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PFIAB Phooey?

Thanks to Harry Shearer, I caught wind of a fairly interesting turn in the Bush Administration's battle to consolidate intelligence oversight in the executive branch.

PFIAB -- the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, called PIAB -- they is plenty of domestic collection these days -- has been fairly drastically reformed and much of its power has been taken away.

The board was set up during the Eisenhower administration and served for two decades as the government’s principle internal reviewer of intelligence collection techniques and analysis.

After the Church commission in the 70s discovered widespread mismanagement of CIA’s covert operations – assassinations, civil rights violations, and otherwise a bunch of scary stuff, President Ford created a separate group – the Intelligence Oversight Board – to investigate, on the president’s order, purported abuses within the intelligence community; its brief include dthe ability to refer crimes it discovered to the attorney general for prosecution.

Presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush used PFIAB as a sounding board, reducing its size and staff. Bush, a Director of Central Intelligence in the 70s, was never a fan of the board, and Reagan's staff distrusted its role.

Under President Clinton, its legitimacy as a check on the IC was restored to some degree. He gave PFIAB some oversight ability over the inspectors general of the various intelligence agencies. For our purposes, he integrated IOB within PFIAB; PFIAB became more independent and less advisory. In 1999, at Clinton’s behest , PFIAB investigated security breaches at the Department of Energy and released a rare public version of its final report.

On Feb. 29, the Bush administration unveiled an executive order that reduced PFIAB’s oversight function and transferred some of its authority to the Director of National Intelligence. From a bureaucratic standpoint, this makes sense: forcing the intelligence community’s various arms and entities to report to the DNI has been a priority of the administration, and the presence of an outside investigative function within the executive branch itself might well complicate the DNI’s own internal investigative capacities.

Critics, though, see another move in the administration’s efforts to minimize oversight, transparency, and to consolidate power in the executive office of the president. The EO makes it clear that only the DNI can contact the attorney general independently. What happens if members of the board find abuses? They can only notify the president.

Another change: the EO reduces the frequency of reports that the board sends to the president. And the inspectors general and general counsels of the intelligence agencies no longer will find their work evaluated by the board without presidential permission. It also seems as if the board no longer has the authority to independently ask agencies for their records.

Section 1.2 of the Clinton administration EO reads:


Sec. 1.2. The PFIAB shall assess the quality, quantity, and adequacy of intelligence collection, of analysis and estimates, and of counterintelligence and other intelligence activities. The PFIAB shall have the authority to review continually the performance of all agencies of the Federal Government that are engaged in the collection, evaluation, or production of intelligence or the execution of intelligence policy. The PFIAB shall further be authorized to assess the adequacy of management, p ersonnel and organization in the intelligence agencies. The heads of departments and agencies of the Federal Government, to the extent permitted by law, shall provide the PFIAB with access to all information that the PFIAB deems necessary to carry out it s responsibilities.

Note the italics.

The revised Bush administration order:

Functions of the PIAB. Consistent with the policy set forth in section 1 of this order, the PIAB shall have the authority to, as the PIAB determines appropriate, or shall, when directed by the President:

(a) assess the quality, quantity, and adequacy of intelligence collection, of analysis and estimates, and of counterintelligence and other intelligence activities, assess the adequacy of management, personnel and organization in the intelligence community, and review the performance of all agencies of the Federal Government that are engaged in the collection, evaluation, or production of intelligence or the execution of intelligence policy and report the results of such assessments or reviews:

In other words – PFIAB, under Clinton, was able to determine what it needed. Now, the PIAB, under the Bush administration, will receive direction from the DNI.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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