DNI Drags Heels on GAO Access to Intelligence

03.30.11 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Director of National Intelligence has prepared a draft intelligence directive on access by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to intelligence information, but it is “shockingly bad,” a congressional official said.

The GAO is an investigative arm of Congress that performs audits and reviews in support of congressional oversight and the legislative process.  But GAO access to intelligence information has often been frustrated by resistance from the executive branch, which has sought to strictly limit the conduct of intelligence oversight to the congressional intelligence committees.

In an attempt to clarify the role of the GAO in intelligence oversight, the 2010 intelligence authorization act directed the DNI to prepare a new intelligence community directive to govern GAO access to intelligence information.  The first draft of the new directive is said to reserve maximum discretion to the DNI, and to offer little practical assurance that GAO will get access to the information it needs.

So, for example, the definition of intelligence information that may be withheld from GAO extends broadly to law enforcement, military and intelligence information related to national security.  GAO access is to be denied whenever it concerns information regarding “intelligence budgets or funding, or personnel information that… may reveal intelligence strategy, capabilities, or operations.”

“In other words, GAO cannot look at anything that involves money or people,” the congressional official told Secrecy News.  “Combine that with the sweeping, open-ended definition of intelligence and large chunks of the federal government suddenly vanish from [GAO] oversight– DOD, FBI, DHS, State Department, etc.”

In fact, because the pending Directive would extend to the entire intelligence community, it could actually make things worse than they already are by undermining current GAO oversight of military intelligence agencies, which by all accounts has been fruitful and effective.

Intelligence officials appeared to be taken aback by the criticism of the draft directive, which has not yet been released.  They said the draft is still in preparation and that it is not intended to undermine GAO’s oversight function.

But the Obama Administration has strongly opposed an enhanced role for GAO oversight of intelligence.  The Obama White House even threatened to veto the 2010 intelligence authorization act over the issue.

Meanwhile, intelligence agencies are operating in an oversight vacuum without effective supervision of their spending practices.  Most of the agencies cannot and do not produce auditable financial statements, the Senate Intelligence Committee reported this month.

“The CIA has submitted its financial reports to an independent auditor but has received a disclaimer of opinion due to the inability of the auditor to gather certain relevant facts.  The NSA, DIA, and NGA are still not even prepared to submit their financial reports to independent audit,” the Senate Committee report (pdf) said.

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