Since 1949, for 68 of CIA’s 70 years, the Agency has waged a war against the Government Accountability Office (GAO) 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 CIA, by the next year that immunity had spread to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), 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 CIA 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.”