Secrecy News

Obama Boosts White House Intel Advisory Board

In a move that will strengthen internal executive branch oversight of intelligence, President Obama this week said that a White House intelligence oversight board will be required to alert the Attorney General whenever it learns of “intelligence activities that involve possible violations of Federal criminal laws.” A similar requirement for the board to notify the Attorney General had been canceled by President Bush in February 2008.  President Obama reversed that step in his executive order 13516 on the authorities of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB) and the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB).

The new Obama order also restores to the PIAB and the IOB some of the other teeth that the Bush Administration had removed.  The order states that the Director of National Intelligence and others “shall provide such information and assistance as the PIAB and the IOB determine is needed to perform their functions.”  The Bush order had only spoken of “such information and assistance as the PIAB and the IOB may need to perform functions under this order.”  So the new order (like the prior Clinton order) helpfully specifies that the PIAB and the IOB are the ones who will “determine” what they need–not the DNI or anyone else.

The Obama order does not restore the Clinton-era requirement that all intelligence agencies heads report quarterly to the IOB.  Instead, as in the Bush order, the DNI is to report to the Board at least twice a year.

The Obama order states that the PIAB membership should be comprised of individuals “who are not full-time employees of the Federal Government.”  Previously, they had to be “not employed by the Federal Government” at all.  The basis for this change is unclear.

Strengthening internal oversight of intelligence activities is among the easiest of changes to Bush Administration intelligence policy that the Obama Administration could be expected to make.  The action does not entail any increase in public disclosure or congressional reporting concerning intelligence activities, not does it infringe on executive authority in any way.

On October 28, President Obama announced the appointment of former Senators Chuck Hagel and David Boren to the PIAB, which had been vacant until then.

“We are off to a good start with this meeting by welcoming the press, which past advisory boards have rarely done,” the President said. “That’s a reflection of my administration’s commitment to transparency and open government, even, when appropriate, on matters of national security and intelligence.”  But judging from a published transcript, no matters of substance were discussed and no questions from the press were taken at the meeting.