A New Milestone in Intelligence Budget Disclosure

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.

See related coverage in the Washington Post, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Emptywheel, and Lawfare.

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