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November 17, 2005
Salon.com

No discussion of cronyism in the Bush administration would be complete without talking about PFIAB, short for the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. George W. Bush's latest appointments to the PFIAB, which advises the president on how various intelligence agencies are performing, represent a who's who of the Halliburton-Texas Rangers-oil business crony club that made Bush into a millionaire and helped propel him into the White House.

On Oct. 27, an announcement by the White House made it clear that despite the disastrous intelligence failures that have been driving Bush's policies over the past few years, he's not going to put up with any independent voices on the PFIAB, especially from anyone who might actually know something about foreign intelligence, like, say, Brent Scowcroft.

In 2001, Bush appointed him to chair the PFIAB. But Scowcroft, who was national security advisor under two presidents, George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford, has been openly critical of Bush's decision to invade Iraq. "I don't think in any reasonable time frame the objective of democratising the Middle East can be successful," Scowcroft recently told the New Yorker. "If you can do it, fine, but I don't think you can, and in the process of trying to do it you can make the Middle East a lot worse." That kind of independent thinking led Bush to dismiss Scowcroft from the chairmanship of the PFIAB about a year ago.

With Scowcroft out, Bush's cronies are in. Last month, the White House announced that Dallas oil billionaire Ray Hunt, one of Bush's biggest financial backers, was reappointed to the PFIAB. So was Cincinnati financier William DeWitt Jr., who has backed Bush in all of his business deals going back to 1984, when DeWitt's company, Spectrum 7, bailed out the faltering entity known as Bush Oil Co. The new appointee of note to the PFIAB is former Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, a Bush confidant since his days in Midland, Texas.

(Other notable appointees to the PFIAB include Netscape founder Jim Barksdale, former Reagan White House counsel Arthur Culvahouse, and former U.S. congressman and 9/11 commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton.)

Ray Close, a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group that has been critical of the Bush administration's handling of intelligence matters, doesn't mince words when discussing Bush's latest appointments to the PFIAB. "It's unbelievable," says Close, who worked for the CIA for 27 years as an Arabist. "I can't imagine anyone who has the president's interest in mind allowing him to do this. With the notable exception of Lee Hamilton, most of the choices look very weak, and several scream of cronyism."

Created in 1956 by President Dwight Eisenhower, the PFIAB is designed -- according to the White House press release -- to give the president "objective, expert advice." In an ideal world, the PFIAB members would analyze the intelligence they get and give the president their unvarnished opinions about the relative merits of the different agencies and the work they are doing. PFIAB members are granted access to America's most secret secrets, known as SCI, for Sensitive Compartmented Information. Members of PFIAB have security clearances that are among the highest in the U.S. government. They have access to intelligence that is unavailable to most members of Congress. They are privy to intelligence from the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the military intelligence agencies and others.

Everything that members do as part of PFIAB is done in secrecy. None of the information that they discuss or view is available to the public. They are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. And unlike other public servants who work for the president, there is no public disclosure of the PFIAB members' financial interests.

In 1999, the PFIAB opened up slightly when it released a report about security at the Department of Energy's nuclear labs. That 1999 report is a prime example of how the PFIAB has -- and could in the future -- play an important role in helping the president deal with intelligence issues. That report bluntly assessed the DOE, saying that a "culture of arrogance -- both at DOE headquarters and the labs themselves -- conspired to create an espionage scandal waiting to happen." That report led to a major reorganization of the labs.

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