Confusion Reigns in Intelligence Secrecy Policy

11.02.09 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The decision last week by the Director of National Intelligence to declassify the FY2009 budget for the National Intelligence Program is inconsistent with other ODNI classification actions and highlights the confusion over the proper scope of national security secrecy that prevails in the U.S. intelligence community today.

On October 30, DNI Dennis C. Blair announced that the total appropriation for the National Intelligence Program (NIP) in FY 2009 was $49.8 billion.  (Under the terms of a 1997 law, the President could have withheld the FY 2009 budget figure if he filed a statement with Congress declaring that revelation of the number “would damage national security.”  But he did not do so.) Yet at the same time, the Office of the DNI refuses to reveal the NIP budget figure from FY 2006 — three years earlier — on grounds (pdf) that its disclosure would damage national security and jeopardize intelligence sources and methods.

Can these two conflicting evaluations of the same information from two different years be reconciled?  It is hard to see how, especially since the budget number that was withheld is the older of the two, and is even farther removed from current operations.  One of the DNI’s classification actions appears to be in error.

The DNI’s October 30 statement announcing the latest budget figure for 2009 also makes some other questionable assertions that suggest internal confusion and fuzzy thinking about secrecy and disclosure.

“I’m hopeful that this [budget] information will give the American people a better understanding of how their tax dollars are being used to help protect the country and keep Americans safe,” DNI Blair said.  But disclosure of the budget figure reveals nothing about “how tax dollars are being used” for intelligence — which is one reason why such information could not be properly classified.

Worse than that, the DNI’s disclosure is incomplete and misleading.  The total intelligence budget is composed of two budget constructs, the National Intelligence Program (NIP) and the Military Intelligence Program (MIP).  (Several of the large defense intelligence agencies — NSA, NGA, and others — are funded through both the NIP and the MIP.)  But only the NIP number has been released, which means that not even the aggregate intelligence budget figure has been made public.  (In a September 15 media conference call, the DNI said the combined budget was around $75 billion.)  Based on the new NIP figure alone, one cannot even say how much money was spent on intelligence in 2009, whether the total has increased or decreased from the year before, or by how much — much less “how tax dollars are being used to help protect the country.”

The October 30 ODNI news release went on to insist that “Any and all subsidiary information concerning the National Intelligence (NIP) budget will not be disclosed as such disclosures could harm national security.”

“Any and all subsidiary information”?  This implies, for example, that if a breakdown of the amount of money spent by the intelligence community on declassification activities were published, it “could harm national security.”  But that hardly seems likely.

In a candid moment last year, ODNI officials admitted that they really don’t know why they classify all the things that they do.  “There is wide variance in application of classification levels,” an internal January 2008 ODNI study (pdf) obtained by Secrecy News found.  “The definitions of ‘national security’ and what constitutes ‘intelligence’ — and thus what must be classified — are unclear.”

Lacking clarity about first principles, the intelligence community is ripe for the sort of “Fundamental Classification Guidance Review” that has been proposed in the Obama Administration’s pending draft executive order on national security information (sec. 1.9) “to identify classified information that no longer requires protection and can be declassified.”  If such a review is actually carried out by impartial subject matter experts who are relatively free of bureaucratic blinders and willing to take a fresh look at the requirements of national security, it might help to introduce a degree of rationality into the current chaos of classification policy.

David C. Gompert, the new Principal Deputy DNI, told the Senate Intelligence Committee in September that he recognized that new measures were needed to address overclassification in the intelligence community.

“If confirmed,” he said (pdf, in reply to the Committee’s question 28B), “I would expect that the DNI and I would work closely with the Information Security Oversight Office to ensure that standards are created for the establishment of classification management programs within the IC.  Then, new IC guidance could be issued by the DNI regarding classification guides, marking tools, training, and classification audits. I believe that these efforts would go far to assist in resolving the serious issue of overclassification.”

An aggregate intelligence budget figure, including both national and military intelligence spending, has not been published since 1998, when it was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.  At that time, the total was $26.7 billion.  At congressional direction, a budget number for the NIP was previously released by the DNI in 2007 ($43.5 billion) and 2008 ($47.5 billion).  Unclassified portions of recent MIP budget documents were released to Secrecy News last month.