Government Accountability Office Can Provide Oversight of NSA…if Congress would just Ask

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Members of Congress seeking greater oversight of the National Security Agency (NSA) in the wake of last year’s spying revelations have an important—and underused—resource at their disposal: the Government Accountability Office (GAO).


At one time, back in the 1990s, the GAO worked closely with the NSA to perform audits and investigations of the spy agency’s work. But over time lawmakers inexplicably stopped asking GAO auditors to check in on NSA programs, resulting in the congressional watchdog vacating its offices at NSA headquarters.


David M. Walker, one-time head of the GAO, told the Senate back in 2008 that his office still had space at the NSA. But, he added, they ceased using it because they were no longer “getting any requests [from Congress]” to investigate the NSA.


“So I do not want to have people sitting out there twiddling their thumbs,” Walker told Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), who retired in 2013.


That wasn’t the case in the early 1990s, according to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). A 1994 CIA memo dug up by Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News stated that the GAO used to have “nearly continuous contact” with the NSA as a result of audits.


“Today, the justification for restoring the type of on-site, investigative oversight of NSA that GAO could provide may be newly apparent—though no one seems to have noticed that GAO could actually provide it,” Aftergood wrote.


Not taking advantage of the GAO’s expertise and its historical knowledge of the NSA would seem to be a lost opportunity on the part of Congress.


“If it were directed to conduct audits and investigations on behalf of Congress, there is reason to believe the GAO could add a valuable dimension to NSA oversight,” Aftergood wrote.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

GAO Oversight of NSA: A Neglected Option (by Steven Aftergood, Secrecy News)


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