Senate Bill Would Disclose Intel Budget Request

07.23.09 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Senate version of the FY2010 intelligence authorization bill (pdf) would require the President to disclose the aggregate amount requested for intelligence each year when the coming year’s budget request is submitted to Congress.  Currently, only the total appropriation for the National Intelligence Program is disclosed — not the request — and not before the end of the fiscal year in question.

Disclosure of the budget request would enable Congress to appropriate a stand-alone intelligence budget that would no longer need to be concealed misleadingly in other non-intelligence budget accounts.

“This reform makes possible a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to improve oversight by passing a separate intelligence appropriations bill and provides for greater transparency and accountability for intelligence spending,” said Sen. Russ Feingold, who sponsored the proposal, together with Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Christopher Bond and Sen. Ron Wyden.  (Curiously, the measure was opposed by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.)  See Senate Report 111-55 (pdf) on the FY2010 Intelligence Authorization Act, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, July 22 (sec. 356).

Intelligence budget disclosure has been and still remains a subject of extraordinary sensitivity to some officials.  In 1999, DCI George J. Tenet specifically opposed the idea of releasing the annual budget request because he said it would damage national security by revealing intelligence strengths and defects.

“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,” Mr. Tenet argued in an April 6, 1999 affidavit filed in a FOIA lawsuit brought by the Federation of American Scientists.

This is surprisingly close to nonsense.  Changes in aggregate spending levels occur for many reasons, including the start of new programs, the termination of completed programs, shifts in acquisition phases, personnel changes and inflation.  The difference between the previous year’s expenditures and the following year’s request represents the outcome of thousands of individual programmatic decisions.  Looking at last year’s NASA budget and this year’s NASA request, one could not possibly infer a meaningful assessment of the performance of the civilian space program.  The same is true of the vastly more complicated intelligence bureaucracy.

But implausible as it seems, Mr. Tenet’s argument was sufficient to convince D.C. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan that disclosure would in fact threaten national security.  And so the intelligence budget request has never been released.

Even now, the CIA takes great pains to conceal budget information that is more than half a century old, as if national security were somehow at stake.  This week, the CIA published an historical document on its website concerning the “Central Intelligence Group Budget, Fiscal Year 1948” (pdf) with the ancient budget numbers meticulously removed.

Today, Bill Gertz of the Washington Times reported on a working draft of a new executive order on classification that he obtained. The principal feature of the new draft seems to be a National Declassification Center, designed to coordinate and expedite the declassification of historical records across the government.  But it remains unclear if the proposed Center will include a mechanism for overturning erroneous classification policies like CIA’s indiscriminate budget secrecy.  If it does not provide an error correction mechanism, then the Center might end up perversely reinforcing today’s retrograde classification policies and implementing them even more efficiently.