Report

A Key Intelligence Advisory Board Has No Members

President Trump’s antipathy toward the intel community extends to the Intelligence Advisory Board.

U.S. President Barack Obama presides over a meeting of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 28, 2009. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama presides over a meeting of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 28, 2009. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

After more than a year, U.S. President Donald Trump has failed to nominate a single member to work on an advisory board that reviews the intelligence community, and which has played a low-profile, but sometimes critical role in previous administrations.

The President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, established in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to track Soviet development of nuclear weapons and bombers, is a part-time independent committee typically made up of experts from outside government in law, industry, technology, and the military — and sometimes the president’s personal friends and political donors. The board tends to operate in the shadows, and many of its decades-old recommendations and meetings have only recently been declassified.

While National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton told Foreign Policy Trump “will definitely be nominating members” in August, no names publicly surfaced as possible appointees, apart from September news reports suggesting that tech magnate and Trump confidante Peter Thiel might be in the running to be the chair.

While advisory board’s Wikipedia page was edited two months ago to include Thiel as an advisor, Anton insists the information is incorrect. “We haven’t named anyone,” Anton said. The Atlantic reported Thiel dropped out of consideration earlier this month.

Three senior White House sources told Vanity Fair in September that Thiel was a favored choice to hold the intelligence advisor post because Trump wanted a “fresh set of eyes” when it comes to overseeing the intelligence community. It’s unclear who else would be considered in Thiel’s place if he has, in fact, withdrawn his name from consideration.

The White House webpage where details about the board are meant to reside is currently blank, other than a note to “Check back soon for more information.”

The board doesn’t have any legal power, but it typically derives its influence from direct access to the president and his staff. But in the absence of a chair and members, the board’s remaining professional staff is effectively powerless to embark on new projects or offer advice.

The board’s actual importance is a complex question, especially because its influence has declined as the power of the presidency has expanded.

“Presidents could be forgiven if they did not make restructuring the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB) their highest priority on taking office,” wrote the authors of Privileged and Confidential, one of the only scholarly works about the board.

In its early years, the the board was highly influential behind the scenes, helping create the Defense Intelligence Agency and the directorate of science and technology at the CIA. It also pushed for a central director of the intelligence community long before the Director of National Intelligence position was established, and its members traveled to conduct onsite reviews, and pushed for increased oversight of the CIA’s undercover activities.

But its influence has waxed and waned. John F. Kennedy rushed to create his panel to review the Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba, which happened shortly after he took office. Richard Nixon, who once said the “CIA isn’t a worth a damn,” turned to his board for recommendations for restructuring the intelligence community and tracking the Soviet nuclear threat, but ignored the panel while embroiled in the Watergate scandal.

Jimmy Carter chose to disband the board entirely, arguing that the National Security Council could absorb its duties. Bill Clinton used the board mostly to reward political donors and friends. During the George W. Bush administration, the board had a mixed role. It seems to have held a lot of sway over Bush, which may have helped push CIA Director Porter Goss out of his position. But the panel didn’t play any major role, at least in the public record, in evaluating the intelligence failures of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Barack Obama was initially criticized for failing to move quickly appoint members. Some argued the panel should be abolished, having become an unnecessary “relic of a bygone era” without much real influence. Later in his administration, though, the advisory board played a bigger role, especially in dealing with the fallout of the Edward Snowden disclosures in 2013.

“In the last couple of years, we had regular engagements with the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and National Security Council senior staff,” Brett Holmgren, the senior director of intelligence at the National Security Council under President Obama told FP.

While Trump has given no indication he planned to disband the board, he has waited longer than is typical to fill the ranks. The president, who has made his skepticism of the intelligence community well known, could benefit from taking advantage of an outside group of experts to review its decisions and analysis.

“When the board is effective, it’s a way of giving the president a view of a group of outsiders of the intelligence world … fresh air is very desirable,” said Richard Danzig, the former secretary of the Navy under President Clinton, and a member of the intelligence board under Obama.

He said the lack of nominations for the board is part and parcel of a lack of nominations for key positions across agencies: “this is a piece of the administration’s disinclination or failure to make a number of appointments … this is part of a general trend.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D.-Va.), the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s lack of attention to the advisory board was to be expected.

“This president has had an ambivalent – and occasionally hostile – relationship with our intelligence professionals, largely because their most basic responsibility is to tell truth to power – whether or not that truth is what the President wants to hear,” Warner told FP. “That President Trump hasn’t used the [the board] to exercise thoughtful leadership of the intelligence community is therefore not entirely surprising.”

Jenna McLaughlin is Foreign Policy's intelligence reporter. You can reach her on Signal at 203-537-3949. @JennaMC_Laugh

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