Monday, March 12, 2012

Sipsey Street Exclusive: Checking the books of the Praetorians. Forensic audits as one answer to Juvenal's Question. Why bureaucrats fear the GAGAS Monster.

The GAGAS Monster (any resemblance to the Black Beast of Aargh is purely coincidental.)
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is a Latin phrase traditionally attributed to the Roman poet Juvenal from his Satires (Satire VI, lines 347–8), which is literally translated as "Who will guard the guards themselves?" -- Wikipedia.
Let me start this essay by sharing something with you from almost 15 years ago:
For the better part of a generation, both political parties have thrown money and laurels at the FBI for one reason: to stop crime. Under Clinton, while agency after agency saw its budget dwindle, the FBI's jumped 25% to $2.9 billion. Congress paid for 3,600 new employees, new computers, new field offices. Law-and-order Republicans were there first, but Clinton and the Democrats joined in until there was simply no constituency that didn't see the FBI as the all-purpose answer to voters who routinely listed crime among their top concerns. For a nation whose greatest enemy is suddenly within, the FBI has become the Pentagon of the post-cold war world.
This means, like the well-protected Pentagon of 20 years ago, virtually no congressional oversight. Any lawmaker who raised concerns risked being flayed as soft on crime. But without accountability, several things happen, all of them bad. money gets wasted. Officials get sloppy. Innocent people go to jail. And cases that should be won are lost. The specifics have become a martyrs' lament Waco. Ruby Ridge. Filegate. Richard Jewell.-- Nancy Gibbs, Time Magazine, 28 April 1997, pp. 28-30.
Fifteen years ago. Of course since 9/11, the agency has become even more secretive, bloated and out of control, all because both parties have willfully failed in their oversight responsibility. Billions are wasted, simply because no one is really watching, all in the name of "national security."
The FBI is not the only agency which does this, of course. The entire federal government could benefit from targeted forensic audits.
Forensic accounting or financial forensics is the specialty practice area of accountancy that describes engagements that result from actual or anticipated disputes or litigation. "Forensic" means "suitable for use in a court of law", and it is to that standard and potential outcome that forensic accountants generally have to work. -- Wikipedia.
The difference between a simple audit and a forensic audit is the same as the relationship between an autopsy and a forensic autopsy. One merely explains how the subject died. The other seeks to identify who killed him.
Forensic auditing as a tool to identify waste, fraud and abuse in government has been spreading in recent years in all branches from the military to the Commerce Department. The Government Accountability Office has a small Forensic Audit and Special Investigations Unit (FSI) but this is hardly the extent of the Congress' ability to use forensic audits as a method of achieving real oversight over the out-of-control Praetorians of federal law enforcement.
However, for the purposes of illustration of how such audits might be useful, let us consider the ATF's eTrace system, so recently the subject of interest in the Gunwalker Scandal. Let us say that the chairman of a committee in the House (and the request, if made to GAO's FSI, must come from a chairman) decided that eTrace was deserving of a forensic audit to determine, for starters:
1. How is eTrace data defined and collected?
2. How is this date reported?
3. What are the strengths and limits of this data?
4. How is the ATF using this data to shape control of policy?
Let us use Fast and Furious as a particular example. The request for forensic audit would also want to know how F&F weapons were identified, by whom and according to what reporting. Who was responsible for putting them into the eTrace system? Is ATF making appropriate distinctions between crime and non-crime firearms entered into eTrace? Who had access to the data? Who could formulate reports based on the data, and more importantly, who could edit it? What, truly, was the time to crime for F&F weapons and how does that compare to non-F&F weapons? All of this data, then, could be examined with an eye to determine if the system was manipulated, or is subject to future manipulation.
Note that these are all questions that have an empirical basis. The political import is clear, both for explaining why the ATF did things they way did (and do) and the Congress' motives in asking for it, but the audit itself is simply fact-driven. Whatever the political import, the audit cannot be deflected because it has basic good-government principles and techniques at its heart. Who can object to that? Especially since it is accepted and provided for by law.
This is why all federal government agencies and bureaus fear the GAGAS Monster. GAGAS is an acronym for "Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards." The fact is that most federal law enforcement agencies get away with what they do because they are not subject to forensic audits based upon GAGAS. One way that agencies seek to control the process is by "auditing" themselves and presenting the results to credulous (or, more often, totally-ignorant) congressmen. To be effective, agencies cannot be trusted to do GAGAS forensic audits because they are a party of interest. Eric Holder's DOJ, for example, could not be trusted to audit F&F.
Of course even GAO's FSI has previously come under fire for being politically tainted by the administration is it supposed to oversee, but a good way to keep both the auditors and the audited honest is for citizens and/or the Congress to request, by FOIA or other means, the working papers of the audit. This allows interested parties to look over the shoulders of the auditors to ensure that they are doing their jobs.
Equally important is a critical consideration of the scope and methodology as well as the evidentiary basis of the audit. Was the audit truly designed to be as complete as possible? Or was it a whitewash designed from the beginning.
There are many questions yet to answered about ATF's eTrace system and its relationship to the part designed for ATF by higher-ups in the Justice Department and the White House. It is evident from the testimony of the whistleblower agents, as well as subsequent press investigation of the FBI's role in supporting and protecting their paid confidential informants who actually transported the weapons south of the border, that the ATF was only entrusted by their superiors with two portions of the overall plan: document the movement of weapons from gun stores to the straw buyers and, afterward, to document where those weapons showed up beside dead bodies in Mexico.
A forensic audit of ATF's eTrace system could provide many details of what exactly happened. It remains for the House GOP leadership to pursue the truth with this obvious tool of investigation. They could even deflect charges of political animus on the part of Darrell Issa by the White House and its familiars by having the House Appropriations Committee make the request, since they certainly have a legitimate political interest in how our taxpayer dollars are being spent.
Whether they do or not is entirely up to you, gentle readers. I have given you knowledge of the tool. It is up to you to beat the politicians over the head with it until they begin to use the GAGAS Monster against these frightened bureaucrats.


Pat H. said...

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Hostilis Civitas!

Exurbankevin said...

The correct answer to "who watches the watchmen" is, and always will be, "I myself."

Anonymous said...

"[T]his [FSI] is hardly the extent of the Congress' ability to use forensic audits as a method of achieving real OVERSIGHT."

"[T]he request, if made to GAO's FSI, must come from a CHAIRMAN."

Well, lessee...we got oversight and we got chairman. Chairman + Oversight= CHAIRMAN of the House Committee on OVERSIGHT and Government Reform.

Wait a that Darrell Issa or Darryl Strawberry? Oh hell, what's the difference? They each have a legacy of unfulfilled potential. ;^(


Captcha: "estrango; publival"

Publival: neologism formed from Republican and carnival, meaning a party that performs a lengthy demonstration of their clownish ineptitude.

Estrango: a seemingly endless ritualized dance performed by two men belonging to opposition political parties.

BadCyborg said...

Call me a pessimist if you want, but I firmly believe that the reason that Congress doesn't ask for forensic audits is because THEY DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHAT'S REALLY GOING ON!!

What is needed is a way for a civilian (non-government) organization to be able to perform an audit WHENEVER THEY CHOOSE! The problem is that no such mechanism exists at this time. If I understand the basics of FOIA requests (which it would appear may be ignored with virtual impunity) is that the requester must specify the documents they wish to review. One would expect that a forensic audit would turn up lines of inquiry not originally expected. That possibility would appear to preclude success when conducting a forensic audit via FOIA. No way government is going to voluntarily and knowingly allow We the People to peer behind the curtain. Even if seemingly such legislation WERE passed, you can be sure the language of the application process would more closely the language for obtaining a CHL in "may issue" states rather than "shall issue" states. Thus "Media Matters" would be vastly more likely to be "granted" permission to perform an audit than, say, News Busters. Thus, while appearing to foster "transparency" such legislation would merely serve to protect government from real scrutiny under the guise of increasing transparency.

Folks, I see no non-violent way to get out of the corner into which we have allowed ourselves to be painted. If you believe my analysis to be flawed, kindly point out said flaws.