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Whatever Happened to the GAO?

It is important and proper that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) responded to my criticisms of its March 2013 report on the Defense Department’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Any watchdog agency should jealously defend its competence and independence, especially when the foundations of its oversight come under attack from those with experience, and sources, inside the agency.

The GAO took issue with my article, titled “Error Report,” on three matters.

First, I am said to have ignored the “numerous quantitative indicators of development and production progress” that the GAO says substantiated its conclusion that “Overall, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is now moving in the right direction after a long, expensive, and arduous learning process.” And yet, much of this “progress” “in the right direction” remains behind even the revised — and much relaxed — program schedule, and it is occurring just as the F-35 is entering the more strenuous part of its flight testing. More to the point, the favorable conclusion flies in the face of expert reports, such as that of the Defense Department’s own director of operational test and evaluation, who has reported a growing, not diminishing, number of problems.

The GAO’s implication that the F-35’s more difficult years are behind it, not ahead, is, in effect, a recommendation to proceed with the F-35’s highly “concurrent” (buy it before you finish testing it) acquisition schedule. Having criticized concurrency in the past, the GAO would surely protest it is doing no such thing now, but that is the effect. If you doubt my judgment, read the assessment of Lockheed Martin’s hired consultant praising the GAO report. (Lockheed-Martin produces the F-35.)

Second, I am said to have mischaracterized the GAO’s evidence of the F-35 program making “considerable progress” in resolving the serious problems in the all-important helmet-mounted display of essential flight and threat information for the pilot. The GAO’s substantiation of the “progress” is the argument that “DOD is pursuing a dual-design approach, essentially creating an alternative to the display’s original design.” In others words, the fix for the failure in one design is to try a second (“while working to fix the first”). The “considerable progress” is not in the functioning of the helmet but in the management decision to try an alternate approach. However, nothing in the GAO report gives credence to material progress in either helmet. All we have is the assurance that “program and contractor officials told us that they have increased confidence that the helmet will be fixed.” As I said in my article, when I worked in the GAO division specializing in program evaluation and methodology, we used to laugh derisively at such data-free “officials told us” reports.

Nonetheless, we are assured by the GAO that “Pursuing an alternative is an appropriate way to reduce risk.” Indeed, if that is truly the case, and the GAO believes its own prescription, where is the alternative design for the ever-problematic F-35 itself, and where is the GAO recommendation that such a management approach should be imposed on DOD? The F-35 program is riddled with remaining risks (even according to GAO), and an alternative design for new, better, cheaper fighters and ground-attack aircraft would vastly inform the debate and give decision-makers real choices.

Finally, the GAO stoutly defends its independence and competence, saying that formal discussions with agency officials about the facts in a report “before a draft report is sent for official comments” are necessary and appropriate “to ensure that the facts are not in dispute.” I could not agree more; that’s not what I alleged.

The practice in certain defense-related sections of the GAO today is to go beyond holding formal discussions to ensure the accuracy of facts. Instead, they send a written draft-document to agency officials well before the formal submission of an officially approved draft report for official agency comments. This is done for the purpose of acquiring comments from DOD officials not just on the accuracy of facts but also on the overall content. When those various comments from DOD officials are provided, they are received in the context of a GAO management climate that warns staff that “non-concurs” from (that is to say, disputes with) DOD are very much discouraged. In short, at this early stage of a draft GAO report, DOD has the opportunity to modify or even scrub out any unwanted findings, and it is done before the formal exchange of an official draft report and receipt of official agency comments that are publicly recorded in GAO reports. This process is all done in the absence of public disclosure.

When GAO managers impress on staff their desire to reduce to an absolute minimum those “non-concurs” with DOD, a “love letter” like that I describe in my article — stating “The Department will continue to be supportive of the annual GAO review of the F-35 program” — can be the result. This is not a reassuring relationship of an executive branch agency under investigation with its legislative branch overseer; it has all the hallmarks of the students interacting with the professors to influence the grade on their final exam.

In arguing against my central accusation that DOD exercised an unseen influence on the GAO’s March 2013 F-35 report, the GAO sought to prove the independence and quality of its work by stating “GAO’s quality assurance processes have been assessed on three separate occasions by teams of international auditors — most recently in 2010 — and in each case those processes were found to be effective and reliable.”

But that’s not exactly the whole story. Not only did those three outside reviews not include the specific GAO report in question, at least one of them did not give GAO a complete bill of health, insiders tell me. I am informed that one of the international peer reviews critiqued the GAO on the selection of evaluation criteria (i.e., issues such as the standards by which assertions like “considerable progress” should be measured). In response, the GAO has started an in-house training course to address the deficiency. But you would never know that by reading the GAO’s retort to my article. (The GAO did not even name the three separate international auditors.)

I further wonder what the peer reviewers would have to say if they were allowed access — including to all staff and their work papers — to a GAO report that conveyed its draft content to the agency under investigation before the official agency comments were formally requested. I further wonder what peer reviewers would think of a management climate that admonished staff to eliminate areas of non-concurrence with the agency under investigation. (When I was at the GAO, they called it “having good relations with the agency.”) Is this the relationship we want a watchdog agency to have with the people and programs under investigation?

All is not well in the GAO. The agency’s retort to my criticisms is flawed; it seems to validate my concerns, and actually, it increases them.

Readers of the GAO’s reports should be asking, is the GAO telling me all the facts I need to know, and is this report coming from an agency that disciplines itself to be strictly independent and at arm’s length from those under inquiry — not currying favor with them?

Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, which recently moved to the Project on Government Oversight. For 31 years he worked on national security issues for U.S. senators from both political parties and for the Government Accountability Office.
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Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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