Wednesday, March 5, 2008

White House guts Intelligence Oversight Board

White House guts Intelligence Oversight Board

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On Friday, the White House issued a new executive order effectively gutting the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB), “created in 1976 in the wake of widespread abuses by U.S. intelligence agencies.” Under the order, many of the IOB’s investigative powers will now be transfered to DNI Mike McConnell. “Rather than intelligence agencies reporting their activities to the board for review, they will now report them to McConnell,” the AP notes. Smintheus has more.

New White House order bolsters intelligence chief's power

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The White House on Friday gave the national intelligence director some of the powers of an advisory board created in 1976 to serve as the president's watchdog for illegal intelligence activities, a move meant to bolster the role of the intelligence chief in relation to the 16 agencies he oversees.

A senior White House official said the shift is intended to force the intelligence agencies to report to McConnell in one more way. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the president.

Congress created the intelligence director position in 2004 to oversee and coordinate the work of the agencies but it came with little budget authority, the traditional means to power in federal Washington. The fledgling office has struggled to assert itself over the spy agencies ever since.

A new White House executive order splits the watchdog duties of the Intelligence Oversight Board, a five-member panel of private citizens, with National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell. Rather than intelligence agencies reporting their activities to the board for review, they will now report them to McConnell. The Intelligence Oversight Board will make sure McConnell fulfills these new duties, the White House official said.

The 2004 law also gave the national intelligence director responsibility for overseeing the legality of intelligence activities. The executive order is meant to reflect that, the official said.

Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, an advocacy group, said the move appears to dilute the independent board's investigatory powers in favor of a member of the president's administration.

"It makes the new board subordinate to the (national intelligence director) in a way that the old board was not subordinate to the director of central intelligence," he said.

The White House disagrees.

"The (board) retains its independent authority to review intelligence community activities," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. "It can, as appropriate, report matters to the president."

The Intelligence Oversight Board was created in 1976 in the wake of widespread abuses by U.S. intelligence agencies. The five member-board comprised of private citizens was given full investigative powers and the authority to report potentially illegal activities to the attorney general. In a rare public report in 1996, the board chastised the CIA for not informing the State Department that its foreign operatives in Guatemala were involved in kidnapping, murders and other human rights abuses.

Those investigations will now be largely handled by the national intelligence director, and he will report potential crimes to the attorney general. The board will report to the president if it feels illegal activities are not being adequately addressed.

The executive order also gives the president the power to hand pick the chairman and members of the board. Previously they were selected by the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from its 16 members, all of whom are appointed by the president.

"The order seems to establish greater presidential control over the board," said Suzanne Spaulding, a former assistant CIA general counsel and national security expert now in private practice. "It is less independent. That is the president's prerogative. But it is a trade off. I think it reduces the credibility of the of the board to some degree."

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