By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Cincinnati investor William O. DeWitt Jr. has long been a friend of and fund-raiser for President Bush. Now he will be one of the president's advisers on one of the most important issues of the post 9-11 world: just how good America's intelligence gathering is.
William O. DeWitt Jr.
Bush appointed DeWitt to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board on Wednesday.
Known in intelligence circles as "Piffy-ab," the 16-person board is supposed to let the president know how the nation's intelligence agencies are performing and investigate where they've gone wrong.
"It's done incredible things over the years - nothing that I can tell you about," said former Republican Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, who chaired the board from 1997 to 2001. It requires a security clearance known as "code word" that is higher than top secret, he said.
But some watchdog groups Thursday questioned whether a board this important is the place to put a man with no intelligence experience and whose only qualifications are brains, success in business, and ties to the president.
For example, the board is investigating how good pre-Iraq war intelligence was, a report that, like almost all its reports, will not be made public.
"We're not sure qualities for appointment to the board include being a rich guy, financial supporter and close friend of the president," said Eric Miller, senior defense investigator for the Project on Government Oversight.
"You need independence on this board. How can you be independent if you're one of the president's largest contributors?" he said.
Miller's group had earlier criticized the president's appointees to a new Homeland Security Advisory Council, saying it was loaded with administration-friendly industry officials who had no expertise in homeland security.
"The question this raises is: What is this guy's experience?" said Celia Wexler, research director for Common Cause. "If nothing he's ever done in his life touches on the work of this board, that raises serious concerns."
DeWitt said Thursday that he was honored to be selected. While he has no background in intelligence, he said the board is supposed to be independent of the intelligence establishment.
"Independence is clearly critical," DeWitt said. "I would certainly value that characteristic."
He said White House officials contacted him about the job, and it took months for security clearance.
The board was created in 1956 by President Dwight Eisenhower, who thought some of the intelligence he had been provided during World War II was suspect. He specifically wanted it composed of people outside government, and the members' only qualifications are "achievement, experience, independence and integrity."
Former board member Jeane Kirkpatrick, a former U.N. ambassador, said the people she served with during the Ronald Reagan era were "the most intellectually impressive group of people I have ever served with in my life."
Some were intelligence experts, but members at the time also included playwright and journalist Clare Boothe Luce - though she had also served as a congresswoman and U.S. ambassador to Italy.
The only report the board has made public was in 1999 about security at the Department of Energy's nuclear labs. It resulted in a major reorganization of the labs.
The board oversees a constellation of intelligence gathering agencies: the Central Intelligence Agency, the military branches' intelligence agencies, the National Reconnaissance Office, and others.
"There's never been a leak out of that panel in 50 years," Rudman said. "I think it's essential that when people are picked, character No. 1 is someone who is trustworthy."
Kirkpatrick said the board's importance depends entirely on who the president chooses to sit on it, and how the president uses it. The president can ask the board to investigate, or the board can initiate its own investigations.
The Bush administration would not say how often the board meets, the number of staff, or the board's budget. Members don't get paid. DeWitt, who doesn't need Senate confirmation, will serve a two-year term.
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