Senate Bill Revisits GAO Oversight of Intelligence

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and several Senate colleagues last week reintroduced the “Intelligence Community Audit Act” that would strengthen the authority of the Government Accountability Office to oversee intelligence agency programs and activities.

“GAO has well-established expertise that should be leveraged to improve the performance of the Intelligence Community,” Sen. Akaka said. “In particular, GAO could provide much needed guidance to the IC related to human capital, financial management, information sharing, strategic planning, information technology, and other areas of management and administration.”

“By employing GAO’s expertise to improve IC management and operations while carefully protecting sensitive information, this bill would reinforce the Intelligence Community’s ability to meet its mission,” he said.

Until recently, intelligence agencies have been unenthusiastic or openly hostile to GAO involvement in intelligence oversight.  Last year, when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on the Akaka bill, not a single representative of the intelligence community agreed to testify.

But last month, the Department of Defense cautiously acknowledged that GAO auditors may be granted access to classified foreign intelligence under some circumstances (“DoD Should Not ‘Categorically’ Deny GAO Access to Intelligence,” Secrecy News, February 4).

And at the January 22, 2009 confirmation hearing of Adm. Dennis C. Blair to be Director of National Intelligence, Adm. Blair also seemed to endorse a role for GAO in intelligence oversight.

Sen. Ron Wyden asked him: “If the GAO is conducting a study at the direction of one of the intelligence committees using properly cleared staff, will you give them the access they need to do their work?”

Adm. Blair replied: “Senator, I’m aware that the direction of GAO studies and the terms of them are generally subject to talk between the two branches of government for a variety of reasons, and subject to having those discussions, ultimately I believe the GAO has a job to do and I will help them do that job.”

The congressional intelligence committees themselves have been reluctant to take advantage of the GAO for intelligence oversight, and it is not a coincidence that Sen. Akaka, the leading Senate proponent of the idea, is not a member of the Senate intelligence committee.  But in another sign of shifting perspectives, Rep. Sylvestre Reyes and Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of the House Intelligence Committee last year asked the GAO to perform its first assessment of the intelligence community security clearance process.  It was the first request to the GAO on any topic from either of the congressional intelligence committees in six years.  (“A New Intelligence Oversight Task for GAO,” Secrecy News, April 1, 2008.)

In an almost forgotten episode from 1982, a former GAO auditor alleged that Soviet spies had infiltrated the GAO.  The Senate Intelligence Committee conducted an investigation and then-Committee chairman Sen. Barry Goldwater reported to the Senate that the allegation was not substantiated.  There is no known instance in which classified information was leaked or compromised by GAO employees.