A Step Towards Intelligence Budget Reform

Now that regular publication of the intelligence budget total has been accepted as the new norm, it is becoming possible to dismantle the related structures of budget secrecy that no longer serve any purpose.  In particular, the prospect of establishing a stand-alone intelligence budget that is independent of the budget of the Department of Defense came a step closer to reality with the announcement by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. that he had reached agreement on the matter with the Secretary of Defense.

“I’ve secured at least a conceptual agreement with the Secretary of Defense to take the National Intelligence Program out of the Defense budget,” DNI Clapper said (pdf) at the GeoInt conference in New Orleans yesterday.

Currently, the bulk of intelligence spending is buried within the Pentagon budget in a deliberately obscure and misleading way.  This practice is not only unnecessarily secretive, it is also deceptive.  It distorts the DoD budget by artificially inflating individual budget line-items, and it falsely includes spending for the Central Intelligence Agency — a non-DoD agency — as if it were part of the Pentagon.

Restructuring the budget so that spending for the National Intelligence Program is assigned to the Office of the DNI would not guarantee wise or effective intelligence policy. But it would remove a source of pointless obfuscation, and thereby strengthen oversight and accountability.

From the DNI’s perspective, it would enhance control over the budget. “I think that is one specific way to accrue more authority to ODNI in the oversight and execution of that funding,” DNI Clapper said. And from the Pentagon’s perspective, nothing would be lost since DoD does not control this money anyway.  (The Military Intelligence Program budget would remain under DoD authority.) And so the pretense of a larger DoD budget than there actually is could finally be abandoned.

“To me that is kind of a win-win,” DNI Clapper said. “It is $50 billion off the top line of DoD. And it certainly gives ODNI a lot more authority and insight and transparency over that money.”

If one also considers the public interest in achieving honest, straightforward budgeting, then this step would be win-win-win. However, the change in budget structure may imply a corresponding change in the jurisdiction of congressional authorization and appropriations committees, and so it may encounter opposition in Congress from proponents of the existing arrangements.

For related news coverage and background, see “Intel foiled al Qaeda plot, DNI chief says” by Eli Lake, Washington Times, November 3;  “Control of intelligence budget will shift” by Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, November 3; and “Intel Budget Disclosure: What Comes Next?”, Secrecy News, November 1.

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