The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) flag is displayed on stage during a conference on national security entitled "The Ethos and Profession of Intelligence" in Washington October 27, 2015.
Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Among the many issues U.S. President Barack Obama is grappling with early in his first term are some thorny intelligence problems. His director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, and his CIA director, Leon Panetta, have clashed over their respective roles, the politically charged investigation of the CIA's involvement in the "enhanced" interrogation of terror suspects continues to generate controversy.

Although Obama could clearly use some independent advice on these and other intelligence issues, he should be forgiven if he did not initially think of asking the President's Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB). The board, one of the smallest and most obscure parts of the U.S. intelligence system, has not always, especially in recent years, distinguished itself in providing independent counsel to presidents on the larger issues affecting the organization of the intelligence community and some of the core technologies on which it depends. It has developed a reputation among the intelligence cognoscenti as either a cushy "do-nothing" panel or as a highly politicized cabal that meddles in the affairs of the professional intelligence community.

Although there is some truth behind both views, the board is far from useless: over the decades, it has helped streamline the U.S. intelligence community and has pushed it to develop the technology crucial to the acquisition, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence. Likewise, it would be a mistake to ignore it today.

President Dwight Eisenhower established the board in 1956 as a bipartisan body that could serve as an independent source of advice on intelligence affairs. During the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations, the board fit that ideal. Its eight to ten members were prominent individuals with experience in the U.S. government and had the managerial or technical skills relevant to intelligence matters. These early panels, reflecting the intensifying technological race between the United States and the Soviet Union as well as the growing sophistication of intelligence collection, tended to focus on the role of science and technology in intelligence.

From its inception through the end of the George W. Bush administration, the PIAB has been involved in almost every important intelligence issue. (There are a few notable exceptions, such as National Security Review 29, a major effort during the George H.W. Bush administration to reconcile future intelligence resources and requirements.) And it has made important recommendations: to establish the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Defense Attaché System, and the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology. It also suggested improving the operation of the Pentagon's National Reconnaissance Office. These recommendations have markedly improved the U.S. intelligence community.

But it has also had its share of failures, particularly in recent years. The nadir of the PIAB began with the competitive intelligence analysis exercise it conceived during the Ford administration -- the "Team B" study that analyzed the Soviet threat. The problem was not so much with the basic concept of having analysts with different ideological perspectives examine the same intelligence to see if they reached different conclusions about Soviet strategic behavior. Indeed, the intelligence community's Team A and the independent Team B -- both of which researched the accuracy of the Soviets' intercontinental ballistic missiles and analyzed their air defenses -- worked well together, despite their ideological disagreements. But the teams studying Soviet strategic objectives had a very different experience.

Unlike the other two issues, which were highly technical and about which there was relatively hard intelligence data, the third issue was subjective and, not surprisingly, contentious, given that the hard-liners on Team B had long thought the intelligence community had downplayed the Soviet Union's malign intentions. This controversy cast a pall over the whole exercise, and the proceedings were leaked to the Boston Globe. Although he had reluctantly green-lighted the exercise, George H.W. Bush, then the director of the CIA, later complained at a National Security Council meeting in 1977, saying that "the competitive analysis idea seemed good at the time, and I certainly did not think it would go public. But now I feel I have been had."

Although the Team B report itself remained classified for 16 years, the major conclusions of the panel became public during the first year of the Carter administration. Conservatives used the Team B report to support increases in defense spending and to solidify the image of the Soviet Union as an aggressive, expansionist power. The report accused the CIA of underestimating the Soviet threat by focusing too much on technical data at the expense of considering the history, strategy, society, and leadership of the Soviet Union. The leak had the effect of delegitimizing the PIAB in the eyes of subsequent administrations. As a result, Carter abolished the board altogether.

During the 1980 presidential election, the Reagan campaign pointed to Carter's failure to reconstitute the PIAB as emblematic of his intelligence and foreign policy shortcomings. But this was more of a political ploy than an indication of President Ronald Reagan's support of the PIAB. And although Reagan did eventually revive the board a year after taking office, he filled it with many individuals who had little intelligence-related experience. This action set a precedent for future presidents, who would either minimize their use of the board (George H.W. Bush and, in his first term, George W. Bush) or further politicize it (Bill Clinton).

Today, the Obama administration faces both challenges and opportunities in revitalizing the board. The enhanced power of the National Security Council staff and the intelligence community means that formidable bureaucratic obstacles stand in the way of allowing a part-time presidential advisory board to have much influence. But in the aftermath of the 9/11 intelligence failures that exposed the weaknesses of the current institutional arrangements, outside bodies can now play a significant role in redesigning them.

Nothing could better illustrate this shift than the very different roles played by the PIAB during the first and second terms of the George W. Bush administration. In the first, the board was largely ineffectual, in part due to policy differences between Bush and the board's chair, Brent Scowcroft, over the Iraq War. But it was also ineffective because the Pentagon successfully resisted Scowcroft's proposal to remove the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office from the Department of Defense -- an effort to finally consolidate the intelligence community's resources under the director of Central Intelligence.

Conversely, as pressure mounted during Bush's second term to reorganize the U.S. intelligence community, the board became much more influential. It stands to reason, therefore, that the board could once again help reshape the intelligence community -- provided that Obama demonstrates committed leadership and a willingness to appoint and listen to people with proven expertise. According to a well-placed former Obama campaign adviser, the administration has decided to create a real working board that would be directly responsible to the president, charged with advising him on contentious intelligence issues, such as the future of the Guantánamo detention facility, and acting as a venue for thinking about long-term efforts, such as further adjusting the structure for managing the U.S. intelligence community.

The White House appears interested in such a body, one filled with members who have backgrounds in intelligence, security, and economics. It drew up a lengthy list of possible appointees and has already whittled it down to fewer than 20. To avoid conflicts of interest and other problems that have plagued previous boards, the administration is also planning on instituting a set of ethics rules that will likely be the most substantial in the history of the PIAB.

Former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebr.), who supported Obama's campaign, has been mentioned as a possible co-chair of the board, along with former Senator David Boren (D-Okla.), who served as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Their appointments as co-chairs would be unprecedented but in keeping with the board's bipartisan tradition.

The Obama administration faces some major policy challenges in the intelligence community, and the board can help. It has long been a proponent of transforming the intelligence community into a real community, rather than just a collection of bureaucratic fiefdoms, and it could provide the administration with advice and political cover to take the hard steps to finally make that happen. It could also evaluate the effectiveness of various collection methods, including detention and interrogation, in countering current and future threats while remaining within the boundaries of the U.S. government's legal rules and foreign policies.

The PIAB is a unique presidential asset that, if properly employed, could help identify and meet the intelligence challenges that future presidents will face. It has been least successful when it was involved in day-to-day operational or crisis-management issues, or when it engaged in controversial political analyses such as the Team B exercise. It has been at its best when it looked ahead to anticipate future technological trends or international political developments. Obama has the chance to truly revitalize and empower the board. So far, it looks like he is on the right track.

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  • KENNETH MICHAEL ABSHER is a retired CIA officer and Fellow at the Scowcroft Institute at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. MICHAEL DESCH is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. Ambassador ROMAN POPADIUK is Executive Director of the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation at Texas A&M University. They are the authors of Privileged and Confidential: The Secret History of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board.
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