Intelligence agencies and the FBI are not reporting “non-mission” or personal flights on government planes as required by law, according to a government audit, and the executive branch is quick to presume such reporting of tax dollars is exempt without explaining why.
Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) talks with reporters outside the Senate chamber in the U.S. Capitol Nov. 21, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
Unless it's classified information, federal officials who travel on a government aircraft for non-mission purposes are required by federal law to report that travel to the General Services Administration, the federal government's procurement agency.
However, intelligence agencies have been taking unclassified trips without reporting to the GSA of the costs, according to an audit by the Government Accountability Office, the federal government's internal watchdog.
“The exemption in General Services Administration (GSA) regulations that allows intelligence agencies not to report unclassified data on senior federal official travel for non-mission purposes is not consistent with executive branch requirements, and GSA has not provided a basis for deviating from these requirements,” the GAO report states.
The report found that the GSA does not indicate in its logs that certain trips were omitted. It cites between 2009 and 2011, the FBI did not report on 395 unclassified flights at a cost of $7.8 million.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) asked for the report.
“Secrecy of personal or nonmission trips taken at taxpayer expense only serves to create a distrust of the federal government,” Grassley said in a statement. “The GAO identified a significant gap that needs to be addressed to ensure transparency and verify that federal agencies are following current regulations. The intelligence agencies need to be held accountable. Transparency brings accountability and may just save the taxpayers some money.”
The Senior Federal Travel Reports that are filed with the GSA are supposed to provide “the number of trips taken by senior federal officials, the costs of such trips, the number of agencies reporting, and the number and costs of trips taken by cost justification.”
There are exemptions for intelligence agencies in terms of reporting expenses. However, those intelligence exemptions were not specifically cited when the agencies opted against diclosure.
GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini said in a letter to the GAO the agency supports recommendations for improvements.
“GSA recognizes that collecting complete information provides an important and useful tool to agencies for data-driven management and decision-making and increase transparency,” Tangherlini said, adding the agency will more closely adhere to federal travel reporting regulations. “In doing so, the GSA hopes to provide clearer guidance to the agencies on its reporting requirements related to aircraft and travel and ultimately to improve the accuracy of reporting to GSA.”
The recent government audit was a follow-up to an audit of the GSA last year that found the procurement agency allowed federal agencies, particularly the FBI, to make their own travel rules. The 2013 report found that two FBI Gulfstream V jets were mainly being used for personal flights. These jets were justified to Congress as being critical to counterterrorism. During the 2013 investigation, the GAO learned that the FBI made its own determination that as an intelligence gathering organization it doesn't have to report travel. The GSA did not question this conclusion.
While the 2014 audit expressed the need for a consistent standard for intelligence agencies to be exempted from reporting on taxpayer-funded travel.
“GSA has not identified the basis—specifically, a source of authority or rationale—for this exemption as applied to senior federal official travel for nonmission purposes that would allow for it to deviate from executive branch specifications,” the 2014 GAO audit states in its conclusion. “Identifying an adequate basis for the intelligence agency reporting exemption or removing the exemption from its regulations if an adequate basis cannot be identified could help GSA ensure its regulations for senior federal official travel comply with executive branch requirements.”