Intelligence watchdog slow to bite: Critics contend Bush marginalized panel by failing to fill posts until 2 years into term
(Chicago Tribune (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Apr. 3--WASHINGTON -- When a privacy-rights group requested records to show how many times a secretive presidential oversight board had asked the Justice Department to investigate possible violations of intelligence-gathering laws since 2001, the answer that came back last month was as simple as it was startling.
One possible reason: For more than half of President Bush's first term, the Intelligence Oversight Board had no members because Bush did not appoint anyone to it.
Bush didn't make appointments to the board until March 17, 2003, well after his administration had begun an aggressive post-Sept. 11, 2001, expansion of intelligence-related activity.
The oversight board, which can have up to five members, operates in secrecy, but the little information about its workload that has come to light suggests there was ample questionable behavior to examine.
Last month, the Justice Department's inspector general reported that the FBI had referred 108 possible violations of intelligence regulations to the oversight board in 2004 and 2005, ranging in severity "from relatively minor to significant."
A few heavily censored reports that have been made public suggest that the more serious cases involve surveillance of U.S. residents without proper supervision.
The total does not take into account any alleged violations that might have been reported from the other 15 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community.
Critics say the long delay in appointing an oversight board fits a Bush administration pattern of resisting scrutiny.
"This administration has had a consistent lack of interest in what causes failures," said former Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who was chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from mid-2001 to early 2003. "There's a disinterest in understanding what happened, much less holding anyone accountable. It's part of a larger environment of secrecy and a 'we know it all' attitude."
First set up by President Gerald Ford, the board has been used by every president since to flag possible wrongdoing in the intelligence community, providing an additional layer of review above in-house watchdogs in such agencies as the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency.
The oversight panel's members are drawn from the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a part-time body whose first appointments from Bush came nearly a month after the Sept. 11 attacks.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the advisory board appointed by President Bill Clinton stayed on until Bush named his board. But officials familiar with the panel's operation said the Clinton board submitted resignations after the 2000 election and did not meet again.
'An allergy to outsiders'
According to one government official with direct working knowledge of the board, the belated appointments reflected its marginalization within the administration.
The administration "has sort of an allergy to outsiders. It doesn't really listen to commissions and boards," the official said. "They see them as intrusive. . . . In the last five years, [the board] has not had any real stroke."
The chairman of both the advisory and oversight boards was Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser and close friend of President George H.W. Bush's. But Scowcroft had upset the White House by proposing a controversial reorganization that would shift power from the Defense Department to the director of central intelligence, according to a former White House official who had dealings with the boards.
"The administration didn't like his proposal for the intel reorganization" and worried that Scowcroft would use the advisory board as a soapbox to advance his plan, so board members "were tainted by association," the official said. "They weren't given any critical tasks to look at."
Scowcroft further ruffled administration feathers by publicly speaking out against the war in Iraq. Scowcroft declined to comment for this article. He left both boards at the end of 2004.
The advisory board operates under an executive order that calls for up to 16 members drawn from "outside government who are qualified on the basis of experience, achievement and independence."
In one of its few recent public actions, the advisory board in 1999 issued a report harshly critical of security at U.S. weapons labs.
Some lack strong credentials
Despite the unsettled time and the obvious importance of intelligence both in investigating the 2001 attacks and preventing new ones, Bush, hewing to a practice of other presidents, stocked the board not only with former senior government officials but also with political insiders and wealthy campaign donors with no evident intelligence expertise.
Besides Scowcroft, he named several other seasoned ex-government hands, including Arnold Kanter, a former undersecretary of state; former National Security Council member Philip Zelikow, now a senior State Department official; and Cresencio Arcos, a former ambassador to Honduras and aide to John Negroponte, who now is director of national intelligence.
In addition, Bush tapped prominent Republican donors, among them Ray Hunt, a Texas oilman and director of Halliburton Co.; Alfred Lerner, a banker and owner of the Cleveland Browns who died in 2002; and James Barksdale, a former chief executive of Netscape.
Scowcroft was succeeded as head of the advisory and oversight boards by James Langdon, a Washington-based oil and gas attorney and Bush fundraiser. Langdon resigned in August 2005 after reports that he helped his law firm, Akin Gump, land business lobbying for a Chinese energy company's bid to take over the American oil company Unocal Corp. An Akin Gump spokesman said Langdon resigned to avoid conflicts of interest.
Former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke said the board is supposed to include members without a government background in order to get a citizen perspective, but Bush "put more big donors on PFIAB than anyone had before. ... What Bush did with [the board] was to make it political. ... That was new."
Perino, the White House spokeswoman, said, "The president appreciates the work of the board and appreciates its leadership and advisory role."
By executive order, the advisory board, which is commonly referred to as PFIAB (pronounced "piffy-ab"), is responsible for assessing "the quality ... and adequacy of intelligence collection." The oversight panel is charged with preparing "for the president reports of intelligence activities that the IOB [Intelligence Oversight Board] believes may be unlawful" and with sending reports of such activity to the attorney general for further investigation.
Most infractions minor
The vast majority of items reported by the FBI to the oversight board are minor infractions, such as missed deadlines for filing paperwork, and are punished internally, said FBI spokesman Richard Kolko.
Some cases in the 2004-05 batch of possible violations appear more serious, including one instance in which the FBI received the contents of 181 telephone calls instead of just the billing records specified by a warrant, and other cases in which investigations continued for weeks or months longer than authorized.
The oversight board can help protect intelligence agencies against unwarranted allegations of impropriety, said Anthony Harrington, a former U.S. ambassador to Brazil, who headed the Intelligence Oversight Board from 1993 to 1999.
"There has been a tendency to politicize mistakes," Harrington said. "In the partisan environment that we're in, politicians can be too quick to treat something as criminal when it's an error in judgment."
The lack of referrals from the oversight board to the Justice Department came to light in a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Privacy Information Center for "all reports of possible intelligence misconduct reported from the Intelligence Oversight Board to the attorney general" from September 2001 through the end of 2005.
In a March 1 letter, the Justice Department replied that "no records responsive to your request were located."
The absence of referrals "raises questions about how this process works and whether it works the way it's supposed to," said Marcia Hofmann, director of the privacy center's Open Government Project.
Prominent role in past
Although its role in the Bush administration appears diminished, in other administrations the oversight board has been assigned prominent roles in evaluating U.S. intelligence activities.
In 1995, the oversight board issued a secret report that found that the Clinton administration broke no laws when it allowed arms shipments to Bosnian Muslims despite a United Nations embargo the U.S. was pledged to uphold.
In 1996, the oversight board produced a public report revealing that the CIA employed Guatemalan military officers suspected of torture, assassinations and other human-rights violations as paid informants. The report also said the agency broke the law by failing to keep congressional intelligence committees informed of its activities.
Harrington, who was involved in both inquiries, said that "because the intel community necessarily operates behind a veil of secrecy, the board provides any president an important means to systematically address possible wrongdoing, and thus also constitutes a deterrent."
"If anything," Harrington said, "the board seems especially relevant in the post-9/11 environment."
Since October, Bush has named a completely new oversight board, headed by Stephen Friedman, a New York investment banker who was previously an economic adviser to the president and who also had service on PFIAB under Clinton.
Other members are Arthur Culvahouse, a Washington lawyer and former Reagan White House counsel; David Jeremiah, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now a Washington defense industry consultant; and Don Evans, Bush's longtime friend and a former commerce secretary.
[ Back To TMCnet.com's Homepage ]