A New Milestone in Intelligence Budget Disclosure

The Director of National Intelligence on Monday did what has never been done before:  He disclosed the size of the coming year’s budget request for the National Intelligence Program.  For Fiscal Year 2012, “The aggregate amount of appropriations requested for the National Intelligence Program is $55 billion,” according to a February 14 ODNI news release (pdf).

The new disclosure was required by the FY2010 intelligence authorization act (sec. 364).  That legislation permitted an optional Presidential waiver of disclosure if necessary on national security grounds, but no waiver was asserted.

The disclosure of the budget request constitutes a new milestone in the “normalization” of intelligence budgeting. It sets the stage for a direct appropriation of intelligence funds, to replace the deliberately misleading practice of concealing intelligence funds within the defense budget.  Doing so would also enable the Pentagon to (accurately) report a smaller total budget figure, a congenial prospect in tight budget times.  (See “Intelligence Budget Disclosure: What Comes Next?”, Secrecy News, November 1, 2010.)

The publication of the intelligence budget request is the culmination of many years of contentious debate and litigation on the subject.

Until quite recently, intelligence community leaders firmly opposed disclosure both of the intelligence budget total and of the total budget request.  In response to a 1999 lawsuit brought by the Federation of American Scientists, Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet said that revealing the budget request would damage national security and compromise intelligence methods.

“I have determined that disclosure of the budget request or the total appropriation reasonably could be expected to provide foreign intelligence services with a valuable benchmark for identifying and frustrating United States’ intelligence programs,” DCI Tenet wrote in a sworn declaration.  The court upheld the classification of the requested information.

Was DCI Tenet wrong then about the damaging effects of disclosure?  Is DNI Clapper wrong now to dismiss the significance of such damage?  Could they somehow both be right?

From our perspective, Mr. Tenet was wrong in 1999, and the damage he foresaw would not have resulted from the disclosure that he prevented. (It turns out that the FOIA litigation process is not an effective way to contest such judgments.)

More fundamentally, the changing official assessment of the need to classify this information reflects the subjectivity that is inherent in the classification process, which makes it possible for two intelligence community leaders to reach opposing conclusions.

The same subjectivity prevails today.  Thus, while the budget request for the National Intelligence Program (NIP) has now been disclosed, the request for the Military Intelligence Program (MIP) remains classified.  We have requested release of this information.

The $55 billion requested for the NIP in FY 2012 represents a slight increase over the $53.1 billion appropriated for the NIP in FY 2010.  The FY 2011 NIP appropriation has not yet been published.  It is supposed to be disclosed at the end of the current fiscal year.

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