GAO head stymied in quest to audit anti-terror efforts

Comptroller general says Congress, spy agencies balk at oversight

February 04, 2006|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The head of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said yesterday that he has been frustrated in his efforts to persuade Congress and the intelligence agencies to allow his agency to monitor the effectiveness of the nation's intelligence agencies as they pursue new programs to track terrorism.

Comptroller General David M. Walker said in an interview that over the past 10 years the GAO has been asked only a few times to produce reports on intelligence programs, even though his staff has the expertise, authority and security clearances to do so for most programs.

With the intelligence failures of the past four years, new post-Sept. 11 intelligence policies and the debate over the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping program, "it's clear that additional oversight is necessary," Walker said. "We stand ready to assist Congress if they so desire, but as of yet, the requests have not been forthcoming."

Because the GAO acts on orders from Congress, it has largely been sidelined in evaluating post-Sept. 11 policies and the activities of agencies such as the NSA.

With multiple reform and modernization efforts under way in and among the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies - all of which have seen unprecedented budget increases - Walker said the GAO is uniquely positioned to advise them on strategic planning, financial planning, new technology programs and recruiting and retaining employees.

"GAO has extensive experience in those areas that is, frankly, unparalleled in government or in the private sector," he said.

Walker said that "a perfect example" is the NSA's Trailblazer program, a technology modernization program that is still not up and running after six years and $1.2 billion. The Sun reported this week that the program is failing largely because of poor management, internal turf battles and the agency's inability to navigate the government's complex acquisition rules.

"We have extensive experience in these types of issues," Walker said.

He pointed to the GAO's audits of computer modernization projects at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service. The problems that beset the FBI's failed $170 million Virtual Case File program are similar to those troubling Trailblazer, former intelligence officials have said.

There are limitations on the programs the GAO may audit. For example, certain highly classified programs are off limits. But Walker said his agency is authorized to examine the majority of new programs and reform efforts under way in the intelligence agencies, though some intelligence officials "have asserted we have broader restrictions."

With 3,200 employees, about 150 dedicated to auditing information technology projects, the GAO's primary role - as its name suggests - is to hold agencies accountable for the taxpayer dollars they receive.

But the agency has not audited the Central Intelligence Agency, for example, since the early 1960s. A GAO spokesman said its relationship with the other intelligence agencies has been similar, though the GAO has examined projects that could have intelligence applications, such as satellite programs.

"We've faced significant resistance from the intelligence community," Walker said. "Many people in that community view oversight as not something that is desired or welcomed."

He said he understood the agencies' desire to limit the number of people with classified information, but he added that the GAO has "done work on a routine basis in other areas of the government" without any problem with leaks or mishandling information.

Walker said he has met multiple times with members of the House and Senate intelligence committees in a futile effort to persuade them to request GAO investigations.

Sarah Ross Little, a spokeswoman for Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, said the panel "has its own audit staff and really has no need for GAO involvement."

Jamal Ware, a spokesman for Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said that Hoekstra "is more than certain that the members and the staff of the committee are capable of providing vigorous overnight, not to mention that there is already a full time oversight subcommittee."

Ware said the committee has a staff of 39, with eight staffers dedicated to the oversight committee, formed last year.

siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

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