Intel Budget Disclosure and the Myths of Secrecy

The Director of National Intelligence today disclosed the 2008 budget for the National Intelligence Program: $47.5 billion.  That figure does not include spending for the Military Intelligence Program, which is at least another $10 billion.

The disclosure marks only the fourth time that the intelligence budget has been officially disclosed.  The aggregate intelligence budget figure (including national, joint military and tactical intelligence spending) was first released in 1997 ($26.6 billion) in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Federation of American Scientists.  It was voluntarily released in 1998 ($26.7 billion).  The National Intelligence Program budget was next disclosed in 2007 ($43.5 billion), in response to a Congressional mandate, based on a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.  And then there was today’s release for 2008.

In recent years, the most passionate opponent of intelligence budget disclosure has been none other than Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), whose own financial non-disclosure practices have recently earned him multiple felony convictions.

In an October 4, 2004 Senate floor debate, Senator Stevens usefully marshaled all of the traditional arguments against disclosure.  Most of them were false at the time.  Others have since been disproven.

“No other nation, friend, or ally, reveals the amount that it spends on intelligence,” Sen. Stevens said then.

In fact, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands and other countries have published their intelligence budgets for many years without adverse effect.

“Determining classification is the responsibility and duty of the chief executive of the United States, the President, who is also Commander in Chief,” said Sen. Stevens. “Presidents Truman through Bush has determined that the overall intelligence budget top-line figure is, and shall remain, classified, and I believe we should not overrule that judgment.”

But Congress shares responsibility for defining the terms of the classification system.  And as a factual historical matter, President Clinton approved disclosure of the intelligence budget total.

The hoariest myth of all, renewed by Sen. Stevens, is that “This is a slippery slope. Reveal the first number and it will be just a matter of minutes before there will be a call to reveal more information.”

The notion of a “slippery slope” resulting from disclosure of the top-line budget figure has been asserted for decades even by officials who are not convicted felons. But by now, it has been conclusively disproven.  Disclosure of the intelligence budget total has not led to uncontrolled further disclosures.  The 9/11 Commission’s 2004 recommendation that budgets for “component agencies” should also be disclosed was not accepted and such further disclosures have not occurred despite release of the total figure.

But today the intelligence budget continues to serve as a useful barometer of the incoherence of official secrecy policy.  Thus, even after declassifying the FY 2007 intelligence budget figure last year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded last summer (pdf) that “The size of the National Intelligence Program budget for Fiscal Year 2006 is properly classified.”

It seems unlikely that both positions are correct.

No Responses to “Intel Budget Disclosure and the Myths of Secrecy”

  1. Publius October 28, 2008 at 4:43 PM #

    “The notion of a “slippery slope” resulting from disclosure of the top-line budget figure has been asserted for decades even by officials who are not convicted felons.”

    Ad hominem attacks such as these serve little purpose to make your argument. Despite the veracity of the article I now have to question the author’s intent.

  2. Mike October 28, 2008 at 5:28 PM #

    But Congress shares responsibility for defining the terms of the classification system.

    Steven, what citation do you use to support that statement?

  3. Steven Aftergood October 28, 2008 at 5:35 PM #

    Mike,

    In a nutshell, a shared congressional role in classification policy making is supported by:

    –the enactment of classification controls in the Atomic Energy Act;
    –the enactment of declassification standards in the Assassination Records Review Act;
    –the Necessary and Proper clause in article I of the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority to “make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.”

  4. Mike October 28, 2008 at 7:21 PM #

    Thanks, Steve. Interesting answer, but I think rather thin. The “necessary and proper” clause refers only to the previously listed powers, and classification policy isn’t one of them. Courts have generally deferred to the executive on this. And nothing you list trumps the initial sentence of Article II.
    While we do need some better management of classification policy I have always considered that it had to come from the Executive.

  5. Steven Aftergood October 28, 2008 at 7:39 PM #

    Mike, I don’t think it’s so thin. When the DNI speaks of his responsibility to protect intelligence sources and methods, he cites the National Security Act — a statute enacted by Congress. And no court in over fifty years has ruled that the Atomic Energy Act is unconstitutional on grounds that it improperly intervenes in the executive branch classification process. So (constitutional interpretation aside) I think it would be inaccurate as a practical matter to say that classification policy is exclusively an executive function. On the other hand, I tend to agree that current defects in classification policy could best be corrected by an enlightened executive rather than by legislative mandate.

  6. Jerry October 29, 2008 at 5:49 AM #

    Steven,

    I have been getting and appreciating your Secrecy News. Even old Republicans like me feel the same as you do about Open Government. I would like to comment that it is too soon to attack Senator Stevens. He was convicted yesterday and has not yet been sentenced. There is a good probability that this trial itself had significant errors and might be overturned and a new trial ordered. In actuality I personally believe that Stevens is and was complicit in the charges and a clean trial should prove that. I have worked with older people for some time and in fact I am two months and four days older than John McCain. If a person has any negative traits at all, and we all do, then the likelihood of those traits being magnified with age are very great. If Stevens were financially careful all of his life, then as he got older and at 80+ that is older, he could have wanted things for ‘free.’ If that is true, then he should have left the Senate a long time ago. If he is suffering from age related dementia in any stage, he should leave public life.

    What I am saying is that is it venality or is it senility?

Leave a Reply