For the past few years, U.S. citizens have lived with an increasingly secretive
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made millions of historical documents available annually in the 1990s, has slowed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
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
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
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.