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A Rebuttal to DCI Tenet

In his Declaration, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet presented several reasons why he concluded that the amount of the intelligence budget appropriation and request for FY 1999 should not be disclosed. Significantly, he did not consider the case in favor of disclosure or the public interest factors that led to declassification of the intelligence budget appropriation in 1997 and 1998.

Following is an outline of Mr. Tenet's principal arguments against disclosure, together with a brief rebuttal to each point.

FIRST ARGUMENT: Disclosure of the budget appropriation or request would provide foreign governments with an overall assessment of U.S. intelligence weaknesses and priorities. The difference between the appropriation for one year and the Administration's budget request (or the Congressional appropriation) for the next year reflects an official assessment of its own intelligence programs. A budget decrease means that existing intelligence programs are more than adequate. A budget increase means that existing intelligence programs are insufficient. (pp. 15-17)

REBUTTAL: Because the intelligence budget request and appropriation are aggregates of many hundreds of individual programs, the total budget figures do not reflect an overall assessment of U.S. intelligence at all. The single budget figures can conceal massive turmoil or natural growth or anything in between. For example, 99 out of 100 programs could be cut while the 100th program is substantially increased to produce a budget figure that indicates no change in the overall budget. Conversely, a tiny increase in all programs to keep pace with inflation would produce a spike of hundreds of millions of dollars in the total budget.

Furthermore, the size of the budget appropriation or request is dictated in part by external factors (OMB decisions, Congressionally-mandated programs, transfer of DoD programs into or out of the TIARA category, etc.) that have nothing to do with an Administration or Congressional assessment of the capabilities or weaknesses of U.S. intelligence.

SECOND ARGUMENT: Disclosure of the budget total could be expected to assist foreign governments in correlating specific spending figures with particular intelligence programs. Budget figures provide useful benchmarks that, when combined with other public and clandestinely-acquired information, assist experienced intelligence analysts in reaching accurate estimates of the nature and extent of all sorts of intelligence activities. Foreign governments could then redirect their own resources to frustrate the United States' intelligence collection efforts (pp. 18-21).

REBUTTAL: The total budget figure bears no fixed relationship to specific spending figures for any particular intelligence program. The budget request reflects proposed spending for many hundreds of programs, many of which will be modified-- increased, decreased, or eliminated-- in the budget process. The budget total also includes considerable funding for mundane activities, such as building construction or maintenance. While U.S. taxpayers are constitutionally entitled to such information, it is of no possible interest to foreign governments. With or without other information, the budget request total would not provide a reliable basis from which to deduce information about spending on a certain program.

THIRD ARGUMENT: Disclosure of the budget request would free foreign governments' collection and analysis resources for other efforts targeted against the United States. (pp. 22)

REBUTTAL: This is an argument against all disclosure, and in favor of absolute secrecy. It is trivially true that any information released by the U.S. government could hypothetically be acquired by foreign adversaries. But in our system of government, this is not and cannot be a sufficient basis for withholding government information, particularly when the information is not intrinsically sensitive.

FOURTH ARGUMENT: Disclosure of the total request or appropriation would compromise intelligence methods, since the means of providing money to the CIA is itself an intelligence method. Disclosure of the budget request or appropriation could assist in finding the locations of secret intelligence appropriations in the agency budgets in which they are hidden. (pp. 24-27)

REBUTTAL: This is a circular argument, to the effect that the budget must remain secret in order to protect the secrecy of the budgeting process. If the budget total were disclosed, it would not be necessary to adopt convoluted mechanisms of dividing and concealing the budget in various appropriations acts. Indeed, in 1998 Senator John Glenn called for "a separate, stand-alone intelligence budget line in the federal budget" because, he concluded, the current system does a disservice to U.S. intelligence and to the nation. From this point of view, the current intelligence budgeting process is not an "intelligence method" that must be protected; it is an obstacle to the national interest that must be overcome.

OVERALL REBUTTAL: If Director Tenet's arguments were to be taken at face value, one would have to conclude that Tenet himself damaged the national security of the United States when he declassified the total intelligence budget appropriation in 1997 and again in 1998. This is nonsense.

The total intelligence budget figure is of little or no value to foreign governments, since it provides no indication of spending on particular programs. Yet it is of great value to the public, who are constitutionally entitled to its disclosure, since it would enhance public debate over intelligence spending.

Mr. Tenet completely ignores the most important factor in determining whether or not to disclose the intelligence budget request-- the public interest. Consideration of the public interest led President Clinton in 1996 to the determination that disclosure of the budget appropriation "will inform the public and will not, in itself, harm intelligence activities." Similarly, the bipartisan, Congressionally-mandated Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the United States Intelligence Community weighed the pros and the cons, and then unanimously recommended that both the budget appropriation and the budget request should be disclosed each year at the beginning of the budget cycle. As a matter of public interest, the CIA should reconsider its position, and disclose the total intelligence budget appropriation and request.

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