U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan ruled Monday that the Freedom of Information Act does not compel CIA Director George Tenet to divulge the intelligence spending level for fiscal 1999.
The intelligence budget, sometimes called "black" spending by Congress, is scattered and fragmented through dozens of defense and other programs in the federal budget to hide the programs from public scrutiny.
Clinton supported release of the figures for fiscal years 1997 and 1998, contending the disclosures would not compromise national security.
"The fact that the president encouraged release of similar information in the earlier years is not determinative here," Hogan said in granting the government's motion for dismissal of the lawsuit brought by the Federation of American Scientists.
Kate Martin, an attorney who represented the federation, said no decision had been made on whether to appeal.
She said Clinton could declassify the number on his own, in the interest of consistency with his past statements.
"The president said in 1996 that releasing the aggregate number would be in the public interest," Martin said. "The president now needs to follow through on that determination."
She suggested that Clinton make the figures available this week when he signs the intelligence authorization bill for fiscal 2000, approved by Congress on Friday.
That did not seem likely.
The Justice Department told a congressional hearing this month that, while Clinton earlier supported such releases, recent international developments persuaded him to go along with the CIA director's recommendations and return to secrecy.
The administration disclosed intelligence spending for 1997 of $26.6 billion and for 1998 of $26.7 billion. It then put the total number back under wraps.
Tenet argued in court papers that, since the 1997 and 1998 levels were already known, publishing more recent figures would telegraph too much information about possible changes and spending patterns.
The CIA director said he was keeping the figures classified on national security grounds.
"The court must defer to ... Tenet's decision that release of a third consecutive year, amidst information already publicly available, provides too much trend information and too great a basis for comparison and analysis for our adversaries," the judge wrote.
Congressional intelligence sources said the total figure has grown from the $26.7 billion the government acknowledged in 1998 to about $29.5 billion in the fiscal 2000 budget.
Fiscal 2000 began Oct. 1. The lawsuit sought release only of figures for fiscal 1999.
The Federation of American Scientists went to court seeking the 1999 figures after the administration denied their Freedom of Information Act request seeking the number.
"The decision deprives the public of the most basic form of accountability," said Steven Aftergood, director of the federation's government secrecy project. "But we are confident that sooner or later, this information will be declassified."