GAO Seeks Review of Spy Agencies

Comptroller General David M. Walker, who leaves office Wednesday, testifies on Capitol Hill.
Comptroller General David M. Walker, who leaves office Wednesday, testifies on Capitol Hill. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008

As he leaves his post as the nation's top auditor, David M. Walker is again asking Congress to give the Government Accountability Office the power to review the finances of the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

Walker, whose 10-year term as comptroller general concludes Wednesday, is supporting legislation that would give the GAO access to the last major area of the federal government not subject to its audits and investigations.

With some support on Capitol Hill, Walker said he is fighting powerful legislative patrons of intelligence agencies, especially the CIA, who have resisted examinations of how taxpayer dollars are spent.

"Everybody's for accountability in Washington until they're the ones subjected to it," Walker said in an interview. "There are a lot of forces that are vested in the status quo."

The GAO, Congress's investigative arm, has the power to review the finances and management of most government agencies. But the Justice Department issued a ruling in the early 1990s that restricted oversight of the CIA to House and Senate select committees on intelligence.

That authority has been a sensitive topic since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when information sharing between the CIA and law enforcement agencies that might have revealed the plot was bungled. More recently, the corruption scandal involving former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), who used his influence to steer intelligence contracts in return for bribes, has added to calls for more oversight.

Prompted by recommendations from the 9/11 Commission, the House and Senate in 2004 reorganized the way their committees oversee intelligence and homeland security issues. But the lawmakers have never pushed to allow the GAO to examine CIA spending. They have questioned whether the GAO is too closely aligned with the congressional majority and whether its investigators have the proper clearances to handle classified intelligence matters.

"You can't just sort of wander in and do this stuff like you're investigating FAA weather stations," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. Rockefeller called GAO investigations of the intelligence world a "rather bad idea" and suggested his committee should have more oversight authority, including the power to appropriate funds to intelligence agencies.

"The GAO does precisely what the majority [in Congress] asks them to do. It follows what the majority asks," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who chaired the intelligence committee before Rockefeller. "I don't want any further politicization of intelligence."

Walker, however, said he is not asking to look into the "sources and methods" used by spy agencies. Instead, he wants the GAO to look into "basic management transformation challenges" such as how the CIA recruits and retains top talent and, more important, how the agency has allocated its multibillion-dollar budget.

The GAO is already empowered to examine the finances of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and it has highlighted many examples of waste, fraud and abuse. Walker said. "I have little doubt that those challenges exist within the intelligence community," he said.

The CIA disagrees. Mark Mansfield, a spokesman for the agency, said that in 2007, CIA officers testified at more than 60 hearings on Capitol Hill, gave more than 500 briefings, delivered 100 "congressional notifications about our most sensitive programs" and answered more than 1,200 on-the-record questions posed by members of Congress.

"That's hardly a culture of rejecting oversight. It's a recognition of the importance of it," Mansfield said. He said CIA critics have no basis for alleging that the agency is littered with waste.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), sponsor of the bill that would give the GAO access to the intelligence community, said there is no way to know about problems unless the GAO can wade into CIA finances and management strategies. But in a brief interview, Akaka said he doubts the bill can clear the chamber given the bipartisan questioning it faces.

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