A worst-kept secret of CIA confirmed: $26.6 billion budget Lawyer who sued agency for disclosure breaks pillar of Cold War policy


WASHINGTON -- Abruptly abandoning 50 years of secrecy, the CIA disclosed yesterday how much money the United States spends annually for intelligence: $26.6 billion.

With a one-sentence fax to a lawyer who sued seeking the disclosure, the CIA let fall a pillar of Cold War policy, ending its argument that obeying the Constitution's commands for a public budget would irreparably harm national security. Before yesterday afternoon, disclosing the sum had been legally tantamount to espionage.

The decision ended a 30-year legal battle, fought in the courts and Congress, to compel the agency to comply with the Constitution, which says the government must publish a "regular statement and account" of its spending. When the agency was founded 50 years ago, the Cold War was deemed good reason to keep its budget secret.

That secrecy persisted well after the hammer and sickle came down from the Kremlin, although the spending figure was a secret poorly kept.

Today the agency, which spends about $3 billion a year, presides over a covertly appropriated cache from which billions are drawn by other government intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency, which conducts global eavesdropping, and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which makes pictures and maps from space.

CIA Director George Tenet said President Clinton authorized yesterday's disclosure, which an agency spokesman said was forced by a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act brought by the Federation of American Scientists, which focuses on science in public policy.

Tenet said the disclosure "does not jeopardize" national security and "serves to inform the American people." That was the precise position argued by the opponents of government secrecy who sued for publication of the sum. To defend the agency against the lawsuit, Tenet would have had to submit a sworn affidavit saying that disclosure would seriously damage national security.

That was "something that would be difficult to say" under oath, said the agency spokesman, Bill Harlow.

Kate Martin, the lawyer who filed the suit, said: "Now we can begin to have some real democratic debate on the size of the intelligence budget. The CIA's refusal to disclose the figure didn't protect the national security. It shut citizens out of the debate about the usefulness and future of the CIA."

Martin directs the Center for National Security Studies, a civil liberties group concerned with national security issues.

Her client, Steven Aftergood, who sued the CIA as director of the Federation of American Scientists' government secrecy project, said the disclosure "marks the first time since World War II that the government has acknowledged the size of its intelligence spending."

Secret spending by the Pentagon dates at least to the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb from 1941 to 1945 with $2.19 billion in covertly appropriated money, and the wartime Office of Strategic Services, which spent unaccounted millions on espionage.

With the creation of the CIA in 1947, secret spending was approved by Congress. A few powerful committee chairmen oversaw intelligence accounts as they grew to contain billions in the 1950s and '60s. They rose to about $36 billion in 1987 from about $12 billion a year in 1977, making them one of the fastest-growing elements of federal spending.

Since the mid-1980s, the Federation of American Scientists has tried to track that secret spending by studying the Pentagon's budget, where intelligence programs and secret weapons projects are hidden, like the Manhattan Project, in falsely labeled accounts.

Its estimates were fairly accurate, as an accidental disclosure of $26.7 billion in military and intelligence programs by a congressional subcommittee showed in 1994. By that time, the figure was one of the CIA's worst-kept secrets.

Challenges to secret government spending date to February 1967 when William Richardson, a 49-year-old insurance claims adjuster in Greensburg, Pa., read a newspaper story that the CIA was secretly financing American trade unions, student associations and publishing houses.

Richardson wrote to the U.S. Treasury, asking for a copy of the CIA's budget, citing the Constitution. Rebuffed, he took the battle to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on June 25, 1974, ruled against him, 5-4. Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that only Congress could undo the system of secret spending; Richardson had no right to ask how his tax money was spent.

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Pub Date: 10/16/97

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