from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2010, Issue No. 87
November 1, 2010

Secrecy News Blog:


With last week's disclosure of the total intelligence budget for 2010, including budget figures for the National Intelligence Program ($53.1 billion) and the Military Intelligence Program ($27 billion), the Obama Administration has provided a new degree of transparency on intelligence spending.

The National Intelligence Program (NIP) budget total has previously been disclosed each year since 2007, when Congress mandated its disclosure as part of the implementation of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. But despite its name, the NIP is only a part of the U.S. intelligence system, which also includes the Military Intelligence Program (MIP). Disclosure of the MIP budget, and thus of the total level of intelligence spending, was not required by Congress.

So why was it done? Amazingly, what happened is that the U.S. government essentially adopted the position advanced by critics of budget secrecy for the last four decades or so.

"I think the American people are entitled to know the totality of the investment we make each year in intelligence," said Gen. James R. Clapper at his July 20 confirmation hearing to be Director of National Intelligence. He was echoing the views of generations of critics since the Church Committee of the 1970s and even before.

Mere disclosure of the NIP figure alone in the last few years was inadequate and misleading, Gen. Clapper said. "I thought, frankly, we were being a bit disingenuous by only releasing or revealing the national intelligence program, which is only part of the story." Indeed.

Past arguments against intelligence budget disclosure, which fell into two general categories, went unmentioned. The first was the so-called "slippery slope" argument, which held that release of the total budget figure would generate irresistible pressure to disclose ever more sensitive detail about intelligence spending. The second argument was that highlighting intelligence spending would make it a vulnerable target for budget cuts that could not be publicly resisted without disclosing additional classified information. Both arguments were speculative and unsupported by evidence. Now they have been quietly set aside.

The total amount of intelligence spending was last disclosed in 1997 and 1998 in response to a FOIA lawsuit brought by the Federation of American Scientists, with the support of the Center for National Security Studies. The total intelligence budget figure in those years was $26.6 and $26.7 billion, respectively, compared to today's total of $80.1 billion. At that time, the "national" and "military" components of the total budget were not disclosed, so today's new level of intelligence budget transparency is in fact unprecedented.


The disclosure of the total annual amount of intelligence spending may be seen as the culmination of decades of advocacy and activism. Budget disclosure will help to normalize the intelligence function of government, to promote a new degree of public accountability, and to combat the obfuscation and mystification of intelligence. The move also goes a long way towards fulfilling the constitutional requirement to publish a "statement and account" of all government expenditures from time to time.

But there is still more that can be accomplished in this area to promote budget integrity. Specifically, if the annual intelligence budget request as well as the budget appropriation were declassified, then it would be possible to directly appropriate the intelligence budget. The deceptive practice of concealing intelligence spending in the defense budget could be abandoned. Congressional appropriators would have more authority and responsibility for intelligence budget oversight.

This is not a new proposal. The 1996 Aspin-Brown Commission on intelligence reform recommended annual disclosure of both current year appropriations and the next year's requested amount. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission called for "a separate appropriations act for intelligence," which would be contingent on an unclassified budget request. Now that total intelligence appropriations are finally unclassified, these proposals are newly within reach.

In the past, intelligence community leaders have firmly opposed disclosure of the annual budget request. "Disclosure of the budget request... reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security in several ways," argued DCI George Tenet in response to a Federation of American Scientists FOIA lawsuit in 1999.

"First, 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. A requested budget decrease reflects a decision that existing intelligence programs are more than adequate to meet the national security needs of the United States. A requested budget increase reflects a decision that existing intelligence programs are insufficient to meet our national security needs. A budget request with no change in spending reflects a decision that existing programs are just adequate to meet our needs," DCI Tenet said.

But this point of view, which seemed questionable at the time (though it persuaded a court to rule against us), has now receded.

"Would you support the declassification of the president's topline intelligence budget request?" asked Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) at Gen. Clapper's July 20 confirmation hearing to be DNI.

"I do support that," Gen. Clapper replied. "It has been done." The latter remark is puzzling, since declassification of the budget request is not known to have occurred previously. But Gen. Clapper went on to explain what was at stake and what could be accomplished.

"I would support and I've also been working and have had dialogue with actually taking the National Intelligence Program out of the DoD budget since the original reason for having it embedded in the Department's budget was for classification purposes. Well, if it's going to be publicly revealed, that purpose goes away."

Taking secret intelligence spending out of the Pentagon budget and producing a separate budget appropriation for intelligence would "serve the added advantage of reducing the topline of the DoD budget, which is quite large, as you know. And that's a large amount of money that the Department really has no real jurisdiction over."

"So we have been working and studying and socializing the notion [of] pulling that out of the Department's budget, which I would think also would serve to strengthen the DNI's hand in managing the money in the intelligence community," Gen. Clapper said.


Last week, on the same day that the 2010 intelligence budget totals were revealed, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence also released another previously undisclosed intelligence budget figure -- the 2006 budget appropriation for the National Intelligence Program.

"The aggregate amount appropriated to the NIP for fiscal year 2006 was $40.9 Billion," wrote John F. Hackett, director of the ODNI Information Management Office.

This disclosure provides one more benchmark in the steady, sharp escalation of intelligence spending in the last decade. (The NIP budgets in the subsequent years from 2007-2010 were: $43.5 billion, $47.5 billion, $49.8 billion, and $50.1 $53.1 billion.)

But what makes the new disclosure profoundly interesting and even inspiring is something else: In 2008, Mr. Hackett determined that disclosure of this exact same information could not be permitted because to do so would damage national security. And just last year, ODNI emphatically affirmed that view on appeal.

"The size of the National Intelligence Program for Fiscal Year 2006 remains currently and properly classified," wrote Gen. Ronald L. Burgess in a January 14, 2009 letter. "In addition, the release of this information would reveal sensitive intelligence sources and methods."

Yet upon reconsideration a year later, those ominous claims have evaporated. In other words, ODNI has found it possible -- when prompted by a suitable stimulus -- to rethink its classification policy and to reach a new and opposite judgment.

This capacity for identifying, admitting (at least implicitly) and correcting classification errors is of the utmost importance. Without it, there would be no hope for secrecy reform and no real place for public advocacy. But as long as errors can be acknowledged and corrected, then all kinds of positive changes are possible.

The Obama Administration's pending Fundamental Classification Guidance Review requires classifying agencies to seek out and eliminate obsolete classification requirements based on "the broadest possible range of perspectives" over the next two years. If it fulfills its original conception, the Review will bring this latent, often dormant error correction capacity to bear on the classification system in a focused and consequential way. There are always going to be classification errors, so there needs to be a robust, effective way to find and fix them.


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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