Who’s on Piffiab? It’s a question anyone concerned with spying, clandestine actions, and the war on terrorism should be asking. But the Bush Administration, in a break with the past, is keeping this important information secret.

The President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board–usually referred to by its acronym–is a group of prominent citizens who offer advice to the President on sensitive intelligence matters. It was established in 1956 by President Eisenhower, and past chairmen have included former Senator Warren Rudman, former House Speaker Thomas Foley, and former Defense Secretary Les Aspin. In recent years, PFIAB has conducted investigations (often through its Intelligence Oversight Board) of spy-community controversies. It examined lax security at Department of Energy nuclear weapons facilities, CIA involvement with Guatemalan military officials who committed human rights abuses, US intelligence failures in Somalia, and the CIA’s cover-its-ass investigation of CIA director John Deutch, who compromised classified information. PFIAB challenged the charge–popular in rightwing circles–that China had stolen nuclear weapons secrets from the United States. (“Possible damage has been minted as probable disaster; workaday delay and bureaucratic confusion has been cast as diabolical conspiracies,” a PFIAB report concluded. “Enough is enough.”)

Last year–prior to September 11–President George W. Bush selected Brent Scowcroft to lead PFIAB. Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to President Bush I, possessed appropriate credentials for the post. But the choice posed problems. Scowcroft, a onetime consultant for the oil industry, a board member of Qualcomm, and a past director of Global and Power Pipelines (an Enron subsidiary involved in projects in China, Guatemala, the Philippines, Argentina and Colombia), runs his own business, the Scowcroft Group, which sells intelligence and other services to globe-trotting corporations in the telecom, aerospace, insurance, energy, financial, electronics and food industries. As head of PFIAB, Scowcroft has access to secret information that could be useful to his clients and his own business endeavors. Can the public be certain that Scowcroft’s business links do not unduly influence his actions as PFIAB chairman or that he does not exploit his PFIAB position to help his clients and his own company? And his close personal relationship to the Bush family could undermine his ability to appear as an independent reviewer of intelligence activities mounted by the Bush administration. Scowcroft, though, recently proved he could take issue with the President by questioning the need to go to war against Iraq.

But Scowcroft does share a dominant trait of the Bush crowd: secrecy. On August 13, I called the PFIAB office and asked for a list of current board members. “That information is provided only on a need-to-know basis,” said Roosevelt Roy, PFIAB’s administrative assistant.

I was surprised. As far as I could recall, PFIAB membership has always been public information. In fact, the Clinton Administration posted the names of the members on a PFIAB web page. (Clinton board members included Zoe Baird, the failed attorney general nominee; Sidney Drell, a renowned scientist; Ann Caracristis, former deputy director of the National Security Agency; Robert J. Hermann, a United Technologies executive; and Maurice Sonnenberg, an international businessman.) The Bush White House web page for PFIAB notes the board now has sixteen members and reveals nothing about the identities of any except Scowcroft.

Who determined this information should be secret? I asked Roy. “The chairman has made this a need-to-know,” he replied. “But it won’t be permanent.” When should I call back? Within six months, he said.

“This is utterly preposterous and insulting to the American public,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “There is no national security justification. It’s bureaucratic pettiness. This is not an intelligence agency. These people do not collect intelligence. They are not under cover. To my knowledge, the members have never been secret.”

Loch Johnson, a former congressional staffer who investigated the intelligence community and now a professor at University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, remarks, “I’ve never heard of the names of PFIAB members being secret. How absurd! A perfect illustration of how this administration has gone secrecy mad.”

Does Scowcroft believe PFIAB members, who serve without pay, might be targeted by terrorists? Or reporters? Is he trying to prevent public scrutiny of the board’s composition? Scowcroft’s office said he was unavailable for comment. But if the PFIAB roster is indeed sensitive, the White House has left at least one of the members out in the cold. Last October, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported routinely that Bush had named former California Governor Pete Wilson to the board.

PFIAB is little-known but important. After 9/11, the performance and the practices of US intelligence agencies have drawn more attention. The question for Scowcroft: does the public have a need to know who is watching the intelligence community?

On August 14, I again contacted the PFIAB office at the White House, and Roy said that, in response to my original request for information, PFIAB might consider releasing the identities of the board members. But, he said, “I can’t make that final call.” Was he spinning or did he have an indication that Scowcroft is going to yield? If Scowcroft’s PFIAB does spill the names, I’ll post them here.