President Bush's top independent intelligence adviser met last winter with investment bankers in China to help secure his law firm's role in lobbying for a state-run Chinese energy firm and its bid for the U.S. oil company Unocal Corp., according to his law firm, Akin Gump.
The involvement of James C. Langdon Jr., chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and a major Bush fundraiser, underscores the tangled Washington connections beneath CNOOC Ltd.'s bid. Both CNOOC and its rival for Unocal, Chevron Corp., have enlisted lobbyists and public relations professionals with deep ties to the Bush White House and Republican leaders in Congress. Wayne L. Berman, a principal lobbyist for Chevron, is a Bush "Ranger," having raised at least $200,000 for the president's campaign. His wife, Lea, is the White House social secretary.
Langdon's involvement, given his dual role as Bush intelligence adviser and energy lawyer at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, may prove politically problematic, some security experts said. Members of the intelligence board, known as PFIAB, are granted the highest security clearance and develop top-secret advisories and reports for the president, most of which are not even available to members of Congress.
"China is among the biggest intelligence challenges of the coming decades," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "Along with the war on terrorism, it's not far behind, and one has to wonder whether Mr. Langdon's involvement in Chinese affairs will be tolerated by intelligence agencies that have different interests than those of Mr. Langdon's firm."
A partner at Akin Gump, Langdon served as a member of PFIAB in Bush's first term. On Feb. 25, the White House announced his reappointment to the board and his designation as chairman.
Langdon met with CNOOC's investment banking partner, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., in February, marshalling a long friendship with Beijing-based Goldman executive William Wicker to help win his law firm's lobbying contract, Akin Gump officials confirmed. They say he recused himself in late March from further involvement in the matter, either for Akin Gump or the PFIAB.
"He's not working on the deal," said Mark Palmer, a spokesman for Akin Gump who questioned whether it is important that a lawyer tried "to help the firm and then recused himself" from further involvement. Langdon did not return repeated telephone calls requesting comment.
Palmer acknowledged Langdon's close relationship with Wicker, Goldman Sachs's co-head of Asia investment banking, but he denied that Langdon was the key player in securing Akin Gump's lobbying contract. Langdon made one 36-hour trip to China in February, but the CNOOC issue was only one of several matters he was working on for the firm.
"As with all presidential appointees, it is appropriate that the appointee recuse him- or herself when there are potential conflicts," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. "Through a spokesperson, [Langdon] has indicated that he has recused himself from the matter at his firm and that he would recuse himself if it comes before the board."
CNOOC has already requested a review of its unsolicited $18.5 billion bid for Unocal by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a secretive 12-member review board that includes Cabinet members and White House officials. The PFIAB chairman does not sit on CFIUS, but a review of national security implications could stray into matters relevant to foreign intelligence, security experts said.
And any CFIUS review has the potential to yield internal administration dissent. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick is seen as a strong voice to keep Washington from interfering in what CNOOC officials have described as purely a business deal, but other senior officials have long been wary of China's rising strength, including I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the influential chief of staff of Vice President Cheney.
The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow on the national security implications of the CNOOC bid. One of the committee's senior members and a prominent China hawk, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), vowed to raise questions of Langdon's involvement, saying, "Unfortunately, corporate dollars often transcend national security."
A scheduled witness at the hearing, China hawk Frank J. Gaffney Jr. of the Center for Security Policy, called Langdon's work on his firm's behalf "an insight into just how extensive China's tentacles are in official Washington."
Energy experts agreed that Langdon could become a lightning rod despite having recused himself from the matter.
"I have a very high regard for Mr. Langdon, but an emotional issue like this is one thing that's very, very difficult to prepare for," said J. Robinson West, chairman of PFC Energy, a District-based energy consulting firm. "Fair or not, he may get dragged into this."
The President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board was established in 1956 to provide the president independent advice on the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence agencies. Past chairmen include retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Republican former senator Warren B. Rudman, Democratic former House speaker Thomas S. Foley, former defense secretary Les Aspin and top foreign policy adviser Clark H. Clifford.
"They have the ear of the president," said Aftergood, who called the board "disproportionately influential."
Scowcroft, Bush's first PFIAB chairman, led a highly sensitive effort to draft intelligence changes in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that remains top-secret. Under Rudman, the board was tasked to investigate alleged leaks of classified information from the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories.
Langdon's work for the CNOOC contract and his subsequent recusal point to the potential for conflicts inherent in citizen boards such as PFIAB that have access to highly classified information, Rudman said.
But, Rudman said, the PFIAB staff has established strict rules to deal with such problems.
"It's pretty hard to not have a member get into a conflict situation occasionally," he said.