GAO: White House Erred on Intelligence Oversight

The Obama Administration presented “several misstatements of law and fact” in its March 15 letter opposing legislation to enhance the role of the Government Accountability Office in intelligence oversight, the head of the GAO said in a letter to congressional intelligence committees yesterday.

The GAO letter (pdf) said that neither the Senate nor the House version of the FY2010 intelligence authorization act would fundamentally alter the status quo with respect to the GAO, as the White House letter (pdf) had indicated, but would simply bolster the oversight authority that the GAO already has, enabling it to overcome the obstacles placed in its way by the executive branch.

“The proposed legislative provisions in essence reaffirm GAO’s existing authority in order to address the lack of cooperation GAO has received from certain elements of the IC [intelligence community] in carrying out work at the specific request of the intelligence committees, and other committees of jurisdiction as defined by the rules of the Senate and House,” wrote Acting Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro in a March 18 letter obtained by Secrecy News.

“GAO acknowledges and does not seek to displace the special relationship between the congressional intelligence committees and the IC,” he wrote.

“However, GAO does not agree with the Administration’s view, originating in a 1988 opinion of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, that the creation of the congressional intelligence oversight structure implicitly exempted reviews of intelligence activities from the scope of GAO’s existing audit authority.”

The executive branch’s interpretation of the law “has resulted in GAO frequently being unable to obtain the access or cooperation necessary to provide useful information to Congress on matters involving the IC,” Mr. Dodaro wrote.

“Even where the matters under evaluation are well outside the scope of traditional intelligence activities… GAO has encountered resistance.”

“While intelligence oversight poses unique challenges, GAO can play an important role in such oversight, and that role is well within our authority and capability,” he wrote.

GAO has no independent stake in intelligence oversight and has plenty of other work to do anyway.  The question is whether Congress wants to take advantage of the investigative and analytical resources that GAO has to offer in order to improve intelligence oversight.  If it does, then the pending legislation would help to clear away the barriers imposed by the executive branch.

“Should either the Senate or House version of the GAO provision at issue become law,” Mr. Dodaro wrote, “I believe that the reaffirmation of GAO’s authorities would help better position GAO to do the type of work that has been requested of us in the past and to respond to the interests of Congress in this realm in the future.”