GAO Role in Intel Oversight to be Determined

The recently enacted 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act requires the Director of National Intelligence to prepare a directive concerning access by the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO) to intelligence information.  The forthcoming directive, the content of which was not clearly specified by Congress, could enable GAO investigators to play a more significant role in intelligence oversight, or it could effectively shut the door on them.

According to a newly disclosed May 27, 2010 letter (pdf) from then-National Security Advisor James L. Jones to Rep. Anna Eshoo, the GAO should be excluded from nearly every aspect of intelligence oversight that involves… intelligence.

While GAO is nominally free to address “a broad range of issues and topics” that concern the intelligence community, Gen. Jones wrote, “There are four areas where we look to the intelligence committees to exercise exclusive jurisdiction: (1) the evaluation, review, and audit of intelligence activities, capabilities, programs, and operations; (2) activities involving intelligence sources; (3) activities involving intelligence methods; and (4) the analysis of intelligence funding.”

So except for intelligence activities, capabilities, programs, operations, sources, methods and funding — everything else is eligible for GAO oversight.

The exclusions advanced by Gen. Jones “essentially cut GAO out of the game,” a congressional staffer told Secrecy News.  “And believe me, DOJ, FBI and DHS have been using this position as a rationale for denying GAO information. This does not give me much hope as we start ramping up to work with ODNI on the access protocols they are required to write.”

However, DNI James R. Clapper expressed a considerably narrower view of what should be off-limits to GAO in public remarks (pdf) earlier this month:  “I am more concerned or sensitive about GAO getting into what I would consider sort of the core essence of intelligence – that is, evaluating sources and methods, critiquing national intelligence estimates, doing this sort of thing, which I think strikes at the very essence of what the intelligence committees were established to do.”

Even so, he suggested that individual GAO staff members could also pursue such highly sensitive matters if this was formally done under direction of the intelligence committees:

“Now, [if] they want to have the GAO assist, detail GAO staff to – if they have the subject matter experts – to the committees. I think that’s fine as long as it’s done under the auspices of the committees when you’re getting at the core essence of what intelligence is and does,” Gen. Clapper said.

This view seems to allow much greater space for compromise, especially since there is much that GAO could do in terms of intelligence program audits and reviews that would not involve “evaluating sources” or otherwise impinge on “the core essence of intelligence.”  The new DNI directive is to be coordinated with the GAO and submitted to Congress by May 1, 2011.