The Obama White House has threatened to veto a pending intelligence bill if it includes a provision that would authorize the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to perform audits of intelligence programs at the request of Congress. But a Department of Defense Directive issued last week explicitly allows for GAO access to highly classified special access programs, including intelligence programs, under certain conditions.
The newly revised DoD Directive 5205.07 (pdf) on special access programs (SAPs) states that: “General [sic] Accountability Office (GAO) personnel shall be granted SAP access if: a. The Director, DoD SAPCO [SAP Central Office], concurs after consultation with the chair and ranking minority member of a defense or intelligence committee [and] b. The GAO nominee has the appropriate security clearance level.”
In other words, the Pentagon’s new directive permits what the Obama Administration is stubbornly striving to prevent, namely a role for the GAO in intelligence oversight.
DoD special access programs are the most tightly secured of all the Pentagon’s classified programs. They include activities within three classified domains: intelligence, acquisition, and operations.
The previous version of the same DoD Directive (pdf) on special access programs, which was issued in 2006 and revised in 2008, made no mention of the GAO. However, a 2009 DoD Instruction (pdf) stated that classified DoD information on intelligence and counterintelligence “may be furnished to GAO representatives having a legitimate need to know.” (“DoD Should Not ‘Categorically” Deny GAO Access to Intelligence,” Secrecy News, February 4, 2009.)
As an historical matter, GAO has long had access to classified DoD programs of the highest sensitivity, and has produced numerous reports on special access programs, including many in unclassified form. But the CIA and other non-DoD intelligence agencies have resisted GAO oversight.
“In practice, defense [intelligence] agencies do not adopt the ‘hard line’ CIA approach but generally seek to cooperate with GAO representatives,” the late Stanley Moskowitz of the CIA wrote in a 1994 memorandum for the Director of Central Intelligence.
Most recently, the Senate Intelligence Committee reportedly said it would yield to the White House and would renounce any right to use the GAO in its oversight activities. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected that concession, and she has been insisting that a role for GAO in intelligence oversight must be recognized by the Administration. To a significant extent, considering the dominance of defense intelligence agencies within the intelligence community, one could say that it now has been so recognized. Only the details remain to be negotiated.