The NSA's defenders go to great lengths to convince everyone (the public and many angered legislators) that it operates under a tremendous amount of oversight -- so much though that even THINKING about abusing its capabilities is out of the question. The leaks have repeatedly proven
this assertion false as members of the supposedly stringent oversight continue to state their shock and dismay over what's been uncovered.
Steven Aftergood at Secrecy News points out there's another layer of oversight that's gone unutilized for years as well
Years ago, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, conducted routine audits and investigations of the National Security Agency, such that the two agencies were in “nearly continuous contact” with one another. In the post-Snowden era, GAO could perform that oversight function once again.
“NSA advises that the GAO maintains a team permanently in residence at NSA, resulting in nearly continuous contact between the two organizations,” according to a 1994 CIA memorandum for the Director of Central Intelligence.
Why haven't we read any damning reports from the GAO about the NSA's abuses over the past several years? Well, apparently it's because no one wants to know.
At a 2008 Senate hearing, Sen. Daniel Akaka asked the GAO about its relationship with NSA. “I understand that GAO even had an office at the NSA,” Sen. Akaka noted.
“We still actually do have space at the NSA,” replied David M. Walker, then-Comptroller General, the head of the GAO. “We just don’t use it. And the reason we don’t use it is we are not getting any requests [from Congress]. So I do not want to have people sitting out there twiddling their thumbs.”
There's that oversight at work again. Idle for "years" by 2008 and no signs that anything has occurred since then. The GAO maintains an office (currently unstaffed) within the NSA but because if no one's asking any questions, it's not providing any answers.
If there's something the GAO does well, it's track down internal issues
and problematic behavior
. Unfortunately, it's limited to recommending courses of action rather than mandating any serious changes, meaning its follow-up reports are generally filled with descriptions of how these audited entities failed to pursue the recommendations and (often) performed considerably worse during the interim.
On the other hand, the GAO's reports do at least make it clear to the American public exactly what's wrong with nearly everything the government spends its money on. It's very limited accountability that does nothing to change the underlying agency ethos, but at least it prevents them from pretending these problems don't exist.
Being in-house should naturally raise concerns about the GAO's objectivity. Unfortunately, considering the nature of the agency's intelligence work, there's probably no way around that. But the first step in renewing this layer of oversight is to remind Congress of its existence. It has the power to order a GAO investigation, but until it does, the office will continue to gather dust and the NSA's internal problems will worsen -- or at least go unnoticed by Congress.
Aftergood points out that James Clapper has ordered the agency to be responsive to GAO inquiries, apparently in the eventuality that it ever gets back to the business of asking questions.
In Intelligence Community Directive 114, issued in 2011 following years of stagnation in GAO oversight of intelligence, DNI James Clapper instructed U.S. intelligence agencies to be responsive to GAO, at least within certain boundaries.
“It is IC policy to cooperate with the Comptroller General, through the GAO, to the fullest extent possible, and to provide timely responses to requests for information,” the DNI wrote.
Of course, Clapper's definition of "responsive" probably differs greatly from the normally-accepted usage of the word. Having Clapper condone cooperation with an agency that exists to find flaws and misconduct is a bit underwhelming. The NSA's top men have been less than cooperative in the many hearings since the Snowden leaks began, most often recycling old talking points and insisting on discussing it in the context of one program (Section 215) when everyone else is clearly focused on another area.
Still, whatever the GAO finds (that somehow doesn't get blotted out with black ink) will provide more useful information for its Congressional overseers. This certainly shouldn't be used in place of more independent oversight committees, but it should prove to be a valuable addition. The real question Congress needs to answer is why it has ignored this option for so many years.