GAO (General Accounting Office, United States)

GAO (General Accounting Office, United States)

The United States General Accounting Office, or GAO, is an independent agency charged with investigating expenditures by the federal government, as well as activities associated with those expenditures. The GAO issues some 1,000 reports a year, and since September 2001, its evaluation of security measures undertaken by the federal government have provided a key means for assessing the degree to which various agencies and departments are prepared, or not prepared, for terrorist threats. The GAO, which reports directly to Congress, is known as the "congressional watchdog" for its role in overseeing federal spending of taxpayer dollars.

The early GAO. In the aftermath of World War I, government accounting and financial management was in a state of disarray. The war had brought unprecedented costs on the federal government, which had expanded considerably to accommodate its new role on the world stage, and Congress lacked adequate means of reviewing budgets and spending. To address the problem, in 1921, it passed the Budget and Accounting Act, which created GAO as an auditor independent of the executive branch.

The next major phase of government expansion attended the implementation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal during the 1930s, and GAO grew apace. Its workforce, including 1,700 employees in 1921, grew to 5,000 by 1940. With the coming of World War II, the size of government ballooned to proportions not seen even in World War I or the Great Depression, and the growth of GAO to 14,000 employees by 1945 reflected this. At the same time, GAO administrators found themselves unable to keep up with the ever-burgeoning paperwork, and this forced a reconsideration of GAO practices at war's end.

Reassessing its mission. Prior to the end of World War II, the GAO had dutifully tracked every expenditure undertaken by the federal government, but by 1945 it had become clear that this practice was not working. GAO was awash in a sea of paper, and the minutiae of regular accounting had begun to obscure the larger picture of government finances. The agency therefore set about transferring some of its accounting functions, such as the checking of vouchers, to the executive branch of the federal government. Thereafter, its accounting role became more strategic than tactical. Instead of reviewing every expense sheet, the GAO began to oversee the financial control and management of federal agencies. In the late 1940s, it began to work with the Department of the Treasury and the Bureau of the Budget (which later became the Office of Management and Budget), assisting the agencies of the executive branch in improving their own accounting systems and controls. It thus, delegated the more detailed tasks, and turned its attention to comprehensive auditing.

This reassessment of the GAO mission was reflected in reduction of its payroll to fewer than 7,000. The GAO, in fact, is one of the rare government agencies that actually decreased in size with the passage of time. Today its employees number about 3,300, including experts in program evaluation, law, accounting, economics, and other areas.

The modern GAO. Despite the reduction in its numbers, the GAO in the second half of the twentieth century expanded its operations commensurate with the growth of government that attended the early Cold War, the Great Society and War on Poverty, Vietnam, and later developments. The number of GAO offices around the country and around the world has expanded, as has the range of specialties among its employees. During the 1970s, GAO added scientists, actuaries, and specialists in fields such as health care, information systems, and public policy. In 1986, GAO developed its own team of professional investigators, many of whom have backgrounds in law enforcement.

Security and intelligence-related work has become increasingly important to the GAO mission, particularly in the atmosphere of heightened alert since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks upon the United States. The GAO has evaluated plans for the Department of Homeland Security and other measures undertaken in the wake of the terrorist attack, and has identified areas for improvement in many aspects of security at the local, state, or federal levels. In the fall 2002, for instance, the GAO reported that 13 of the hijackers involved in the September 11 incidents had not been interviewed by U.S. consular officials prior to the granting of visas. The GAO also evaluated the measures taken by 24 of the largest federal departments and agencies to protect their computers from fraud, misuse, or cyberterrorism, and found that 14 of these had failed to undertake appropriate measures for the protection of their information systems.



Alexander, Yonah, and Michael S. Swetnam. Cyber Terrorism. Ardsley, NY: Transnational, 2001.

Trask, Roger R. Defender of the Public Interest: The General Accounting Office, 1921–1996. Washington, D.C.: General Accounting Office, 1996.


Eggen, Dan. "Hijackers Got Visas with Little Scrutiny, GAO Reports." Washington Post. (October 22, 2002): A7.


Lee, Christopher. "Agencies Fail Cyber Test; Report Notes 'Significant Weaknesses' in Computer Security." Washington Post. (November 20, 2002): A23.

General Accounting Office. < > (February 23, 2003).


Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office (CIAO), United States
Cyber Security
Intelligence, United States Congressional Oversight
United States, Counter-Terrorism Policy

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