The latest on the Office of Personnel Management’s data breach is staggering, with some 18 million federal employees affected by the attack. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper minced no words: he called China as the “leading suspect” in the massive digital assault on U.S. government computers. But absent from the public discussion is what exactly the President thinks on this issue—and what the assessment was of his dedicated intelligence advisory board.
Wait – I know what you’re thinking: “I didn’t know the President had a dedicated intelligence advisory board!” You aren’t alone. The President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB) has been called “one of the smallest, most secretive, least well-known, but potentially most influential parts of the U.S. intelligence community.” The PIAB and its subcomponent, the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB), once played an important role within the Intelligence Community (IC). However, they are now largely relics from a bygone era, and should be folded into America’s bureaucratic superstructure.
President Eisenhower created the PIAB in 1956 after intelligence agencies failed to predict Soviet military trends, such as the successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb in 1953 as well as the development of the Myasishchev intercontinental bomber. These failures caused not only the President but also Members of Congress to question the capabilities and effectiveness of the country’s intelligence agencies. The mission of this new Board was to provide the President with “unfettered and candid appraisals” of U.S. intelligence activities.
The PIAB’s first major recommendation was for the Pentagon to create a single agency to integrate its overall intelligence efforts. The result was the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), with its continuing mission to collecting, evaluating, and analyzing military intelligence for the Department of Defense.
President Ford established yet another organization, the IOB, following the wake of the Watergate scandal. At the same time, Congress was investigating allegations that America’s intelligence agencies, specifically CIA, were involved in assassinations and other abuses. The IOB was created to oversee the IC’s compliance with the Constitution, applicable laws, and executive orders. In 1993 President Clinton’s EO 12863 made the IOB a committee of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
The PIAB’s official duties, described in Eisenhower’s Executive Order 13462, are to “assess the quantity, and adequacy of intelligence collection, or analysis and estimates, and of counterintelligence and other activities…” At least twice a year, the Board is required to report its findings to the President.
The IOB’s duties are narrower. President Reagan’s Executive Order 12333 required the heads of each intelligence agency to report to the IOB any intelligence activities “that they have reason to believe may be unlawful or contrary to executive orders or presidential directives.” The IOB is thus responsible for reviewing any potential violations and reporting to the President when appropriate.
Yet are they actually fulfilling this basic obligation to the White House? The PIAB and IOB exist today, but the public is provided little insight into what they actually do on a day-to-day, or even month-to-month basis. In August of last year, President Obama named six new individuals to the PIAB. However, the announcement received little attention, despite the high interest in the media about intelligence issues.
Every once in a while, the American public will get a rare glimpse of the PIAB’s activity. For example, in 2010 Politico reported that the Board released a study titled “Study of the Mission, Size, and Function of the ODNI.” The report was never made public. Moreover, the study received a chilly reception from the IC and even was criticized as being simply wrong. Another study of the IC’s counterterrorism efforts was reported in the press in 2013. That report also remains classified. The IOB does continue to receive reports from various intelligence agencies about violations of the law (see here and here). Whether it does anything with those reports is an open question.
So, there is little available evidence to suggest the PIAB or IOB are advising the President or conducting legitimate oversight. Is this “absence of evidence” actually “evidence of absence?” Or is the board playing some important, unseen role behind the scenes?
Using Occam’s Razor, it’s likely the PIAB is not doing too much, considering how controversial U.S. intelligence activities have been since 9/11 and how prone our national security apparatus is to leaks. If PIAB had something juicy to report, we would’ve seen more record of its efforts.
If the PIAB were playing any significant role, the public would know about it. Instead, it’s entirely absent from the conversation. For example, the board has been absent from debates about surveillance in the wake of the Snowden disclosures despite the high-profile nature of the issue. Indeed, after Snowden’s leaks began, President Obama established a separate, temporary board to conduct a review of U.S. surveillance activities — instead of turning to the PIAB.
The PIAB’s lack of voice in intelligence discussions is a real problem, as the aforementioned executive orders do vest the Board with important responsibilities. The PIAB is essentially supposed to conduct strategic reviews on the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence activities. The IOB is still required to examine violations of the law in the IC. Given the diverse challenges the IC faces, not to mention the controversies of the last several years, it is more important than ever before these missions are accomplished.
Is it time to kill of the PIAB? The answer is yes. This process has already begun in earnest: newer, post-9/11 institutions have already taken over many of the PIAB’s functions. Therefore, the PIAB and IOB should be formally eliminated so that those newer organizations are fully empowered to take their place. Responsibilities outlined in executive orders should be delegated to those organizations that can better expect to fulfill them.
For example, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) would be well-positioned to assume the duties of the IOB. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is the obvious choice to take over for the PIAB and “assess the quantity and adequacy of intelligence collection.” This task is one the DNI should be doing already!
Cutting bureaucracy is hard. Shedding intelligence organizations, no matter how inconsequential they might be, requires expending a degree of political capital that policymakers might want to use elsewhere. But the PIAB and the IOB are two organizations that seem to serve little purpose in our post-9/11, post-IRTPA era. All they really do is cause a diffusion of oversight responsibilities. It’s time to shutter the PIAB and the IOB.
Samuel Kramer is Overt Action’s research associate.