Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

GAO list could be a guide for reporters

ASK THIS | December 02, 2006

Immigration, transportation security, status of nuclear weaponry and proliferation are among issues the press, as well as Congress, should be investigating. (Second in a series)

By Nick Schwellenbach

Last month the General Accountability Office (GAO) sent House and Senate leaders a list of important issues that cry out for Congressional oversight. The list includes items for short- and long-term review – and the press should be doing independent reporting on every item.

These very important issues need a depoliticized, thoughtful, workmanlike treatment, just the kind of approach that Pecksniff politicians have been avoiding for years but at which journalists excel.

Some examples: Through most of 2006, both Republicans and Democrats—but overwhelmingly Republicans—have showcased illegal immigration as an issue.  Immigration reform proposals, especially ones solely supporting increased border security, floated in both chambers of Congress. They generated public controversy and highlighted divisions among different wings of the Republican party. The issue was one where rhetoric and entrenched ideological positions, especially from anti-illegal immigration groups and politicians, kept Congress from serious discussion, never getting close to any comprehensive set of reforms.

On Nov. 26th, the Washington Post’s Charles Babington, citing comments by Josh Bernstein of the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy group, wrote that any major rewrite of immigration laws would be enormously complicated with, in Bernstein’s words, “deep effects on our economy, our identity, the kind of country we're going to be. There are a lot of interests that are very legitimate, whether it's business, worker unions or immigrants from different countries. . .  It's highly emotionally charged on all sides.’”

Immigration is a chief example of an issue where journalists can make a major contribution; in fact, they already have. An in-depth investigation spanning thousands of miles on why sealing the border won’t work by the Arizona Daily Star could serve as inspiration for reporters in border states and national affairs reporters

Another vital issue is the reshaping of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and the future of the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal. In recent years, Republican David Hobson (R-Ohio) actually exercised vigorous oversight over the complex as chairman of the House Energy and Water appropriations subcommittee. From 1940 to 1996, an estimated $5.5 trillion (in 1996 dollars) was spent on nuclear weapons, their research, production, upkeep and whatnot. Despite that huge amount and the importance of the issue, traditionally Congress has not exercised much interest at all in the nuclear weapons complex. Writes Stephen Schwartz, author of Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940:

[W]ith strikingly few exceptions, the annual congressional debate usually focuses on the minute details of a few programs at the expense of the overall effort those programs are supposed to support. This approach can be likened to building a house by carefully examining the cost of only a few of the obvious elements, largely ignoring the rest, and rarely pausing to consider what the house will actually cost or look like, or if it will even meet one's needs.

…the record to date demonstrates that Congress has been less than diligent in exercising its oversight responsibilities with regard to the nuclear weapons budget.

Schwartz suggests that Congress can “improve its oversight of nuclear weapons programs by focusing not just on the most expensive or most controversial items in the budget in any given year but rather on the larger strategic picture of how nuclear weapons would be used, how the various elements of the program contribute to deterrence and, not least, what constitutes deterrence in the post-Cold War era.”

Schwartz’s advice is especially wise in a world where nuclear weapons have regained salience in the public discourse because of numerous factors that demand vigorous attention from the media. Some of these are: the views the Bush administration has towards using nuclear weapons (see: the Bush Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review); an amorphous and questionable initiative to develop new nuclear weapons (the Reliable Replacement Warhead program); proposals to reorganize the U.S. nuclear weapons complex; new nations with or possibly working toward nuclear weapons (e.g. North Korea, Iran); terrorist threats; and the erosion of the decades-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Whether or not Congress is fulfilling its oversight role is also something that journalists should and need to cover. Nieman Watchdog adviser Morton Mintz, a former long-time Washington Post reporter, has frequently pointed to the double negative of reporters failing to oversee Congress’s failure to act as a check on the executive branch, including items here and here on this Web site.

Picking up from where I left off in my first piece, after each issue heading I suggest some questions that could serve as starting points—and I emphasize that they are just that, starting points. I then follow with the GAO summary of the issue.

Issue: Enhancing Border Security and Enforcement of Existing Immigration Laws

Questions: Have passport and visa security procedures improved and how have changes affected legal and illegal immigration, as well as other individuals directly affected, such as foreign students? How effective are border security technologies that have been and are planned to be deployed? Are these technologies adequately tested and assessed? Are they part of a coherent strategy that will achieve its goals? What are the immigration enforcement weaknesses? What are the costs and benefits to immigration? What are the impacts of stronger immigration laws and enforcement on the economy?

GAO Summary: “The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, showed how weak border security measures and ineffective enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws could be exploited to a tragic end. Although enhancing passport and visa security procedures, securing the borders and enforcing immigration laws have received increased funding and attention, millions of aliens live and work in the United States after entering the country illegally or overstaying the terms of a visa. This may present a significant national security challenge and could adversely affect citizens who compete with illegal aliens for jobs and bear immigration-related costs. The Departments of State and Homeland Security (DHS) have taken some steps to address these challenges, such as deploying additional personnel and technology overseas and at the borders, and using computer verification systems to detect fraudulent documents and reduce employment of unauthorized foreign workers. However, successful implementation of these steps has often been hampered by inadequate planning and guidance, misaligned priorities and resources, and outdated information technology systems. Additional congressional oversight can help ensure that travel document, border security, and immigration enforcement initiatives are yielding improved national and economic security for our nation’s citizens.”

Issue: Ensure the Safety, Security and Adequate Funding of Transportation Systems

Questions: Are federal regulatory agencies armed with enough manpower, funding and authority to regulate the transportation industry? How effective is aviation security under the Transportation Security Administration versus pre-9/11 security? Have the billions spent on screening technology been well spent and is that technology coupled with quality training, competent management and policies for TSA screeners? What is the state of security for other modes of transportation and is TSA adequately addressing those areas? How can we pay for maintenance and expansion of the nation’s transportation infrastructure to maintain its quality, efficiency and accessibility to all citizens?

GAO Summary: “The nation’s economic vitality and the quality of life of its citizens depend greatly on the safety, security, and efficiency of its transportation infrastructure, and major challenges exist in all three of these areas. Safety continues to be a concern, with an average of over 40,000 traffic deaths, 6 commercial airline, and over 350 general aviation fatal crashes annually, and over 2,200 major pipeline accidents over a recent 10-year period. Regarding security, despite significant progress in securing commercial aviation, the Transportation Security Administration must continue to adapt to changing threats, while coordinating efforts with international partners. Nonaviation transportation modes also remain vulnerable given their easy accessibility and many potential targets. On efficiency, between 2000 and 2010, travel on roads is expected to increase by 25 percent and freight traffic by 43 percent. Further, forecasted continuing growth in air traffic is straining both airport and air traffic control infrastructure. While addressing these challenges will likely require substantial resources, federal transportation trust fund revenues are eroding and long-term trust fund viability is questionable.”

Issue: Strengthen Efforts to Stem the Proliferation of Biological, Chemical, and Nuclear Weapons and Missiles

Questions: How has the money already spent been used? What initiatives have been undertaken? Have they been well executed? What are the gaps and weaknesses in our non-proliferation strategy? How effective has American diplomacy and “soft power” worked in creating functional multi-lateral efforts to combat proliferation?

GAO Summary: “On February 11, 2004, the President stated that ‘the greatest threat before humanity today is the possibility of secret and sudden attack with chemical or biological or radiological or nuclear weapons.’ He also stated that these weapons are becoming easier to acquire, build, hide, and transport. U.S. policy is to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems, such as missiles, and the executive branch has initiated or expanded several activities to address this threat. In recognition of these threats, the Congress provided the Departments of Defense (DOD), Energy (DOE), and State more than $8 billion since 1992 to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction material and expertise. The U.S. has also played a leading role strengthening multilateral efforts to control trade in WMD materials. Additional congressional oversight can help assess the effectiveness of these activities and how U.S. resources might be better planned and managed to achieve nonproliferation goals. A failure to effectively implement nonproliferation programs could result in wasted resources or, at worst, a devastating WMD attack on the United States or its allies.”

Issue: Ensure the Successful Transformation of the Nuclear Weapons Complex

Questions: Does the U.S. nuclear weapons complex need to be as large and far flung as it is? What does the nuclear weapons complex achieve at a cost of over $6 billion a year?  Are the national laboratories prioritizing the right issues in their research efforts?  How “reliable” are the current nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal? Are they unreliable and what does reliability mean at the Energy and Defense Departments? How much would it cost to replace existing weapons in the stockpile with the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead(s)? Would nuclear testing resume with the introduction of a new nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal? Why is RRW necessary? How would it affect U.S. efforts to combat proliferation?

GAO Summary: “Over the past several years, there has been a serious reevaluation of how the United States maintains its nuclear deterrent. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a separately organized agency within the Department of Energy (DOE), is responsible for overseeing the weapons complex, which comprises three nuclear weapons design laboratories, four production plants, and the Nevada Test Site, at an annual cost of over $6 billion. Recently, NNSA offered a proposal to the Congress for transforming the weapons complex over the next 25 years. NNSA’s proposal calls for building a consolidated plutonium processing center, removing weapons-grade nuclear material from the laboratories, and modernizing the remaining production facilities at their existing locations. NNSA’s preliminary analysis estimates its proposal will cost over $150 billion. The proposal largely depends on the successful design of a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) to replace some of the existing weapons in the stockpile. Given the importance of the nation’s nuclear deterrent, the large amount of funding required, and DOE’s history of poor project management, it is vital that the Congress closely oversee NNSA’s implementation of its proposal.”

Issue: Enhance Computer Security and Deter Identity Theft

Questions: How extensive are national databases, either controlled by public or private hands, in the quantity and types of information they hold? How connected and accessible are these databases to authorized and unauthorized parties? How secure are they? How is information deemed sensitive and what information is this? How can individuals control their personal information or correct mistakes or the consequences of identity theft? What laws exist governing use of personal information and how effective are they? Are they adequately enforced?

GAO Summary: “Over the last several years, identity theft and the need to protect personal information has received heightened national attention. Recent incidents of data theft and loss at federal agencies expose Americans to increased risk of identity theft and raise concern about how well the federal government is securing its computer systems; protecting sensitive information from unauthorized use, disclosure, and modification; and notifying the public when data breaches occur. Moreover, the aggregation of personal information and Social Security Numbers (SSN), in large corporate databases and the display of SSNs in public records have provided opportunities for identity thieves. Thus, SSNs are a valuable commodity for persons seeking to assume another individual’s identity or to commit financial crimes. Fraudulent and stolen SSNs are also frequently used by noncitizens to work illegally in the United States. Although the Congress has passed a number of laws to address this issue, the continued reliance on SSNs by private and public-sector entities underscores the need for increased vigilance.”

To come in this series: Exploring the final five GAO near-term oversight suggestions; policies and programs in need of fundamental reform; long-term governance issues and the Project On Government Oversight’s baker’s dozen list of suggested oversight topics.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.