Clapper Embraces GAO Intel Oversight, SSCI Doesn’t

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, won plaudits for its contributions to intelligence oversight from Gen. James R. Clapper at his July 20 confirmation hearing to be the next Director of National Intelligence.  But in the latest version of the intelligence authorization bill, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence yielded to White House opposition and abandoned a provision that would have enhanced GAO’s role in intelligence oversight.

“The GAO has produced very useful studies,” Gen. Clapper said. “I would cite as a specific recent case in point the ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] road map that we’re required to maintain and the GAO has critiqued us on that.”

“I’ve been very deeply involved in personnel security clearance reform,” he said. “The GAO has held our feet to the fire on ensuring compliance with IRTPA [intelligence reform legislation] guidelines on timeliness of clearances and of late has also insisted on the quality metrics for ensuring appropriate clearances.”

“So I think the GAO serves a useful purpose for us,” Gen. Clapper told Sen. Feingold.

But under pressure from the Obama White House, the Senate Committee stripped out a provision that would have ensured authorized GAO access to the intelligence community.

Paradoxically, executive branch opposition to GAO involvement in intelligence oversight may be a positive sign.  It implies that GAO oversight would represent a meaningful change in the status quo and that it could usefully destabilize entrenched bad habits.

On the other hand, congressional reluctance to embrace GAO oversight is somewhat scandalous.  If there is a single policy issued raised by the Washington Post’s sprawling account of the sprawling intelligence industrial complex this week, it is the questionable adequacy of intelligence oversight.

Simply put, the size of the intelligence bureaucracy has more than doubled since 2001, but intelligence oversight capacity has not increased accordingly.  A focused use of GAO assets offers one immediate way to correct that oversight deficit.

But in its new report (pdf) on the intelligence authorization act, the Senate Intelligence Committee said further study was needed before it could endorse GAO oversight.

“The Committee believes it is important to explore further the scope of current GAO arrangements with the Intelligence Community, the history of GAO’s work on classified matters outside of the Intelligence Community, existing GAO procedures for working with classified information, and the extent to which future GAO investigations and audits of the Intelligence Community can be conducted by mutual agreement,” the Committee said (at p. 71).

But the case in favor of GAO oversight is already quite strong and clear.  General Clapper’s personal testimony aside, there is a solid record on the subject thanks especially to Senator Daniel Akaka, who held a hearing on it in 2008.  And a new DoD Directive specifies a role for GAO in oversight of DoD intelligence programs.

Legislation endorsing GAO oversight of intelligence sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo and colleagues remains pending in the House, and is strongly supported by Speaker Pelosi.  I discussed the subject in a July 12 interview with Federal News Radio.

The new Senate markup of the intelligence authorization bill has some features that would improve accountability, said Sen. Feingold in a statement appended to the Committee report, but it “removes many other important provisions … that were aimed at improving oversight and transparency, as well as accountability.”

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