. “With the post-2004 inclusion of FBI counterterrorism positions in the Intelligence Community, aspects of the review GAO proposed in 2009 would have constituted intelligence oversight,” the FBI told Sen. Grassley (at pdf pp. 67-68). “It is the longstanding position of the Intelligence Community to decline to participate in GAO reviews that evaluate intelligence activities, programs, capabilities, and operational functions.”