Pentagon Officials Must Sign Budget Secrecy Pledge

Department of Defense officials who are involved in preparation of the Fiscal Year 2010 budget request are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement pledging not to divulge budget-related information to unauthorized persons.

A copy of the non-disclosure agreement, which was obtained by Defense News, is available here (pdf).

In President Obama’s January 20, 2009 inaugural address, he promised a new degree of transparency specifically on budget matters:  “And those of use who manage the public’s dollars will held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

But the light of day evidently does not extend to the budget development process, and perhaps it should not.

According to the text of the non-disclosure agreement, “a significant factor in the successful and proper preparation and completion of the President’s budget is the strict confidentiality that must be observed by all government participants…[and] a failure to comply with these confidentiality requirements may compromise the Administration’s ability to formulate and submit its budget.”

The unstated problem is that just as secrecy can be used to conceal a skewed policy agenda, selective disclosure of budget plans can also be abused to disrupt and distort budget development.  A controversial budgetary decision — such as the cancellation of a large, expensive program — could be undermined by early disclosure to industry lobbyists or others.  Preserving a degree of confidentiality around internal budget deliberations should, at least in theory, enable the Defense Department to present its best case, before its budget is subjected to the pressures of congressional and public scrutiny.

Defense Department regulations (such as DoD Directive 7045.14 [pdf], section 4.7) already prohibit the unauthorized disclosure of budget planning documents, so the policy itself is not new.  But the use of non-disclosure agreements to enforce and encourage compliance with the policy appears to be without precedent.

The new non-disclosure agreement was first reported in “DoD Officials Must Vow Secrecy on Budget” by John T. Bennett, Defense News, February 19, 2009.

“We’ll eliminate the no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq, and reform our defense budget so that we’re not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use,” President Obama told Congress last night.

“Finally, because we’re also suffering from a deficit of trust, I am committed to restoring a sense of honesty and accountability to our budget. That is why this budget looks ahead ten years and accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules – and for the first time, that includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price,” the President said.

No Responses to “Pentagon Officials Must Sign Budget Secrecy Pledge”

  1. Jeff Huffman February 25, 2009 at 3:56 PM #

    “. . . sign a non-disclosure agreement pledging not to divulge budget-related information to unauthorized persons.”

    I guess as a stakeholder in this (as a tax payer) I’m authorized to know details.

    What bullshit. You could halve the U.S. military budget and it would still be the largest in the world. Until we pare back military spending, the U.S. can not expect any kind of secure financial future.

  2. The Sailor February 25, 2009 at 5:18 PM #

    Jeff, you’re allowed to know the details, just not the intermediate process.

  3. Bob G February 25, 2009 at 5:18 PM #

    On the one hand, preliminary budget information has always been closely held. Transparency is one thing, but disclosing all budget documents as they bounce along with a department and then to OMB is something else. Confidentiality in the budget process is reasonable, and this has always been so as far as I know. The final budget is public, of course. Steve’s post did a good job of discussing some of the consequence of early disclosure of budget decisions.

    As far as non-disclosure agreements go, this one is pretty mild mannered. At one level, actively telling people when they are handlling non-public information that is is non-public seems perfectly reasonable. That is part of what the document seems to do. No reviews of publications, recapture of profits, and the like.

    Yet we all know how agencies tend to take something and run with it to the nth degree. Agencies have lots of non-public documents. It could well become the fashion to ask folks to start signing these agreements for other classes of non-public documents, Privacy Act information, and the like. Or even a more generic non-disclosure document for all non-public information.

    So the other hand there is a risk that this idea will get expanded, the non-disclosure document will include threats, penalties, remedies, and the like. I would feel better if the document were a simple acknowledgement of the message that the budget information is not public. Nothing beyond that is needed, and anything beyond that (including a pledge to comply) is asking for trouble.

    I don’t know who dreamed up this agreement. There aren’t that many Obama people in place, but maybe one of them should squash this effort before it gets a life of its own.