President Bush is likely to sign an executive order by the end of the year that would fundamentally change the way the intelligence community's principal civilian watchdog, the Intelligence Oversight Board, does its job.
For the past 30 years, the IOB has investigated allegations of illegal activity in the intelligence community and reported directly to the president. Under a new plan, the watchdog group would farm out the bulk of its responsibilities.
The changes would represent a complete overhaul of the board, which monitors the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies.
A Need for Oversight
The IOB's roots reach to the post-Watergate era, when on Jan. 27, 1975, a Senate committee led by Sen. Frank Church (D-ID) was asked to study America's intelligence activities.
What the Church Committee discovered was sobering. It found that thousands of ordinary Americans had been targeted for investigation by the FBI and CIA, based on hunches and suspicions.
Vietnam War protesters were wiretapped. Agents were tracking and trying to derail the civil-rights efforts of Martin Luther King. And with these discoveries came an era of intelligence community oversight. Church Committee members, like former Vice President Walter Mondale, came to the conclusion that even the most well-intentioned agencies needed someone to watch over them.
"To our despair, time and time again over American history there is something about us that we tend to do more than we should when we are not being watched," Mondale told an audience at the University of Kentucky last year, during an informal reunion of the committee.
The Bearer of Bad News
About the same time as Mondale and other committee members were speaking in Kentucky, the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board was gathering in Washington to discuss, among other things, how they could restructure or possibly move the nation's most important civilian intelligence watchdog, the Intelligence Oversight Board, out of the Executive Office of the President.
One suggestion: moving most of its operations under a new post, that of the director of national intelligence.
Catherine Lotrionte was taking notes at that meeting. The former general counsel for the IOB and other intelligence groups, Lotrionte now teaches intelligence law at Georgetown University. As she remembers it, moving the IOB out of the executive office was a top priority this time last year.
"The first order of business and the only order of business while I was there was not reviewing the reports with IOB members," Lotrionte said, "but was discussing how to work out an executive order to move the IOB function to the DNI" — the office of Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell.
There was a perception that the IOB was seen in the White House as the bearer of bad news, Lotrionte said. It told the president about episodes in which the CIA, FBI and other agencies might have trampled on civil liberties. And as she recalls it, the feeling in the room, particularly from the head of the president's intelligence board, Stephen Friedman, was that it was best to move the IOB elsewhere.
"Clearly what he was saying was that I don't want to be in the position of investigating something that could go against [the] White House," Lotrionte said.
A current White House official who also attended the meetings said that Friedman wasn't trying to distance himself, as much as he was trying to avoid a duplication of effort. The DNI office was already investigating possible transgressions, the official said, so it made sense to have them research the IOB violations as well.
"The IOB is not endowed with a larger staff or the resources and assets to review the vast amount of information that comes through reports on possible privacy violations," White House spokesman Tony Fratto explained.
A Weaker Watchdog?
That means that perhaps by the end of the year, the IOB will get out of the investigations business altogether and operate more like an audit committee. Under the new procedures, it would refer the quarterly reports it gets from the intelligence community to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which could then investigate matters.
Intelligence experts familiar with the IOB's reorganization worry about the proposed change. They question whether investigations will be as rigorous — or if the intelligence community will be as forthcoming if the investigators aren't coming from the White House. It is also unclear whether DNI investigators will still enjoy executive privilege.
And by moving the functions of the IOB to the director of national intelligence, there is some concern that it will dilute the direct responsibility the president has over intelligence.
Even so, the White House appears to be going ahead with the change. The president is expected to sign the IOB executive order by the end of the year.