The next scene in Return of the Bushies may feature Brent Scowcroft, who was National Security Adviser to Bush I. The anonymous leakers of Washington are whispering that Scowcroft is in line to become head of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. This little-known outfit advises the chief executive on sensitive intelligence matters and occasionally investigates national security controversies. In recent years it has probed such delicate topics as security at the Energy Department (“a dysfunctional bureaucracy that has proven itself incapable of reforming itself,” huffed the board), ex-CIA director John Deutch’s mishandling of classified information (PFIAB–pronounced Piffiab–blasted George Tenet, the current director, for not supervising the Deutch inquiry better) and the China-stole-our-nuclear-weapons-secrets flap (“Possible damage has been minted as probable disaster; workaday delay and bureaucratic confusion has been cast as diabolical conspiracies. Enough is enough”). PFIAB also oversees the Intelligence Oversight Board, which is supposed to prepare reports on intelligence activities that may be unlawful.
Scowcroft, a national security establishment elder, has the standing to lead the board–but his connections make him a poor choice. If he’s tapped for the part-time, unpaid job, which requires no Senate confirmation, he’ll be granted access to a trove of government secrets. But Scowcroft heads a company that is–and would continue to be–in the business of providing intelligence to firms here and abroad. Should a fellow who directs an intelligence service for foreign and domestic corporations be allowed the run of the US intelligence apparatus?
After the fall of Bush I, Scowcroft hatched the Scowcroft Group. Billed as an “international business advisory group,” Scowcroft’s firm–“managed directly” by its namesake, according to its website–offers businesses “a wide range of services” to assist them in “strategic planning, risk management, market development and ongoing operations.” The group boasts “extraordinary regional expertise” in Asia, Latin America, Africa, Western and Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. And it claims “strong ties to key decision-makers” in these regions. Its clients are telecom, insurance, aerospace, energy, financial, electronics and food companies around the world.
As the chairman of PFIAB, Scowcroft could easily come across sensitive information useful to customers and his own business endeavors. For instance, in 1997 the Scowcroft Group contracted with Medley Advisors to help it provide political intelligence and analysis to firms that trade the stocks, bonds and currencies of emerging-market nations. What if Scowcroft, while tending to his PFIAB duties, acquires nonpublic information related to the financial position of such nations? This is not to suggest that he’s going to sell secrets and commit treason. But there likely will be enough overlap between his private and public interests to provoke questions about his official actions and decisions.
Scowcroft and his group are connected to many enterprises that could benefit from inside intelligence. He has been a consultant for the oil industry and sits on the board of Pennzoil-Quaker State. (In 1996 he was paid $130,000 by Pennzoil–part of a consortium exploring and drilling in Azerbaijan–to lobby US policy on Azerbaijan.) He has been a director of Global Power and Pipelines, an Enron subsidiary with interests in power projects in China, Guatemala, the Philippines, Argentina and Colombia. He has been on the board of telecom giant Qualcomm since 1995. This past February he exercised fewer than half his stock options in the company and pocketed $17 million.
Scowcroft is now steering a government review panel assessing new intelligence-collection technologies. Could what he gleans from this exercise be useful to Qualcomm? Or to iDefense, a high-tech firm that maintains a partnership with the Scowcroft Group and was hired by the Pentagon, according to Intelligence Newsletter, to conduct “a series of private intelligence missions”?
Beyond Scowcroft’s business ties lies another problem: his Bush ties. A friend of the family, he was a key foreign policy adviser to George W. Bush during the campaign. PFIAB would inspire more confidence if it were not filled with loyalists who could be expected to be protective of the Administration. When Bill Clinton was President, he appointed several fundraiser pals to the board–and earned justified criticism–but in 1998 he named Warren Rudman, a former Republican senator, to be PFIAB’s chairman. No one could argue that Rudman had an interest in covering Clinton’s backside.
Scowcroft’s possible appointment has irritated conservatives who correctly consider him a member in too good standing with the business-before-ideology, go-easy-on-China foreign policy establishment. Columnist William Safire recently took a swipe at Bush for considering Scowcroft, who, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, was dispatched by Bush I on a secret mission to China to keep US-China relations on an even keel. And the Scowcroft Group has been keen on doing and promoting business in China. National security right-wingers shudder at the thought of a Scowcroft-led PFIAB investigating charges of Chinese espionage. Scowcroft has also been opposing sanctions against Iran and Libya of late, and hawks would not be wrong to suspect it’s because of his links to Big Oil.
The presidential executive order governing PFIAB notes that members of the board “shall be…qualified on the basis of achievement, experience and independence.” Such boilerplate is often ignored. But Scowcroft stretches the boundaries of the independence qualification. He’s not independent from Bush circles. And he will arrive toting a briefcase overflowing with obligations to corporate clients. Scowcroft, per federal regulations, will not even have to file a financial disclosure form. This is one act of clan patronage Bush should forgo.