PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE PRESIDENT’S INTELLIGENCE ADVISORY BOARD
By Kenneth Michael Absher, Michael C. Desch and Roman Popadiuk
University Press of Kentucky, $39.95, 528 pages
Since the Eisenhower administration, every president with the exception of Jimmy Carter has made varying use of an outside advisory panel that authors Kenneth Michael Absher, Michael C. Desch and Roman Popadiuk term “one of the smallest, most secretive, least well-known, but potentially influential parts of the U.S. intelligence community.”
During most of its existence, the body was known as the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, or PFIAB. In 2008, during the post-Sept. 11 restructuring of the intelligence establishment, the name was changed to the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, which continues to be used under President Obama.
Because of the highly classified material with which it deals, the board is by nature secretive. It also operates under a blanket of executive privilege that President Eisenhower articulated in a 1958 letter to Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson in denying a request to access to PFIAB materials: “From time to time the President invites groups of specially qualified citizens to advise him on complex problems. These groups give the advice after intensive study, with the understanding that their advice will be kept confidential. Only by preserving the confidential nature of such advice is it possible to assemble such groups or for the President to avail himself of such advice.”
Long-term board member (and chairman, 1981-90) Leo Cherne repeatedly emphasized to colleagues “that PFIAB was special because it was the one part of the U.S. government that never leaked.” He regularly refused to cooperate with investigations of the PFIAB by other parts of the intelligence community and the congressional oversight committees.
Given these strictures, the authors of this book worked with a very thin documentary base. The board, whose membership has ranged in numbers from eight to 19, is housed in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds. Traditionally, it met every other month for two to three days (although the current Obama board meets monthly). Its executive director is appointed by the president, and it has a permanent staff of three to four members, drawn from the intelligence community. Members are unpaid, but they receive travel expenses.
A recurring theme in board recommendations over the years has been management of the CIA’s Operations Directorate, the spy arm of the agency. During the Eisenhower years, for instance, the board reported that it was “unable to conclude” that various covert actions “have been worth the risk or the great expenditure of manpower, money and other resources.” These activities, it felt, “have tended to detract substantially from its primary intelligence gathering mission.”
The same board also complained of Allen W. Dulles’ dual role as director of the CIA and head of the intelligence community, saying he was “both pitcher and umpire” in competing with other agencies.
The authors write that advisers to President Kennedy took umbrage at the very existence of the board, calling its members “useless impediments, bureaucratic obstructions to a vigorous, activist foreign policy.” The failed Bay of Pigs operation, however, convinced JFK that he needed such a board to provide oversight.
The board seemed to be politically protective of Kennedy in a report on the Cuban missile crisis. It faulted the CIA for not detecting Soviet missiles earlier but did not mention that Secretary of State Dean Rusk and White House National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy had grounded U-2 reconnaissance flights for weeks during September and early October 1962.
Another action that contained more than a hint of politics came during the Ford administration, stemming from an in-house dispute at the CIA over Soviet missile strength. A majority of analysts thought White House fears of increasing Soviet strength were overblown. Dissidents, supported by outside conservative allies, persuaded the PFIAB to task rival “teams” from each faction with examining the hard evidence. The report of the “Team B” hard-liners, which highlighted an increasing Soviet aggressiveness, was used to bolster support for defense spending increases during the Reagan years. (A detailed — and declassified — account of the Team A-Team B turmoil can be found in Studies in Intelligence, the CIA’s in-house journal, available online.)
In the board’s early years, the White House fended off attempts by politicians to use board membership as a plum for friends. Whatever stature the PFIAB achieved under Eisenhower has dwindled as presidents increasingly have used appointments to award friends. For instance, in 1968, New Mexico Democratic Sen. Clinton P. Anderson recommended the appointment of Clinton Murchison Jr., a Texas oil baron and founder of the Dallas Cowboys football team. White House appointments director John W. Macy shot down the recommendation: “He is absolutely unqualified. This is not a board to play around with.” President Reagan appointed a number of California cronies with no intelligence background — most notably, the department-store magnate Alfred S. Bloomingdale.
The political doors swung wide open under President George W. Bush, who, the authors write, “filled his board with those to whom he owed political favors, and large campaign donors.” In selecting PFIAB members in 2005, “he appointed nine campaign donors to fill his 16-member board.”
Even more notorious was an attempt by the Obama administration, acting through Bill Clinton, to persuade Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak to accept PFIAB board membership to encourage him not to challenge Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary in 2009. White House denials struck many observers as lame.
As the authors conclude, “One of the board’s strengths — but also a potential weakness — is that it is subject to the whims of presidents. Previous presidents have used the board well, ignored it, politicized it, even disliked it.” Still, the “fresh perspective” brought to intelligence issues by outside experts is valuable, they contend.
Perhaps. In the post-Sept. 11 period, however, the intelligence community has been besieged by such a plethora of ad hoc experts that its usefulness has been impaired. It’s time to let the professionals do their work in private.
Joseph C. Goulden, former Washington bureau chief of the Philadelphia Inquirer, is the author of 18 nonfiction books.