Secrecy News

GAO Completes an “Intelligence-Related” Review

Following years of controversy, the Government Accountability Office this week released an unclassified version of its long-awaited report on FBI Counterterrorism.

The report itself comes as an anti-climax, but it is the first GAO report involving intelligence-related matters to be completed since the issuance of an intelligence community directive last summer which authorized GAO to gain access to certain intelligence agency information.  As such, it may herald a growing role for GAO in intelligence oversight.

Given the FBI’s and the Justice Department’s stubborn resistance to this GAO review, which was suspended for two years as a result, one might have expected the resulting report to address matters of the greatest significance and sensitivity — perhaps dealing with infiltration of mosques, allegations of entrapment, unauthorized domestic surveillance, or something along those lines.

Instead, however, the new report is about as mundane as it could be.  It examines the FBI’s progress in filling vacancies in its counterterrorism division — which is part of the intelligence community — and concludes that the Bureau has indeed made reasonable progress in doing so.  Fine.  (The classified version of the report contains specific personnel numbers which have been withheld in the unclassified version because the FBI considered them sensitive.)  See FBI Counterterrorism: Vacancies Have Declined, but FBI Has Not Assessed the Long-Term Sustainability of Its Strategy for Addressing Vacancies, Report No. GAO-12-533, April 2012.

Even within the narrow context of human capital, the GAO report does not inquire whether the FBI’s mission performance has been adversely affected by the number of vacancies in its ranks, or whether in fact those vacant positions might be superfluous.

That might be an interesting line of inquiry, but GAO can only pursue the questions that Congress asks it to pursue, said David C. Maurer of GAO, and Congress didn’t ask that question.

While the substance of the new GAO report is of ephemeral interest, the report may nevertheless have long-term significance as a catalyst for, and a portent of, greater GAO involvement in intelligence oversight.  If nothing else, the multi-year controversy over this report prompted the issuance last year of Intelligence Community Directive 114 that made its completion possible.

“I hope it’s an indication that the door is open to a continuing role for GAO on intelligence matters,” said Mr. Maurer said of the new report, while acknowledging that it is still only “a data point of one.”