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SIDEBAR: Not Just Accounting But Accountability « The Washington Independent

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As Congress and the president changed their fiscal priorities, GAO changed as well. In 2002, the agency, which is mandated by Congress to issue reports on the executive branch, changed its name from General Accounting Office to Government Accountability Office. This name change signaled a larger overall change in function from just examining a federal agency’s budget to evaluating that agency’s policy.

That same year, GAO sued Vice President DICK Cheney. Cheney said that the information about who was on his task force to design energy policy, and who that task force was meeting with, was sensitive. He did not want to release this.

"It was the first time in GAO’s history that we sued anybody," said Walker. But for Walker, an extraordinary presidency demanded extraordinary actions. "It was fundamentally different than the Clinton presidency," he said. "There is no question that this administration has sought to redraw the separation of power."

GAO lost its suit in the district court, but Walker said it had proven its point.

"I’m firmly convinced that because we showed an independence and resolve that had a beneficial effect," said Walker. "We won in the court of public opinion." Walker added that the White House has since delayed but never refused to give GAO the information it requested.

The Pentagon, however, is another matter. Walker issued scathing audits that the Defense Dept. has wasted billions at home and in Iraq and Afghanistan by relying on government contractors. "I think we rely on the contractors too much," he said. "We need to step back and engage in a fundamental reassessment of when it is appropriate to use private contractors."

His criticism came to a head last September. GAO released a report that the U.S. military’s "surge" in Iraq had only accomplished three of the 18 benchmarks necessary for Iraqi reconstruction. On the eve of Gen. David Petraeus’s congressional testimony, Walker told Congress that the Iraq government was dysfunctional and that decreased levels of violence couldn’t be sustained.

The Pentagon directly disputed the latter assertion, saying that GAO wasn’t using August 2007 data that reported violence, particularly sectarian violence, had dropped. Walker said that the Pentagon refused to give him those numbers when he asked for them. "They were trying to have their cake and eat it too," he said. "They said we weren’t using the most recent data but they didn’t give us the most recent data."

Walker said that the Pentagon’s claims that violence has dropped have since been vindicated. But he added that on issues like safe streets, clean water, electricity and political reconciliation, progress remains slow.

Walker’s bosses in Congress say that he fought the good fight on Iraq and other issues. "GAO produced important reports on the federal response to Katrina, contracting in Iraq, homeland security and other key issues," said Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "His oversight work saved the taxpayers billions."

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