Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.
Who's on Piffiab? Anyone concerned with spying, clandestine actions, and the war on terrorism should care about the answer. But is the Bush Administration, in a break with the past, attempting to keep this important information secret? If so, the administration is doing a rather bad job.
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, 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 valuable 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. And he meant, of course, that a reporter had no need to know.
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 need-to-know," he replied. "But it won't be permanent." When should I call back? Within six months, he said.
I took Roy at his word, and I contacted secrecy-in-government experts who expressed their outrage. I called Scowcroft's office and was told he was unavailable. I did a computer search and found that one member's appointment--that of former California Governor Pete Wilson--had been routinely reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune. I checked back with Roy at PFIAB, and he said that, in response to my original request for information, PFIAB might in the near-future consider releasing the identities of the board members. But, he added, "I can't make that final call." I wrote up a story and posted it. (You can read it by clicking on the link below.)
Now here comes the mystery (or joke): after the article hit the website, someone forwarded to me a White House press release, dated October 5, 2001, announcing Bush's intention to appoint fifteen individuals to PFIAB. They were Scowcroft; Pete Wilson; Cresencio Arcos, an AT&T executive and former US ambassador; Jim Barksdale, former head of Netscape; Robert Addison Day, chairman of the TWC Group, a money management firm; Stephen Friedman, past chairman of Goldman Sachs; Alfred Lerner, chief executive of MBNA; Ray Lee Hunt, scion of the Texas oil fortune; Rita Hauser, a prominent lawyer and longtime advocate of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation; David Jeremiah, a retired admiral; Arnold Kanter, a Bush I national security official and a founding member of the Scowcroft Group; James Calhoun Langdon, Jr., a power-lawyer in Texas; Elisabeth Pate-Cornell, head of industrial engineering and engineering management at Stanford University; John Harrison Streicker, a real estate magnate; and Philip Zelikow, a National Security Council staffer during Bush I. (Two members of this group--Day and Langdon--were Bush campaign "pioneers," meaning they collected at least $100,000 for W.'s presidential bid. Barksdale raised money for Bush in Silicon Valley. Lerner's MBNA was the single biggest source of contributions for Bush in 2000, and he and his wife each donated $250,000 to the GOP. Hunt, too, rounded up bucks for Bush. Friedman gave $50,000 to the Republican Party in 2000. Streicher is a Democratic contributor.)
So why the secrecy now? Has something changed in the membership of PFIAB? Or is Scowcroft trying to cloak information already released by the White House? If that is the case, this episode suggests PFIAB still has much to learn about operational security.
Scowcroft should confirm whether the individuals named in the White House press release are indeed serving as board members. PFIAB is little-known, but important. After 9/11, the performance and the practices of US intelligence agencies have drawn more attention, and PFIAB can play a key role in overseeing the intelligence bureaucracies. The question remains for Scowcroft: does the public have a need to know who is watching the spies?
NOW FOR AN UPDATE:
Two days after this story appeared, Randy Deitering, the executive director of PFIAB called me. "I owe you an apology," he said. "You got some bad information." He explained that Roosevelt Roy had "grossly misspoken" when he said the membership list was provided only on a need-to-know basis. Deitering acknowledged it is public information. He confirmed that the current roster is the same as the list released by the White House press office last October. He said that when Roy and the rest of the PFIAB staff receive an information request, they are under instructions to "run it by me" before faxing out the material. "I think it's prudent to know who we're faxing to....It had nothing to do with the chairman."
I pointed out that under Clinton, PFIAB had placed the names and descriptions of board members on PFIAB's web pages, yet the board no longer did so. "There was some concern in October, November and December about how much we want to release about the members," Deitering commented. "We've never been through an attack like that before." But he said he would consider such a posting. Next, PFIAB can consider declassifying its historical records, right? I responded. (The board has steadfastly refused to make its documents available for declassification, claiming that could cause board members to feel reluctant about providing unvarnished advice to the President.) With a laugh, Deitering said, "Now that's not what we're going to do."