It may have come as a surprise to those who read William J. Broad's Sunday New York Times report on Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigator Subrata Ghoshroy that the GAO--long considered one of the few agencies in Washington whose professionalism and integrity are above reproach--might subvert the work of one of it's own investigators to cover up defense contractor wrongdoing. But others in the past have noted GAO's shortcomings, including our friend Winslow Wheeler over at Center for Defense Information (CDI), who's long career as a Senate staffer was interspersed with stints at GAO.
In his 2004 book "The Wastrels of Defense," Wheeler devotes a section--provocatively titled "Congress' Watchdog or DoD's Lapdog?"--to the matter of GAO shortcomings. Over pages 122-126, Wheeler recalls the efforts of GAO's now-abolished Program and Evaluation and Methodology Division (PEMD), where he once worked, to render complete and accurate reports on various Department of Defense (DoD) weapons programs. Some of the biggest hurdles PEMD investigators faced, he reveals, came from "obstructionist senior managers" in GAO's National Security and International Affairs Division (NSIAD) who "were reluctant to permit any report that DoD had not tacitly endorsed" be released. In one case Wheeler recalls how NSIAD effectively tied up the production of PEMD report for two years, with the final product being "stylistic mush organized in a haphazard fashion". And then it was ANOTHER two years before a censored version saw the light of day.
Per these and other experiences, Wheeler argues that while GAO investigators often get some of the story, they often don't get the whole story--and that when investigators are truly knowledgeable about what's being investigated, want to use sophisticated methodology or want to bring GAO's full statutory authority to bear in an investigation, for a number of reasons, the final product may not accurately reflect their work.
Some echoes of the Sunday Times piece from Wheeler's book:
"What I found inside GAO was a management-induced culture that encouraged incomplete research and truncated investigations and that shied away from challenging conventional wisdom. When I worked at the agency from 1987 to 1996, most GAO managers asserted they wanted to maintain what they called a 'positive relationship with the agency' being investigated. Among other things, this resulted in GAO personnel being denied the very data they needed to perform their research. It was too aggressive to insist that a GAO project receive all the data its own researchers believed, or should have believed, they needed...
"Despite a large and active training program, many GAO people--managers and staff alike--don't know how to do anything but the most elementary research...The combination of a culture of being nice to the agency and the lack of sophisticated research techniques makes a lethal combination for the quality of many GAO studies on defense...
"The smart DoD managers throw GAO a bone; that is, hand over enough information so that GAO's need for a report that offers some criticism is satisfied, but not so much that every element--both positive and negative--of an issue is fully probed...."
Broad ends his piece with reporting that "For his part, Mr. Ghoshroy said he found it 'totally amazing' that the G.A.O. refused to admit that its report misinformed Congress and the public. 'I'm concerned,' he said, 'that there's no one out there to oversee the overseer.'" While we, like many others, use and applaud GAO's work, Ghoshroy's spot on. Anyone who has anything to contribute to the canon of dubious GAO activity, drop us a line.