New York Times
July 29, 2004

White House Considers Disclosing Intelligence Budgets

WASHINGTON, July 28 - Of the 40 main recommendations spelled out in the Sept. 11 report, one of the few that the White House could carry out immediately would be to lift the veil of secrecy on how much the government spends on intelligence.

But as the White House debates whether to embrace that idea, it must contend with years of resistance by intelligence agencies that have long warned that making that budget public could aid American foes. Only twice before, in 1997 and 1998, has the top-line budget number been declassified.

Advocates of greater disclosure now nevertheless have begun to hope that the commission report might turn the tide.

"This will give cover to a lot of timid people, and there's nothing like cover in Washington," said Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who long ago broke ranks with other members of his party to call for making the overall budget public.

The current level of secrecy, the commission wrote, "practically defies public comprehension'' in that "even the most basic information about how much money is actually allocated to or within the intelligence community and most of its key components is actually shrouded from public view."

To help "judge priorities and foster accountability'' among intelligence agencies, the commission argued that the White House should make public not only the overall budget number, but the top-line figure for each of the 15 intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Agency. The overall number is now widely understood to be about $40 billion, and even a more detailed agency-by-agency breakdown, the commission argued, could be achieved without providing details that could aid American foes.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential candidate, has endorsed all the commission's recommendations. The White House has withheld judgment, saying it wants to complete an urgent review being directed by Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff.

But senior administration officials said Wednesday that the proposal was "very much alive'' among the ones being considered by President Bush and his senior advisers as they weighed action that the White House could take, either on its own or with Congressional approval. Making the budget public is something the White House could do unilaterally, administration officials said.

Still, in a court filing in April 2003, George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, took a hard line in opposing a lawsuit that sought disclosure of the overall 2002 budget.

"I have determined that disclosure of the aggregate intelligence budget reasonably could be expected to provide foreign intelligence services with a valuable benchmark for identifying and frustrating U.S. intelligence programs," Mr. Tenet said in an unclassified declaration.

It was Mr. Tenet, as intelligence chief in 1997 and 1998, who authorized the release of the aggregate budgets from those years, of $26.6 billion and $26.7 billion, respectively. But in his declaration, he described the releases as having been prompted by unique circumstances, which he did not specify, which meant the figures could be declassified without harm to national security.

The releases were prompted by a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the Federation of American Scientists. But in response to other lawsuits brought by the organization and Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst there, the Central Intelligence Agency has declined to authorize the release not only of subsequent overall budgets but also those from as far back as 1947, when the intelligence agencies were formed.

Disclosing even overall budgets year after year could allow adversaries to detect trends in intelligence spending, particularly in periods of rapid budget increases, like the one since the Sept. 11 attacks, intelligence officials have argued.

Their critics counter that intelligence agencies simply want to defend the principle of secrecy.

"This is the cornerstone of the entire apparatus of classification, and if you cast doubt on this, you call into question many other issues of classification," Mr. Aftergood said Wednesday in explanation of the government's opposition to his efforts.

The void of information has led to much speculation, much of it ill informed, about intelligence spending. The figure of $40 billion for current intelligence spending - more than most countries in the world spend on their armies - that is cited by nongovernmental experts is at best a "guesstimate," as one of those experts, John Pike of, has acknowledged. That figure would reflect a 50 percent increase from the budget of the late 1990's, and some Congressional officials have suggested that the current figure may be even greater, if the enormous supplemental appropriations that Congress has granted to intelligence agencies since the Sept. 11 attacks are taken into account.

But a general understanding of the shape of the intelligence budget can be gleaned from public comments by intelligence officials, who note that about 80 percent of the budget is controlled by the Pentagon, and from other experts. With some 32,000 employees, the National Security Agency, responsible for intercepting enemies' communications and protecting those of the United States, is widely understood to be the largest of the intelligence agencies, but its estimated budget of at least $7 billion may be outmatched by that of the National Reconnaissance Office, which is responsible for building and operating spy satellites.

The C.I.A., though the best known of the intelligence agencies, is smaller, with a budget estimated at $5 billion.

A number of other countries, including Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, now provide official information about intelligence spending. Within Congress, some Democrats, including Senator Bob Graham of Florida, a former Intelligence Committee chairman, and Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, currently the top Democrat on the panel, have in the past expressed support for making the number public.

The idea of making the budget public was also recommended in 1996 by a commission that was headed, until his death in 1995, by Les Aspin, the former defense secretary and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

But in the only Congressional votes on the question, the proposal was voted down in 1997 by both the House and the Senate.

A C.I.A. spokesman, Mark Mansfield, said Wednesday that the agency would not comment on whether it still believed that the overall intelligence budgets should be classified. Other administration officials said it was possible the White House would endorse the release of the overall budget number, but they said it was less likely that it would follow the commission's recommendation to release budgets for individual agencies because that might disclose too much about the allocation of intelligence resources.

The Sept. 11 commission's recommendation emphasized that the specifics of intelligence budgets "would remain classified, as they are today."

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