GAO Expands Oversight of Intelligence

03.19.12 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Government Accountability Office has overcome longstanding opposition to its role in intelligence oversight, and has been conducting several projects involving oversight of intelligence agencies.  A classified GAO review of FBI counterterrorism programs has been completed, and a GAO investigation of the role of contractors in intelligence is in progress.

Last year, acting at congressional direction, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued an Intelligence Community Directive that authorized and required U.S. intelligence agencies to cooperate with GAO investigators, with certain restrictions.  (“Intelligence Agencies Are Told to Cooperate with GAO,” Secrecy News, May 16, 2011).

That DNI directive appears to have broken the logjam of agency resistance, and at least some parts of the intelligence community that previously rebuffed GAO inquiries have become completely cooperative, congressional officials said.

Thus, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had refused for years to submit to GAO oversight of its counterterrorism programs.  The Bureau contended that GAO had no authority to review the programs because they were funded through the intelligence budget.  Moreover, the FBI told Sen. Charles Grassley that the Office of Legal Counsel had ratified that position and supported its refusal to cooperate with GAO.

But that is now in the past.  The GAO recently completed a classified assessment of FBI counterterrorism programs with full cooperation from the FBI.  A public version of the report is expected to be released sometime in the spring.

Another current GAO project explores “Civilian Agencies’ Reliance on Contractors.”  An unclassified statement of work for the project that was obtained by Secrecy News explains:

“When intelligence agencies rely on contractors for professional and management support services that inform government decisions, the risk of contractors unduly influencing these decisions is increased.  However, the extent to which this risk has been considered and managed is uncertain.”

The GAO project therefore aims to answer the following questions:

“(1) To what extent do civilian intelligence agencies rely on and strategically review their reliance on contractors to perform critical professional and management support services?  (2) To what extent do these agencies have policies and guidance that address the use of contractors for these services?  (3) What steps have these agencies taken to manage the risks associated with using contractors for these services?  (4) To what extent have these agencies addressed challenges with retaining federal personnel?”

GAO’s newly enhanced participation in the oversight process is the outcome of years of advocacy and debate involving a variety of interested parties.  Testimony on the subject from the Federation of American Scientists in 2008 is here.

The arduous process by which an accommodation was finally reached is detailed in a newly updated report from the Congressional Research Service.  See Congressional Oversight of Intelligence: Current Structure and Alternatives, March 14, 2012 (esp. pp. 25-30).

By itself, GAO’s involvement in intelligence oversight is unlikely to resolve many controversies in intelligence policy.  It may not resolve any of them.  But what it can do is to expand the current capacity of intelligence oversight, bringing new resources to bear and increasing the likelihood that intelligence activities are carried out consistent with law and good policy.