GAO opens up about secret reports

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Most of the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s reports are freely available to the public via GAO.gov. For decades, however, the agency has kept a minority of these reports secret.

These so-called “restricted reports” are withheld from the public, according to the GAO, because they contain “either classified information or controlled unclassified information by the audited agencies and cannot be publicly released.” Some of these reports eventually do get released publicly in redacted form, such as this 2011 GAO study on the Internal Revenue Service and whistleblowers.

Keeping the reports under lock and key for a time is understandable. Slapping a PDF of GAO’s “Library of Congress: Information Security Review” online shortly after its publication may well be counterproductive to the objective of securing the agency’s network.

Remarkably, GAO did not publicize the existence of these reports until last week. As reported by Secrecy News, anyone now can go to GAO.gov and click the “restricted products” link to see a list of the restricted reports’ titles, but not the reports themselves.

The list currently includes only reports published since 2014. Those who wish to see the titles of earlier GAO restricted reports can consult GovernmentAttic.org’s list, which covers the period 1971 to 2011.

The GAO’s list of restricted products is useful, not least in that it allows Congress, the media and the public to see what sort of issues are being examined by the government’s watchdog. Few outside the congressional committees of jurisdiction, for example, knew the “Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board Needs to Address Program and Privacy Weaknesses.” Now, any of the millions of federal employees and retirees with federal Thrift Savings Plan accounts will know there is at least a potential issue and contact their congressman for more information.

Releasing the titles also permits us to see which restricted reports have been released and which have not. A 2011 GAO report on IRS whistleblowers has been published online. Oddly, a 1979 report titled “Need for a Reassessment of DOD’s Laser Guided Weapons Programs” still is not available on GAO.gov.

GAO does good work, and one hopes the agency’s next step will be to release a report detailing exactly how many of its restricted products remain hidden, why and when they will be released.

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