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Congressional oversight office at NSA headquarters sits empty
Nick Juliano
Published: Tuesday March 4, 2008

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With lack of requests from Congress, GAO staff would 'twiddle their thumbs'

The Government Accountability Office -- Congress's investigative arm -- has an office at the super-secretive National Security Agency's headquarters, but it keeps no staff there because lawmakers have not made enough oversight requests, the agency's head told Congress last week.

ďWe still actually do have space at the NSA. We just donít use it and the reason we donít use it is weíre not getting any requests, you know," Comptroller General David M. Walker told a Senate subcommittee Friday. "So I donít want to have people sitting out there twiddling their thumbs."

Walker's comments were reported by Steven Aftergood at Secrecy News, the blog he runs as director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. Aftergood also testified at the Senate Homeland Security oversight subcommittee hearing.

During the hearing, Aftergood stressed the need for oversight of an Intelligence Community with a growing budget and increasing reliance on private-sector contractors. He said spending on contractors doubled between 1996 and 2006.

"There are literally thousands of new contractual relationships between intelligence agencies and commercial entities that the intelligence oversight system is clearly equipped to regulate, oversee or even verify that they're doing what they're supposed to be doing," Aftergood told the subcommittee, according to a transcript of the proceedings.

He said GAO would not be able to fully solve the intelligence oversight problems, but it would be able to make a "tangible contribution" as it does overseeing other aspects of the government.

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), who chairs the subcommittee, has introduced legislation that would clarify GAO's right to audit programs and financial activities of US intelligence agencies, according to CongressDaily.

Walker told the committee that the Intelligence Community has long been against GAO's oversight efforts, but he said relationships with intelligence agencies was improving. He said the GAO could evaluate management issues and reforms without exposing the "sources and methods" of the Intel Community. Aftergood told the committee that Akaka's bill likely would not overcome intelligence officials' objections because they try to keep everything hidden under the same guise of protecting sources.