Admin Threatens Veto Over GAO Role in Intel Oversight

03.17.10 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

One of the simplest, most effective ways to strengthen congressional oversight of intelligence would be for Congress to make increased use of specially cleared investigators from the Government Accountability Office.  This is such a straightforward step towards improving oversight that it was even championed by CIA Director Leon Panetta when he was a Congressman.

But the Obama Administration told Congress on Monday that new language to reinforce the GAO’s role in intelligence oversight was among several provisions in the pending FY2010 Intelligence Authorization Act that were objectionable to the White House and that might prompt a presidential veto of the bill.

“Three categories of provisions are so serious that the President’s senior advisers would recommend that the veto the bill if they are included in a bill presented for his signature,” wrote Peter Orszag of the White House Office of Management and Budget in a March 15 letter (pdf).  He cited a requirement to increase congressional notification of covert actions beyond the “Gang of 8”; the proposed GAO language; and a proposed reduction in the budget authorization for the Office of the DNI.  The letter also expressed lesser opposition to numerous other provisions.

The dispute over an increased role for GAO in intelligence oversight is particularly illustrative of the disparate and conflicting interests of the legislative and executive branches.  Should Congress use all the tools at its disposal to improve its oversight of intelligence?  Or is the status quo good enough?  The White House letter implied that the current arrangement is already optimal and that any revision would be destabilizing.

“By allowing GAO to conduct intelligence oversight, these provisions would fundamentally change the statutory framework for oversight of the IC [intelligence community] through the intelligence oversight committees and alter the long-standing relationship and information flow between the IC and intelligence committee members and staff,” Mr. Orszag wrote.

If one believed that the long-standing relationship between the IC and the intelligence committee members and staff was altogether satisfactory, this might be a compelling argument.  But if one concluded that the existing structure has been woefully inadequate, then other options would merit consideration.

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and others have repeatedly argued that the GAO could usefully supplement the intelligence oversight process without detracting anything.  “It is Congress’s responsibility to ensure that the IC carries out its critical functions effectively and consistent with congressional authorization. For too long, GAO’s expertise and ability to engage in constructive oversight of the IC have been underutilized,” Sen. Akaka said last year.

In 2008, Sen. Akaka chaired a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing (at which I testified [pdf]) on the feasibility and utility of GAO intelligence oversight.  “Congress must redouble its efforts–that is what we are trying to do–to ensure that U.S. intelligence activities are conducted efficiently, effectively, and with due respect for the civil rights and civil liberties of Americans, and I will work to see that it does,” Sen. Akaka said then.

Amazingly, an earlier version of the proposal for an expanded GAO role in intelligence oversight was introduced in 1987 by then-Rep. Leon Panetta, who is now the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

According to Rep. Panetta’s proposed “CIA Accountability Act of 1987” (pdf) (H.R. 3603 in the 100th Congress), “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Comptroller General [who directs the GAO] shall audit the financial transactions and shall evaluate the programs and activities of the Central Intelligence Agency” either at his own initiative or at the request of the congressional intelligence committees.

Today, DCIA Panetta is presumably among those senior advisers who would advise a veto of the proposal he once advocated.

At the January 22, 2009 confirmation hearing (pdf) of Adm. Dennis C. Blair to be Director of National Intelligence, Adm. Blair also acknowledged a role for GAO in intelligence oversight.

Sen. Ron Wyden asked him: “If the GAO is conducting a study at the direction of one of the intelligence committees using properly cleared staff, will you give them the access they need to do their work?”

Adm. Blair replied: “Senator, I’m aware that the direction of GAO studies and the terms of them are generally subject to talk between the two branches of government for a variety of reasons, and subject to having those discussions, ultimately I believe the GAO has a job to do and I will help them do that job.”

But the Obama Administration now says it will not help the GAO do their job if that means an enhancement of their legal authority to do it.

Arguably, the Administration is acting rationally in attempting to minimize independent oversight of its intelligence activities.  Who would voluntarily seek out an independent auditor to look over his shoulder?  But that leaves it up to Congress to pursue its own institutional self-interest with equal or greater determination, and to take maximum advantage of the intelligence oversight tools that it has available, including appropriate use of the GAO.

“We’ve already agreed to drop a significant number of the provisions identified as concerns [in the Orszag letter],” a congressional official told Secrecy News.  He declined to say whether the GAO oversight language was among the now-abandoned provisions.