Two of Obama’s Independent Intelligence Advisors Have Supported Oversight in Past; Why Not Now?

I’ve written recently about Obama’s refusal to appoint anyone to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which is supposed to ensure the government protects privacy while laying out a dragnet to catch terrorists, most recently when Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton issued their 10-year report card on the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. And I wrote about Bush’s efforts to bypass the intelligence oversight that is supposed to be exercised by the Intelligence Oversight Board by simply eliminating the part of the Presidential Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board that did that oversight, the IOB.

But it seems Obama has ensured–as he has with PCLOB–that IOB can’t do its job. Or at least that’s the appearance from the government’s stone-walling on information about the board.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been trying to see whether Obama has fulfilled his promise to restore the IOB to functionality by FOIAing who is on it and what they’ve been doing (and whether they’ve been ignoring the National Security Letters the Army has been sending out).Thus far, the government has denied their FOIA.

The IOB is supposed to alert the president and attorney general when it spots behavior that is unlawful or contrary to executive order. However, in his nearly three years in office, President Obama has not yet announced any appointments to the IOB. EFF’s suit comes after the ODNI refused to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for membership, vacancies, and other information about the IOB made earlier this year.

“The IOB has a critically important mission – civilian oversight of America’s intelligence activities. The board exists to make sure government agencies are not overstepping their authority and abusing citizens’ rights,” said EFF Open Government Legal Fellow Mark Rumold. “History has shown that intelligence agencies overseeing their own behavior is like the fox guarding the henhouse. If the IOB is ineffective, impaired, or short-staffed, that’s information Americans need to know.”

So now they’re suing to get that information.

But there’s something else weird about Obama’s stone-walling here. Here’s the list of people Obama has appointed to the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, the board that oversees the IOB.

  • Chuck Hagel (10/28/2009)
  • David Boren (10/28/2009)
  • Roel Campos (12/23/2009)
  • Lee Hamilton (12/23/2009)
  • Rita Hauser (12/23/2009)
  • Paul Kaminski (12/23/2009)
  • Ellen Laipson (12/23/2009)
  • Les Lyles (12/23/2009)
  • Jami Miscik (12/23/2009)
  • Richard Danzig (12/1/2010)
  • Daniel Meltzer (12/1/2010)
  • Thomas Wheeler (4/17/2011)
  • Mona Sutphen (9/6/2011)
  • Phillip Zelikow (9/6/2011)

You know, Lee Hamilton, the 9/11 Commission Chair who just weeks ago was nagging the Administration that, “there should be a board within the executive branch to oversee adherence to the [privacy] guidelines we recommend and the commitment the government makes to defend our civil liberties.” And Phillip Zelikow, who wasn’t involved in the anniversary nagging, but who was involved in the original recommendation? (FWIW, Chuck Hagel voted for PCLOB as part of the larger counterterrorism reform package of which it was a part.)

These men obviously think (or at least used to think) our intelligence community needs some oversight. I realize PCLOB isn’t the same thing as IOB (as originally conceived and even as statutorily defined PCLOB was supposed to be stronger in some ways than IOB, though it was targeted at privacy, not intelligence violations). So why not push for oversight designated to be a part of the board on which they serve?

Seven years ago, Hamilton and Zelikow signed off on the this language:

[W]hile protecting our homeland, Americans should be mindful of threats to vital personal and civil liberties. This balancing is no easy task, but we must constantly strive to keep it right.

This shift of power and authority to the government calls for an enhanced system of checks and balances to protect the precious liberties that are vital to our way of life.

Right now, even as Hamilton and Zelikow serve as Obama’s handpicked independent intelligence advisors, the checks and balances on our intelligence system are actually worse than when they signed off on those words. They may not be able to do anything about EFF’s FOIA to learn what has become of the IOB. But it’d be nice if they used their advisory position to implement checks and balances more generally on the intelligence community.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

9 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    I keep thinking that Obama appointed Frannie Townsend to serve as member of the PIAB as it is now known, but I guess she only served on it during the last part of the Bush/Cheney regime.

  2. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: I also posted that comment to see if there was an Edit function per your email. No such critter seen here.

    And btw, a bit more Googling informed me that Obama did appoint Fran Townsend, but it was to DHS’s Homeland Security Advisory Council. I don’t know that the HSAC is any more functional than the OIB.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: She’s in charge of INSA right now. Similar gravy train for private sector people, but with less access to highly classified info.

    Or maybe not.

  4. MadDog says:

    I think we as Progressives can safely now conclude that the Obama Administration is as National Security-obsessed as their predecessor Bush/Cheney regime.

    I also think that one of the reasons there is no IOB is that the Obama Administration believes that it serves no upside in their National Security obsession.

    Filling the IOB’s membership would potentially provide more ammunition to Progressives that the Obama Administration has preserved, and in many instances, increased the control and power of the National Security State.

    My best analogy is in regard to filling an Inspector General slot. If you don’t fill the Inspector General slot, you can’t get no inspections.

    Sounds like a feature and not a bug.

  5. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: Wiki thinks like I do about INSA:

    “…Former Homeland Security Advisor to President George W. Bush, Frances Townsend, serves as chairwoman of INSA’s Board of Directors. She follows John O. Brennan who left INSA in 2008 to become Deputy National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama. In 2007, INSA’s Board of Directors elected Brennan to replace Vice-Admiral John Michael McConnell upon his confirmation as the nation’s second Director of National Intelligence…”

  6. CTuttle says:

    Here’s a spooky read…

    Shin Bet releases detained Al-Jazeera reporter after 49 days’ imprisonment

    How the occupation justice system saved face in the case of Samer Allawi…

    …Something of the sort took place two days ago (Monday). Samer Allawi, the head of the Al Jazeera station in Afghanistan, was secretly arrested by the GSS (General Security Service, AKA Shin Bet) at the beginning of August, as tried to cross from the West Bank to Jordan. The case was kept under a partial gag order. The GSS claimed (Hebrew) that there were “strong suspicions” against Allawi, and that “various bodies” are involved in his interrogation, possibly meaning foreign intelligence services, and therefore opposed his release…

  7. CTuttle says:

    Here’s what Col. Lang thinks about Zelikow…

    Zelikow’s re-appointment to the “President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board” (PFIAB) is testimony to the enduring power of AIPAC in Washington. On this board Zelikow will have access to ALL the deepest secrets of the US intelligence community. pl


  8. Timbo says:

    Oh, the President has much more important things to think about…like whether or not that guy from the Bears is actually going to come to his party.

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