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Bush dials back Watergate-era reforms on spying safeguards
Nick Juliano
Published: Friday March 14, 2008

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Executive order weakens intelligence oversight board

A little-noticed executive order President Bush signed last month dials back checks on the Intelligence Community that have been in place since revelations that spy agencies abused their power in the 1960s and 70s.

The Boston Globe's Charlie Savage, who is among the top reporters uncovering Bush administration secrecy, shines some light on the new order and its implications in an article Friday.

Almost 32 years to the day after President Ford created an independent Intelligence Oversight Board made up of private citizens with top-level clearances to ferret out illegal spying activities, President Bush issued an executive order that stripped the board of much of its authority.


The board's investigations and reports have been mostly kept secret. But the Clinton administration provided a rare window into the panel's capabilities in 1996 by publishing a board report faulting the CIA for not adequately informing Congress about putting known torturers and killers in Guatemala on its payroll.

But Bush downsized the board's mandate to be an aggressive watchdog against such problems in an executive order issued on Feb. 29, the eve of the anniversary of the day Ford's order took effect. The White House said the timing of the new order was "purely coincidental."

Under the old rules, whenever the oversight board learned of intelligence activity that it believed might be "unlawful or contrary to executive order," it had a duty to notify both the president and the attorney general. But Bush's order deleted the board's authority to refer matters to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation, and the new order said the board should notify the president only if other officials are not already "adequately" addressing the problem.

Bush's order also terminated the board's authority to oversee each intelligence agency's general counsel and inspector general, and it erased a requirement that each inspector general file a report with the board every three months. Now only the agency directors will decide whether to report any potential lawbreaking to the panel, and they have no schedule for checking in.

President Ford created the independent board in 1976 to blunt Congressional calls for additional legislative checks on the Intelligence Community. A White House spokesman denied Bush's order reduced the board's authority.

Bush's executive order was crafted as the president continues to press Congress to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

FISA was passed in 1978 to rein in freewheeling surveillance of Americans by US spy agencies; debate over how to update the law has been fierce since revelations that the president authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without warrants. The House is set to vote today on a FISA update that does not include Bush's key demand -- retroactive immunity for telecommunications programs that participated in what critics say was an illegal program. Such immunity would scuttle ongoing judicial oversight by dismissing dozens of lawsuits aiming to determine what the president authorized and whether laws were broken.

Before effectively rendering toothless the three-decade-old intelligence oversight board, Bush last month also gutted a Privacy & Civil Liberties Oversight Board that was created in 2004 based on recommendations from the 9/11 commission.