Effort to Crack Intelligence Budget Balked

For nearly half a century the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have maintained their own version of a "don't ask, don't tell policy "-- the public, a large portion of Congress, and even many agency employees "don't ask" and the CIA and its comrades "don't tell." The result is a virtual network of para-governmental agencies that act and spend with little oversight from Congress and individual whistle-blowers. The White House has kept intelligence agency budgets secret, citing national security interests, since these agencies were created. But the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire have brought increasing pressure to change this policy. So it was that in April of 1996, President Clinton stated (through his press secretary) that he had authorized Congress to make public the total appropriation, to "promote openness in the intelligence community." The next day, then-CIA director John Deutch told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the president was convinced "disclosure of the amount would not in itself harm intelligence activities." One response to the President's call came from Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey) who proposed an amendment to the 1998 Defense Authorization bill requiring Congress to disclose aggregate intelligence expenditures. He pointed out that they spend more than the combined GNP of North Korea, Libya, Iran, and Iraq.Torricelli did not call for publishing any details, but conservatives were quick to condemn his proposal. Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) called Torricelli's proposal a "slippery slope." "Reveal the first number and it will be just a matter of minutes before there will be a call to reveal more information," he declared.The Senate debate ended in mid-July with a 56-43 vote against revealing the amount. A similar vote in the house a few weeks earlier means there is no hope the figure will be revealed this year. Richard Selby (R-Arizona), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, rebuked Clinton for calling on Congress in the first place. "The President of the United States always had, and has today, the authority to disclose this figure," he said.By giving Congress the power to disclose the intelligence budget, the president has made the issue a political hot potato. "A generous interpretation would be that he recognized there has been controversy in Congress and wanted to let Congress decide for itself," says Steve Aftergood, who now heads the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists."An ungenerous interpretation would be that the President wanted political credit for openness and accountability, but did not want to take the heat from conservatives who think this is a dangerous move. "I incline to the second interpretation. " With Congress making doomsday prophecies about disclosing the intelligence budget and Clinton playing power politics, Aftergood has taken a different route. He is suing the CIA under terms of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a 1966 federal law that mandates government declassification of all information not detrimental to national security interests.The U.S. District Court has turned down three earlier suits on this matter, but Aftergood thinks the situation has changed. "What makes our case new is that we can quote the President and the Director of Central Intelligence in our complaint saying that it will do no harm to declassify the budget. This is not something that a sitting president has ever said."Aftergood also points to the fact that a Congressional committee accidentally released the intelligence budget in November 1994 and the New York Times immediately published an article describing the $28 billion budget in profound detail.Then in 1996, a presidential commission released a 151-page document which included a dotted chart mapping the trends and amounts of intelligence spending, and this was reported by the Washington Post. "To pretend that the intelligence budget is secret is just a fantasy," says Aftergood.The CIA has refused to respond to questions concerning the matter. Aftergood maintains that the intelligence agencies will not lose prestige if their budgets become public, citing the Defense budget which is disclosed every year except for various sensitive projects. This format would allow the CIA and its comrades to maintain their secret operations prestige but allow greater scrutiny when it comes to aggregate spending and budget cuts.With the President and Congress juggling the politics of disclosure and Aftergood's case not due in court until late in the year, it may be some time before the government acknowledges how much it spends on intelligence activities. But the heated debate over openness has brought increased pressure on the government and the intelligence community to "tell" what few have dared to "ask."Todd R. Lowery is a graduate student in International Relations at the University of Chicago and writes regularly on U.S. foreign policy and the intelligence community.

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