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The Washington Post

A CIA Secret

Monday, December 28, 1998; Page A24

LAST YEAR, THE Central Intelligence Agency disclosed for the first time the aggregate intelligence budget for the United States. The release came in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Federation of American Scientists. The CIA revealed that the government spent $26.6 billion in fiscal 1997 on intelligence-related activities. The figure rose to $26.7 billion in 1998. Now, however, the CIA is refusing to release the intelligence budget request for 1999 and is vigorously opposing a suit that is seeking that information.

Intelligence chief George J. Tenet, in a declaration filed in the case, argues that disclosure of the budget request "reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security and would tend to reveal intelligence sources and methods." Mr. Tenet contends that disclosure, in combination with the previous budget numbers, "provides a measure of the administration's unique critical assessment of its own intelligence programs." Disclosure also could, he contends, "assist foreign governments in correlating specific spending figures with particular intelligence programs."

The budget request, on its face, should be less threatening to national security than the amount of the expenditures. At the same time, it is a critical figure in any public policy debate about the intelligence budget, because it involves pending public policy questions, rather than merely describing expenditure levels already fixed. As for the claim that the request is a unique window on the government's self-assessment, agencies generally ask Congress for more money. The bipartisan Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the United States Intelligence Community recommended in 1996 that the government disclose both the request and the appropriation every year, stating that such disclosure can be done "in a manner that does not raise a significant security concern."

The government's unwillingness to disclose the budget request smacks of reflexive government secrecy and of an unreadiness of the agency to subject itself to the most rudimentary public accountability. The CIA should reconsider.

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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