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GAO access to intel in dispute

There's a showdown expected this fall between the White House and Congress as to just how much access the Government Accountability Office will receive to do oversight investigations of the country's most secretive intelligence agencies.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is on the record saying she supports giving GAO, an independently created arm of Congress, more access to investigate the agencies. A measure to do that in the Senate intelligence committee didn't make it through. And then there's the White House. It has threatened to veto a bill that would give GAO more power.

Steven Aftergood, a secrecy specialist at the Federation of American Scientists - an independent policy research group that favors greater openness in national security policy - helps us muddle through the debate in a question and answer chat.

Does GAO, by law, have the power to do oversight of intelligence agencies?

Yes, historically, GAO has had some access to review the work of intelligence agencies. But more recently Congress hasn't attempted to make use of GAO. They haven't said, 'We want you, GAO, to go over to NSA [the National Security Agency] and investigate and audit them.'

Why hasn't Congress asked for such a review?

Some Congressional leaders and intelligence agencies don't think GAO should have such oversight. ...My best understanding is that the committees are very cautious and territorial about their relationship with intel agencies. They believe there are established channels for communication that they think might be upset if a third party got involved.

Why is it important for the GAO to have oversight of the intelligence agencies and their work?

Intelligence may need GAO attention even more than other parts of government do. The reason is that in other agencies the oversight burden is shared by the press, by watchdogs, and various advocacy organizations. But none - or little of that exists - when it comes to intelligence.


Because almost everything the intelligence agencies do is classified. It is hard to report on it. It's hard to watchdog it and to oversee it. GAO could help fill that vacuum.

A tremendous amount of money is spent on intelligence work every year. The intel budget has more than doubled since 9/11, but the oversight capacity has remained more or less the same. This is virgin territory in many respects for oversight. Oversight hasn't kept pace with the growth in the intel community. It's a tremendous omission. In fact, GAO's role has been shrinking. Things that auditors used to have access to have suddenly become off limits.

Has any intelligence agency recently denied GAO access to its records?

Yes, the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigations], ODNI [the Office of the Director of National Intelligence] and DHS [Department of Homeland Security].

How would you characterize their reasoning?

They say the GAO doesn't have the authority to review their work because of a 1988 opinion involving U.S. policy towards [former] Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega.

Sounds interesting. What was that case about?

The GAO was investigating the U.S intelligence community's relationship with Noriega and the National Security Council didn't want to provide them access to its internal records.

What happened?

The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel gave an opinion, saying that the GAO wasn't entitled to the records it wanted on Panama and Noriega. In fact, it said Congressional intelligence committees are the only part of Congress that could conduct intelligence oversight, based on the Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980.

Do you think that 1988 ruling is a strong argument?

No, it is irrelevant and the GAO's said that. It's been used as a pretext to curtail GAO oversight.

The White House has said it would veto a bill that allows GAO oversight into intelligence agencies and the Senate stripped it out of its version of the authorization bill.

How's this going to play out? Who's going to win?

The House Speaker seems to want to give GAO oversight, but it is unclear how much she's going to push for it. The Senate already yielded to the veto threat. Watching the Speaker will be interesting because she is the former chairwoman of the House intelligence committee. She has an understanding of what's at stake. So the question is - Is a compromise possible or not?

Is there any prospect of change under the new Director of National Intelligence - James R. Clapper Jr.?

There may be. He spoke very favorably of the GAO during his confirmation. He observed that the GAO had been helpful in its review of certain defense intelligence programs and that may open the door to a greater role for GAO in the future.

By Dana Hedgpeth  |  September 1, 2010; 8:03 AM ET
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This is why we have separate branches of Federal government. The Legislative branch is split on whether the GAO should have more oversight and the Executive branch thinks it should not. The Judicial branch ruled in 1988 (as you mention) that denying said oversight is not a violation of the constitution (it isn't the GAO's job to determine the relevancy of that case). And so the right outcome has been achieved. Someone should have paid more attention in 4th grade Social Studies class.

I understand the desire to know every little thing that is going on in the Federal government down to the penny - believe me I do. But some things need to stay quiet in the interest of national security. The GAO is not set up to ensure the proper security of the data they want to oversee. That's all there is too it.

Posted by: jesusHhong | September 2, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

All I see is Pelosi, Reed et al. are going to use this GAO access to further attack our intelligence community operations.

the Intelligence community has obvious problems, but the congress, along with AG Eric Holder don't inspire confidence. I'd rather take my chances and leave the intelligence community to heal itself.

Posted by: masssgt | September 3, 2010 4:49 AM | Report abuse

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