Panel witnesses press for GAO audits of intelligence agencies
Government and public policy experts Friday said legislation is badly needed that would affirm the right of GAO to audit programs and financial activities of the U.S. intelligence agencies, especially because their scope and complexity have grown enormously since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Such legislation has been introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who chairs a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on government oversight.
"It is my strong belief that the intelligence community could benefit from the Government Accountability Office's expertise in reviewing organizational transformations and management reforms," Akaka said during a hearing of his subcommittee Friday. "GAO has substantial expertise evaluating virtually all of the bread-and-butter management challenges that the intelligence community is confronting." Experts who testified at the hearing included GAO Director David Walker, National War College professor Marvin Ott and Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. They all said they support Akaka's legislation.
Akaka and Walker said they believe GAO has authority to audit the intelligence agencies. Akaka's bill would essentially allow Congress to clarify that such authority exists. The hearing did not include a witness from the intelligence agencies. Walker said the opposition by intelligence officials to allowing GAO to conduct audits goes back decades. He said he believes GAO could conduct audits of such things as management practices, personnel reforms and financial transactions without needing to review classified sources and methods or covert operations.
Aftergood said intelligence spending has doubled in the last decade, growing from $26.6 billon in fiscal 1997 to more than $50 billion estimated in fiscal 2007, when spending for military intelligence is included. "This is an extraordinary rate of growth," he said in written testimony. "And it has not been matched by a comparable increase in the size of the oversight committee staffs or a corresponding expansion of other oversight mechanisms. In effect, there has been a net decrease in intelligence oversight."
Additionally, Aftergood said, spending on contractors hired by intelligence agencies doubled from 1996 to 2006. Seventy percent of the intelligence community budget is spent on contracts with private companies, said Aftergood, citing statistics from intelligence officials to back up his statements. But one of the biggest obstacles to GAO audits might be the congressional intelligence committees, who are unlikely to cede their oversight responsibilities, Aftergood added. Walker agreed that intelligence committees pose an obstacle. But Walker said the panels do not have the resources or the expertise to conduct management audits. "That gap needs to be filled and it's in the national interest that the gap is filled," Walker said.