Wednesday, November 2, 2005

In The Company of Friends

Bush may be besieged by charges of cronyism, but they don’t seem to have affected his picks for a panel assessing intelligence matters.

MSNBC reports:

Controversy continues to rage over spying failures and the mishandling of intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Last week it was the indictments in the CIA leak case. This week, it was the extraordinary secret session of the Senate, when Democrats pushed for a new round of inquiries into the misuse of intelligence on Saddam’s regime. So it’s all the more remarkable to see how the White House has just filled a committee overseeing intelligence issues.

President Bush last week appointed nine campaign contributors, including three longtime fund-raisers, to his Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a 16-member panel of individuals from the private sector who advise the president on the quality and effectiveness of U.S. intelligence efforts. After watching the fate of Michael Brown as head of FEMA and Harriet Miers as Supreme Court nominee, you might think the president would be wary about the appearance of cronyism—especially with a critical national-security issue such as intelligence. Instead, Bush reappointed William DeWitt, an Ohio businessman who has raised more than $300,000 for the president’s campaigns, for a third two-year term on the panel. Originally appointed in 2001, just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, DeWitt, who was also a top fund-raiser for Bush’s 2004 Inaugural committee, was a partner with Bush in the Texas Rangers baseball team.

Other appointees included former Commerce secretary Don Evans, a longtime Bush friend; Texas oilman Ray Hunt; Netscape founder Jim Barksdale, and former congressman and 9/11 Commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton. Like DeWitt, Evans and Hunt have also been longtime Bush fund-raisers, raising more than $100,000 apiece for the president’s campaigns. Barksdale and five other appointees—incoming chairman Stephen Friedman, former Reagan adviser Arthur Culvahouse, retired admiral David Jeremiah, Martin Faga and John L. Morrison—were contributors to the president’s 2004 re-election effort. Friedman also served a year on the intelligence board under President Bill Clinton, who appointed chairmen with very different profiles from Bush's Pioneers: former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. William Crowe, former Defense secretary Les Aspin, former House speaker Tom Foley and former GOP senator Warren Rudman. (Clinton did also appoint two donors who gave $100,000 apiece to the Democratic National Committee: New York investment banker Stan Shuman and Texas real estate magnate Richard Bloch.)

According to the White House, the intelligence advisory board offers the president “objective, expert advice” on the conduct of foreign intelligence, as well as any deficiencies in its collection, analysis and reporting. Created during the Eisenhower administration, the board has played a role in determining the structure of the intelligence community. Indeed, its members have been considered important presidential advisers, receiving the highest level security clearance and issuing classified reports and advice to the president.

Yet, as with many federal panels, membership on the board has also been doled out to top campaign contributors and supporters of the president—a move the White House defends since panelists are not required to have significant intelligence experience.

Friedman, a former top economic adviser to Bush during his first term, replaced Jim Langdon, a Washington lobbyist and Bush Pioneer who had been board chairman since February. Langdon himself replaced Brent Scowcroft, a close adviser to Bush’s father who was not reappointed to the panel after he publicly criticized Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq.

Last summer, Langdon became embroiled in ethical questions after The Washington Post reported that he had helped Akin Gump, the law firm where he works as an energy lobbyist, secure a contract with a Chinese firm seeking to buy Unocal, the California energy company. It’s unclear if Langdon resigned or was simply replaced. A board spokeswoman declined comment, and calls to Langdon’s office were not returned. Last week, Bush named 12 members to the panel, leaving four slots on the committee unfilled. Carol Blair, an administrative officer at the board, tells NEWSWEEK that the positions may remain empty. “The size and scope of the board is really up to the president,” she said. “We don’t know what will happen.”

UPDATE - Editor's Note: In this article, we referred to Jim Langdon as an energy lobbyist who had been chairman of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Prior to publication we tried to contact Langdon without success about his departure from the board. Langdon says he in fact works as an energy lawyer who specializes in business transactions and does not lobby governments. He also says he resigned from the board of his own accord, and was not replaced. He says he resigned after public criticism of his role as a lawyer for CNOOC, a Chinese company seeking to buy Unocal, the California energy company.