The Government Accountability Office seems poised to play an increased role in intelligence oversight, despite a series of legislative setbacks and the Obama Administration’s threat of a veto earlier in the year.
The issue remains alive in the FY2010 Intelligence Authorization Act which was approved in the Senate on September 27 and which now appears likely to be enacted into law. The Act (in section 348) requires the Director of National Intelligence to prepare a directive on GAO access to intelligence community information — thereby setting the stage for a stable new role for the GAO in intelligence agency audits and reviews.
In a letter to Congress (reprinted in the record of the floor debate) withdrawing the threat of a veto, ODNI General Counsel Robert S. Litt stressed that the new directive would not imply any change in existing law or GAO authority. He added that the new directive would also conform with “relevant opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel.” However, the only OLC opinion on the subject is from 1988, and it argued that GAO access to intelligence information is “precluded” by law. It hardly seems likely that the new directive would affirm that view.
Instead, the required directive should be seen as analogous to the recently updated Pentagon directive that permitted GAO access to highly classified special access programs, suggested Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Senate Intelligence Committee chair.
“The GAO has produced very useful studies” on defense intelligence matters, said Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., at his July 20 confirmation hearing. “I think the GAO serves a useful purpose for us.”