GAO seeks to protect identities and security info

Watchdog agency proposes keeping secrets without prior approval

In an age in which confidential sources are often exposed, the Government Accountability Office wants to protect its sources at federal agencies and contracting companies — some of whom have been increasingly reluctant to talk.

The agency is proposing a rule change that would allow GAO to withhold sources’ identities or the substance of their discussions without prior authorization from Congress. GAO functions as the investigative arm of Congress.

Some open-government advocates, who are typically averse to denying public access to information, applaud the proposal. Others disagree with it, saying Congress should decide.

Last week, GAO introduced an amendment to the Code of Federal Regulations. The proposed change, which was published in the Federal Register, would not restrict the distribution of reports, GAO officials said.

“Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, employees from certain agencies and organizations have expressed concern and reluctance to share sensitive information with GAO without some assurance that the information will not be disclosed to the public,” the Federal Register proposal states. “The proposed new exemption would enhance the open, frank and honest exchange of information from other agencies, nonfederal organizations and individuals to GAO.”

Comptroller General David Walker, head of GAO, said the agency wants to be as open as possible. “We are one of the most transparent organizations on the face of the Earth,” he said. “We are in no way talking about automatically withholding every single interview.”

If GAO succeeds in changing the rules, officials would decide whether to withhold information on a case-by-case basis, Walker said.

GAO is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, but many open-government advocates say the agency acts as if it were and is typically forthcoming when asked for the data supporting its reports.

The Federal Register proposal notes that employees are particularly concerned that, in the course of a GAO probe, records are being created that could be publicly disclosed.

“They want to be forthcoming with us, and they want to be able to share information with us.” Walker said. “We would make it a judgment [call] to determine if we are going to release names or release the information.”

He said the agency has been in situations in which officials believed it would be appropriate to withhold information. The proposed rule would save GAO time by not requiring congressional approval to make that decision.

Comments on the proposal are due by Nov. 2.

Open-government advocates back secrecy planMany open-government advocates say they understand the Government Accountability Office’s desire to restrict access to some of its sources’ identities or certain sensitive information they share with Congress’ watchdog agency.

Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, said, “It’s not surprising that even the even-handed GAO, with [its] stellar reputation for impartiality, [feels it needs] to take certain steps” to protect sources. “I’m sure from time to time some agencies would love to know who in their agencies are providing information that makes the agency look bad. From the perspective of the media and outside investigators, sources have to be protected because at times they are the only source of the truth.”

Nick Schwellenbach, an investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, said, “Congress shouldn’t have to approve any and every decision to withhold GAO information from the public. It makes sense to delegate that power to GAO. Secondly, GAO investigators may have a better understanding and are more sensitive to the concerns of their sources than members of Congress, who are more likely to have political motives.”

Schwellenbach added that whistle-blowers often seem to trust GAO more than congressional offices “because of the professionalism of most GAO investigators, who are in general very serious about protecting sources. By bypassing congressional approval, GAO may actually make more information available.”

— Aliya Sternstein

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