In Intelligence World, A Mute Watchdog
Sunday, July 15, 2007
An independent oversight board created to identify intelligence abuses after the CIA scandals of the 1970s did not send any reports to the attorney general of legal violations during the first 5 1/2 years of the Bush administration's counterterrorism effort, the Justice Department has told Congress.
Although the FBI told the board of a few hundred legal or rules violations by its agents after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the board did not identify which of them were indeed legal violations. This spring, it forwarded reports of violations in 2006, officials said.
The President's Intelligence Oversight Board -- the principal civilian watchdog of the intelligence community -- is obligated under a 26-year-old executive order to tell the attorney general and the president about any intelligence activities it believes "may be unlawful." The board was vacant for the first two years of the Bush administration.
The FBI sent copies of its violation reports directly to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. But the board's mandate is to provide independent oversight, so the absence of such communications has prompted critics to question whether the board was doing its job.
"It's now apparent that the IOB was not actively employed in the early part of the administration. And it was a crucial period when its counsel would seem to have been needed the most," said Anthony Harrington, who served as the board's chairman for most of the Clinton administration.
"The White House counsel's office and the attorney general should have known and been concerned if they did not detect an active and effective IOB," Harrington said.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) added: "It is deeply disturbing that this administration seems to spend so much of its energy and resources trying to find ways to ignore any check and balance on its authority and avoid accountability to Congress and the American public."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Friday that "the president expects every single person working in counterterrorism and intelligence strictly to follow the law -- and if there are instances where that has not occurred, either intentionally or non-intentionally, he expects it promptly to be corrected." She said the White House relies on the presidentially appointed director of national intelligence to monitor problems.
Through five previous administrations, members of the board -- all civilians not employed by the government -- have been privy to some of America's most secret intelligence operations and have served as a private watchdog against unpublicized abuses. The subjects of their investigations and the resulting reports are nearly all classified.
The Bush administration first appointed board members in 2003. Since then, the CIA and the National Security Agency have been caught up in controversy over interrogation tactics at secret prisons, the transfer of prisoners to countries that use torture, and domestic wiretapping not reviewed by federal courts.
Until recently, the board had not told the attorney general about any wrongdoing. "The Attorney General has no record of receiving reports from the IOB regarding intelligence activities alleged to be potentially unlawful or contrary to Executive Order or Presidential directive," the Justice Department told the House Judiciary Committee in a May 9 letter.
White House officials said the board began forwarding reports of problems shortly thereafter. The officials declined to discuss the board's interactions with President Bush and said its members could not be interviewed for this report.