On Friday afternoon the White House posted without fanfare a new Executive Order that revamps an important though little known intelligence board. There are a few minor changes, but the most radical revision appears to be that the board has now been stripped of nearly all its powers to investigate and check illegal intelligence activities. It's difficult to see what legitimate reasons there could have been for gutting the oversight activities of the board in this way, and the WH has not explained the changes.
And perhaps not coincidentally, the board has been renamed. Under the older Executive Order from 1993, it was called the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB). Now it has been renamed the President's Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB), suggesting perhaps that the Bush administration had domestic intelligence activities in mind while making these revisions.
PFIAB is tasked with a range of things, but particularly with assessing "the quality, quantity, and adequacy of intelligence collection, of analysis and estimates, and of counterintelligence and other intelligence activities"; and with reviewing the performance of intelligence agencies. Board members are meant to bring an independent point of view to bear on intelligence activities; they cannot be employees of the federal government. This excellent post from 2006 by georgia10 has essential background on the board.
PFIAB members get unprecedented access to our nation's most closely gaurded secrets. They have, according to Salon, "access to intelligence that is unavailable to most members of Congress. They are privy to intelligence from the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the military intelligence agencies and others." ...
The historical role of the PFIAB cannot be underscored enough. It has the ability to look into the most controversial aspects of our intelligence. For example, after the flurry of controversy about the 16 words in Bush's SOTU speech, it was the PFIAB that was the first government body to conclude the claim was "questionable"--though it did blame the insertion on the lack of "an organized system at the White House to vet intelligence."
Georgia also highlighted how, over the course of his presidency, Bush had stacked the PFIAB increasingly with cronies and utter hacks - many of whom were in no way capable of assessing intelligence activities or reviewing agencies. In other words, Bush clearly had little interest in using the Board as intended, to serve as an independent check upon the country's intelligence services.
And now Bush has remade PFIAB/PIAB in such a way as to take away the very means the Board used to possess to check out-of-control intelligence activities.
There is a powerful and critical standing committee within PFIAB, the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB). It was created in 1976 after the exposure of widespread intelligence abuses. IOB's purpose was to act as a check upon illegal intelligence activities. The most radical changes in the new Executive Order concern the IOB, which Bush has stripped of important powers and duties.
Here from the 1993 Executive Order are the relevant powers and duties of the IOB, which were in effect until Friday. I have put in bold several notable clauses.
Sec. 2.2. The Iob shall:
(a) prepare for the President reports of intelligence activities that the Iob believes may be unlawful or contrary to Executive order or Presidential directive;
(b) forward to the Attorney General reports received concerning intelligence activities that the Iob believes may be unlawful or contrary to Executive order or Presidential directive;
(c) review the internal guidelines of each agency within the Intelligence Community that concern the lawfulness of intelligence activities;
(d) review the practices and procedures of the Inspectors General and General Counsel of the Intelligence Community for discovering and reporting intelligence activities that may be unlawful or contrary to Executive order or Presidential directive; and
(e) conduct such investigations as the Iob deems necessary to carry out its functions under this order.
Now compare the IOB's powers and duties under Bush's new Executive Order. You'll note that nearly all the foregoing powers and duties are gone, and with them, any real chance of independence of action.