Intel Budget Disclosure: What Comes Next?

11.01.10 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The disclosure of the total annual amount of intelligence spending may be seen as the culmination of decades of advocacy and activism.  Budget disclosure will help to normalize the intelligence function of government, to promote a new degree of public accountability, and to combat the obfuscation and mystification of intelligence.  The move also goes a long way towards fulfilling the constitutional requirement to publish a “statement and account” of all government expenditures from time to time.

But there is still more that can be accomplished in this area to promote budget integrity.  Specifically, if the annual intelligence budget request as well as the budget appropriation were declassified, then it would be possible for Congress to directly appropriate the intelligence budget. The deceptive practice of concealing intelligence spending in the defense budget could be abandoned.  Congressional appropriators would have more authority and more responsibility for intelligence budget oversight.

This is not a new proposal.  The 1996 Aspin-Brown Commission on intelligence reform recommended annual disclosure of both current year appropriations and the next year’s requested amount.  In 2004, the 9/11 Commission called for (pdf) “a separate appropriations act for intelligence,” which would be contingent on an unclassified budget request.  Now that total intelligence appropriations are finally unclassified, these proposals are newly within reach.

In the past, intelligence community leaders have firmly opposed disclosure of the annual budget request.  “Disclosure of the budget request… reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security in several ways,” argued DCI George Tenet in response to a Federation of American Scientists FOIA lawsuit in 1999.

“First, disclosure of the budget request reasonably could be expected to provide foreign governments with the United States’ own assessment of its intelligence capabilities and weaknesses. The difference between the appropriation for one year and the Administration’s budget request for the next provides a measure of the Administration’s unique, critical assessment of its own intelligence programs. A requested budget decrease reflects a decision that existing intelligence programs are more than adequate to meet the national security needs of the United States. A requested budget increase reflects a decision that existing intelligence programs are insufficient to meet our national security needs. A budget request with no change in spending reflects a decision that existing programs are just adequate to meet our needs,” DCI Tenet said.

But this point of view, which seemed questionable at the time (though it persuaded a court to rule against us), has now receded.

“Would you support the declassification of the president’s topline intelligence budget request?” asked Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) at Gen. Clapper’s July 20 confirmation hearing to be DNI.

“I do support that,” Gen. Clapper replied.  “It has been done.”  The latter remark is puzzling, since declassification of the budget request is not known to have occurred previously.  But Gen. Clapper went on to explain what was at stake and what could be accomplished.

“I would support and I’ve also been working and have had dialogue with actually taking the National Intelligence Program out of the DoD budget since the original reason for having it embedded in the Department’s budget was for classification purposes.  Well, if it’s going to be publicly revealed, that purpose goes away.”

Taking secret intelligence spending out of the Pentagon budget and producing a separate budget appropriation for intelligence would “serve the added advantage of reducing the topline of the DoD budget, which is quite large, as you know.  And that’s a large amount of money that the Department really has no real jurisdiction over.”

“So we have been working and studying and socializing the notion [of] pulling that out of the Department’s budget, which I would think also would serve to strengthen the DNI’s hand in managing the money in the intelligence community,” Gen. Clapper said.