By Brian Clampitt —
Last week, the Office of the Director of the National Intelligence (DNI) revealed that the Obama administration’s requested total for its non-military intelligence budget for fiscal year 2012 was $55 billion. This was the first time the top-line figure has been released publically before Congress has acted to appropriate the funds, signifying a possible new outlook in intelligence budgeting. For years, the government has insisted that disclosing how much it spends on intelligence would harm national security, but critics maintained that the secrecy surrounding the amount was really meant to prevent any possible oversight. Publically listing the intelligence spending is particularly appropriate as fiscal concerns lead to increased scrutiny of all sectors of government spending,
Though Congress mandated last week’s disclosure through the 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act, DNI James Clapper seemed to have no problem complying. The administration could have waived the requirement upon finding it would harm national security. Instead, it continued a string of budget-related announcements. Last fall, Clapper voluntarily disclosed that the total intelligence spending for the year, including for the military, exceeded $80 billion. A month later, he announced that the budget for the National Intelligence Program—the non-military component of intelligence operations—would be placed under his control by 2013. The entire intelligence budget is currently under the Defense Department’s purview.
These budget revelations stand in stark contrast to the traditional secrecy of intelligence funding. Since 2007, Congress has required disclosure of the National Intelligence Program budget at the end of each fiscal year, but for the previous 60 years, intelligence officials refused to disclose the budget with few exceptions. In 1997, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) filed a lawsuit seeking disclosure of the intelligence budget numbers after being denied the information through a Freedom of Information Act request, and, under pressure, then-CIA Director George Tenet revealed for the first time ever that that year’s intelligence spending had been $26.6 billion.
The next year Tenet again declassified the annual budget ($26.7 billion), but by 1999, he reversed course and FAS filed another lawsuit. After a judge ruled in favor of the CIA, based on Tenet’s affidavit asserting that releasing the figure “reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security, or otherwise tend to reveal intelligence methods,” it looked like the budget would fade back into a cloud of secrecy. Only in recent years has the budget received increased scrutiny, after ballooning in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Past critics of the intelligence community’s practices have praised the new requirements. Steven Aftergood of the American Federation of Scientists, who spearheaded the earlier lawsuits, has called the move a “new milestone in the ‘normalization’ of intelligence budgeting.” But some say it doesn’t go far enough. Even now, basic details beyond the single top number are hidden. Reminiscent of George Tenet, the DNI says that revealing further figures “could harm national security.”
Among a series of recommendations, the 9/11 Commission called for an intelligence appropriation bill, separate from the defense funding, that would specify appropriation levels for each intelligence agency. Lee Hamilton, Vice Chairman of the Commission, believes that providing more clarity on the figures is just the beginning of adequate oversight of the intelligence community. Last year he told an audience that appropriations for the intelligence budget need to move out of the defense subcommittees and into the hands of the intelligence committees that are seeking to review them. Currently, the intelligence committees have no appropriating power over any parts of the intelligence community. “In this town, if you want to get somebody’s attention, you control their budget. And that’s where the key lies with regard to the authority of the DNI,” Hamilton said.
Even if more intelligence reforms are necessary, revealing the intelligence budget figure is an important starting point. At $55 billion, the budget request for the non-military intelligence community is $8 billion more than for the entire State Department, and almost double the amount for the Department of Justice. Lawmakers cannot prioritize national security concerns unless they are able to justify funding in open debates. Congressional intelligence committees should continue to seek ways to balance public disclosure with protecting intelligence practices.
Image courtesy of the Washington Post