Holding the Government Accountable

The Director of National Intelligence is "beyond the GAO's purview"

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report (pdf) on information sharing and "sensitive but unclassified" information categories, which POGO reported on yesterday, contains a letter from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) stating that the ODNI's intelligence activities are "beyond the GAO's purview." The GAO made several recommendations that the ODNI, in conjunction with the Office of Management and Budget, improve information sharing across the government. The ODNI refused to comment on GAO's recommendations, because it claims it is above the GAO's authority.

The ODNI was created by the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 to coordinate activities across the intelligence community and is headed by John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).

The GAO, Congress' investigative arm and a crucial tool in maintaining checks and balances between the legislative and executive, has had similar problems with the Central Intelligence Agency. In 2001, the GAO issued a report (pdf) detailing its problems with accessing CIA information. While acknowledging the need to protect intelligence sources and methods, the GAO argued that it still had "broad authority" to review and oversee the CIA.

Similarly, the GAO argues the same point in its report released yesterday. According to the GAO:

ODNI then made a general reference to the DOJ having "previously advised" GAO that "the review of intelligence activities is beyond the GAO's purview. In DOJ's comments on a 2003 GAO report [pdf] on information sharing, DOJ similarly said "the review of intelligence activities is an arena beyond GAO's purview." However, there was no legal analysis attached to either of these statements.

...we do not agree with DOJ's view that the intelligence oversight framework precludes GAO reviews in the intelligence arena. Neither section 413 nor its legislative history states that the procedures established therein constitute the exclusive mechanism for congressional oversight of intelligence activities, to the exclusion of other relevant committees or GAO. GAO has broad statutory authority to evaluate agency programs and investigate matters related to the receipt, disbursement, and use of public money. GAO also has broad authority to inspect and obtain agency information and records, subject to a few limited exceptions.

In any event, we do not agree with ODNI's characterization that our review involved "intelligence activities." Our review did not involve evaluation of the conduct of actual intelligence activities. Rather, our review addresses the procedures in place to facilitate the sharing of a broad range of information across all levels of government. In our view ODNI's concept of "intelligence activities" is overly broad and would extend to governmentwide information-sharing efforts clearly outside the traditional intelligence arena—including, for example, procedures for sharing sensitive but unclassified information unrelated to homeland security. The use of such a sweeping definition to limit GAO's work would seriously impair Congress's oversight of executive branch information-sharing activities.

POGO applauds the GAO for sticking to its guns in a time when congressional oversight is at a low, especially when national security is invoked.

The 2003 Justice Department letter lays the basis for the ODNI's statement.