There is a glimmer of hope that with each new year, the federal government will get better at curbing the rampant waste of your money. That glimmer resides in the General Accounting Office, which, in 1990, caught enough waste, fraud and abuse to save taxpayers $15.2 billion - nearly twice as much as it identified in 1989.

A big chunk of the money was caught before it was squandered on secret communications and intelligence programs in the Pentagon.That information is found in a confidential report the GAO has prepared for key members of Congress. We obtained a copy of the report on its way to Congress.

The figure that stands out is $2.9 billion in savings from "command, control, communications and intelligence" in the military, which is more than four times the amount of waste found in that category in 1989.

For years, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon intelligence agencies have resisted oversight by the GAO - an arm of Congress. And we have contended for years that hundreds of millions of dollars were being hidden under the "secret" stamp because congressional oversight was ineffective. The GAO is allowed to audit the Pentagon but not the CIA.

The impression left by the GAO's internal review of its 1990 performance illustrates a truism that we have always believed - that the plodding and meticulous GAO auditors are one of Washington's best-kept secrets. We have always considered them a partner in rooting out the waste that is endemic in government. The GAO auditors are not headline seekers. They never issue their findings without first letting the agency under investigation respond to every point. And when the GAO nails an agency, often it is the member of Congress who asked for the investigation that takes the credit.

No matter who gets the credit, the GAO works out to be one of the few cost-effective outfits in Washington. It cost $364 million to run the agency in 1990. That paid for 5,000 employees around the world - 4,200 of whom were dedicated solely to investigations and audits.

So the $15.2 billion savings in 1990 means the GAO paid for itself more than 40 times over by telling federal agencies how to use your money more effectively. After the money the GAO saved in intelligence and communications, the agency caught with the most potential waste was the Air Force. It tends to have big-ticket weapons and aircraft that have a habit of not performing well or costing more than they should.

The overall cuts and improvements made in the Air Force as a result of GAO investigations came to $1.5 billion in 1990. The fact that the GAO found $1.3 billion in overspending in the Air Force in 1989 suggests that at least one branch of the service hasn't learned its lesson.

The Navy isn't listening either. In 1989, the GAO identified $812 million that the Navy could save. The figure jumped to $1.2 billion in 1990. If the GAO investigations are any indicator, the Army is the one branch of the service that could teach the others a lesson. The GAO found only $582 million of potential waste in the Army in 1990.