Watching the Watchdogs

For the past few years, U.S. citizens have lived with an increasingly secretive government.

More official documents are being classified than ever before – at least 16 million last year alone – while the declassification process, which made millions of historical documents available annually in the 1990s, has slowed to a relative crawl.

And federal agencies are creating new categories of "semi-secrets," bearing vague labels like "sensitive security information."

This increasing secrecy, which accelerated sharply after attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is estimated to cost taxpayers more than $8 billion annually and is drawing protests from a growing array of politicians and activists, including Republican members of Congress, leaders of the independent commission that studied the Sept. 11 attacks, and even the top federal official who oversees classification.

Meanwhile, requests for these documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are at an all-time high, and the government is taking ever-longer to respond – or claiming exemptions on grounds of national security and not responding at all. The FOIA law was enacted in 1968 to provide greater access to government documents.

Yet even in this opaque environment, the U.S. government is still far more transparent than most. And much of the credit goes to two federal agencies – the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Inspectors General (IGs), who operate in virtually all major government departments.

According to Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), "Both organizations often have a direct impact on particular policies and programs, and play a vital role in nourishing public awareness."

Aftergood is part of a small group of non-governmental agencies that watch the watchdogs. He told IPS, "Both sets of organizations routinely ‘make news’ and help to inform public debate."

In this, the first of two articles, IPS examines the GAO.

Created by Congress in 1921, GAO is independent of the executive branch of government. According to Jeff Ruch, who heads another of the "watchdog watcher" organizations, the Project on Government Oversight, "On a monthly basis, GAO uncovers more problems within executive agencies than all the IGs combined do in a year."

He told IPS, "While GAO is a creature of Congress, that oversight goes to what it examines and the size of its budget. We have never heard of a draft GAO report watered down by Congressional intervention."

With a staff of 3,200 and an annual budget of $463.6 million, the GAO is headed by the Comptroller General of the United States (CG), currently David M. Walker, who came to the job with extensive government and private sector experience.

In an effort to depoliticize its operations and ensure continuity, the CG is appointed by the president for a term of 10 years; the current CG was appointed by President Bill Clinton (1992-2000).

GAO’s mission is to help improve the performance and assure the accountability of the federal government. Last year its staff testified 217 times before Congress, and over the past four years it has made 2,700 recommendations for improving government operations – 83 percent of which have been implemented. It claims its work in 2004 saved taxpayers $44 billion.

Because of its size and huge budget, the Defense Department has been a frequent target of GOA criticism. This year, it charged that the Pentagon was spending over $13 billion to maintain and buy often duplicative business software and computer systems.

In another report, it said that over the last three years, the Pentagon disposed of $33 billion in "excess" equipment – for pennies on the dollar. Some $4 billion of this equipment was reported to be in new, unused, or excellent condition.

In yet another report, the GAO blasted the Pentagon for its "atrocious financial management," saying the Defense Department was not able to give federal oversight officials a full accounting of the $1 billion being spent each week on the war in Iraq.

"If the Department of Defense were a business, they’d be out of business," said GAO boss Walker. "They have absolutely atrocious financial management."

GAO also reported that the Environmental Protection Agency is failing to protect the public from tens of thousands of toxic compounds because it has not gathered data on the health risks of most industrial chemicals

It criticized the Office of Management and Budget for weaknesses in its security reporting guidance and reported deficiencies in the information security policies and practices at 24 of the largest federal agencies – putting financial data at risk of unauthorized modification or destruction, and putting sensitive information at risk of inappropriate disclosure.

GAO found that inaccurate reporting by the Department of Energy (DOE) was covering up the agency’s failure to ensure that 50 percent of subcontracts went to small businesses.

It charged that "plenty" of the 8.8. million passports issued by the State Department in 2004 went to killers, rapists, drug dealers, and even terrorists because the FBI did not routinely share with the State Department its list of fugitives wanted by state and federal agencies.

Among those who fell through the intelligence cracks were nine murder suspects, five sex offenders, three drug dealers, and one alleged bombing suspect. One of the fugitives on the list managed to obtain a U.S. passport less than a year and a half after being on the FBI’s 10 most-wanted list.

But the GAO’s work does not always produce success stories. In 2001, it demanded to see the minutes of an Energy Task Force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney – following allegations that the group was "packed" with energy industry executives. For the first time since the GAO’s founding, it filed a lawsuit against Cheney to enforce its right of access to records. After several years, the Supreme Court ruled the minutes were privileged.

Steven Aftergood of FAS injects a further cautionary note. He resists "idealizing the IGs or the GAO as ‘truth tellers.’"

"What they represent, instead, are old-fashioned checks and balances. They are government organizations and officials with a degree of independence and a charter to investigate. If this seems heroic, then that tells something about the times we live in," he told IPS.

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Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.