The War on Oversight
Government agencies too often attempt to escape oversight, and it’s always a problem. This project collects MuckRock’s efforts to document these instances so we can understand when it’s happening, where, and most importantly how.
For years, accusations of KGB penetration of the Government Accountability Office helped further the Central Intelligence Agency’s ‘s efforts to pit the Congressional committees against GAO. In the early 1980s, an opportunity presented itself that would deepen these divides without any action from CIA - a conspiracy against President Reagan involving a Soviet diplomat with a penchant for ten gallon hats.
Since 1949, for 68 of Central Intelligence Agency’s 70 years, the Agency has waged a war against the Government Accountability Office and what CIA described as its “army of auditors.” Not until 2010 was Congress ready to grant GAO that authority, though the provision was dropped under threat of a veto from President Obama. The end result is a hard line that meant the Agency would almost certainly refuse to cooperate at all with any probe that they felt was oversight related. This interactive timeline offers a blow-by-blow of the last seven decades, explaining how and why things got to where they are today.
As a result of the failure by the Senate Intelligence Committee to restore the GAO’s authority to audit or review the Central Intelligence Agency, by the next year that immunity had spread to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which had assumed some of the Agency’s responsibilities in coordinating the Intelligence Community. Like CIA, the ODNI cited a legally dubious position in a 1988 letter from the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel stating that the GAO had no authority to look at anything relating to “intelligence activities.” Also like CIA, the ODNI used a such a broad definition of intelligence activities so that “by definition” they were categorically exempt.
While the 25-year declassification review program hasn’t reached the new millennium yet, contemporary public records still provide some insight into the GAO’s efforts to audit the Intelligence Community in general and Central Intelligence Agency in particular. After its creation and taking on some of the duties that had previously laid with CIA, the ODNI would pay lip service to the GAO and seem to cooperate on some issues. At the same time, it manifested the same problems, ignoring its own guidance and, like the Agency, claim that almost anything was protected as an intelligence source or method.
The “hard line” that the CIA drew against GAO oversight in a 1994 would form the basis for their refusal to cooperate for years to come. When the House Committee on Government Reform held a hearing in 2001 regarding the Agency’s refusal to cooperate with Congressional inquiries, one Congressman criticized their approach as a “dated, distorted concept of oversight.” It was this concept, the Congressman argued, that led to the Agency’s refusal “to discuss its approaches to government-wide management reforms and fiscal accountability practices.”
In 1994, CIA’s Director of Congressional Affairs wrote a memo to the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) seeking, and receiving, affirmation of the Agency’s policy for dealing with the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The memo not only spelled out the Agency’s “hard line approach” to the GAO, it made explicit the Agency’s intention to not to answer inquiries from the GAO that involve “so called “oversight” information.”
Fresh on the heels of Iran-Contra, the CIA refused to allow the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to audit the Agency “with respect to funds authorized for the Nicaraguan Resistance,” insisting that since any such funds would break the law, there was nothing for GAO to audit, and therefore GAO’s request was being denied. Similarly, any other hypothetical assistance to the Nicaraguan Resistance would have been subject to Congressional oversight, and on which grounds the Agency would similarly deny the GAO access.
During the ’80s, CIA’s efforts to shut down the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) access to the Agency not only went on unchecked, but reached a new level of success when the Agency convinced Congress to further consolidate Oversight within the intelligence committees. Not only did this nearly cut the GAO out entirely, but it allowed the CIA to spread its exemption to other agencies eager to avoid an audit.
Whether because of the restrictive guidelines or, as Central Intelligence Agency’s own historian suggests, because of the censorship of the Pike Report, the Government Accountability Office continued to be denied any meaningful ability to audit CIA or aid in Congressional oversight. Several years later, a CIA memo would refer to this as them successfully “holding the GAO and their armies of auditors at bay.”
The 1975 Pike Committee’s report was an immediate problem for the Agency, and inevitably resulting in recommendations that the Central Intelligence Agency was desperate to avoid. These concerns, it seemed, were well founded, as the Committee ultimately recommended that the Government Accountability Office be granted audit authority over CIA - recommendations that CIA was able to, once again, successfully prevent from being implemented.
In an April 1975 letter for Central Intelligence Agency Director William Colby, the Agency’s Assistant Legislative Counsel laid out the arguments the Agency intended to make against a bill requiring they allow the Government Accountability Office access to CIA records. In an accompanying cover letter, the Agency lawyer drafting the letter noted they “really slung the B.S.,” and asked for Colby’s help in determining if they had overplayed the CIA’s position a bit.
In 1975, Senator William Proxmire, drawing from a General Accountability Office (GAO) report about their difficulties getting agencies to cooperate, introduced legislation which would effectively force CIA to allow itself to be audited by the GAO. In response, the Central Intelligence Agency began compiling materials to argue against it - an argument which was described by the Agency lawyer drafting it as “B.S.”
While the CIA had successfully thwarted the Government Accountability Office’s ability to audit the Agency by the early ’60s, the trouble brewing between the two were only beginning. These problems would only serve to further call into question the CIA’s good faith, as testimony and documents demonstrate that the Agency’s issue wasn’t with security concerns, but with the very concept of oversight.
For nearly sixty years, the CIA has resisted the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) efforts to perform a full audit of the Agency, even going so far as to not only render themselves exempt, but to spread this exemption throughout the rest of the Intelligence Community. When the GAO got fed up and quit, the CIA tried to have the letters detailing their frustrations classified.