The CIA and the price we pay Lawsuit response puts the figure at $26.6 billion

October 19, 1997|By Duncan Levin

For the first time since World War II, U.S. citizens know how much of their limited tax dollars are being spent on intelligence: $26.6 billion.

George Tenet, director of central intelligence, released the figure Wednesday in response to a lawsuit brought by the Center for National Security Studies on behalf of the Federation of American Scientists.

With this figure, citizens finally have more information that enables them to participate effectively in the debate on how much this country should spend on national security.

For years, not only has the intelligence budget been secret, but the money has been hidden in defense appropriations, distorting the true amount that's spent on the military. Now we can have an informed political debate on defense spending, something that was impossible when billions of intelligence dollars were tucked away in the Pentagon's budget.

Indeed, budget disclosure advocates have had a strong constitutional case - the Statement and Account clause of the Constitution requires a public accounting for all government expenditures:

"No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time."

But in United States vs. Richardson in 1974, the Supreme Court held that individuals could not sue to enforce the constitutional requirement.

The magnitude of intelligence spending has not been made public since the creation of the modern intelligence community in the years after the end of World War II. At the end of the war, the Army, Navy and State departments assumed responsibility for the funding of intelligence activities and, accordingly, created a "working fund" that received allocations from the departments.

After the Central Intelligence Agency was founded in 1947, funds for intelligence operations continued to be given over from the departments by way of secret transfers. Since then, CIA funds have been secretly included in defense authorization and appropriation legislation.

Congress' first public discussion of the black budget came in 1971 on the floor of the Senate, as an enraged Sen. J. William Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat, waved a copy of the Pentagon's budget in the air and decried the billions of dollars of intelligence funds hidden within it.

In 1976, the Church Committee - as part of its investigation into wide-ranging CIA abuses - found "that publication of the aggregate figure for national intelligence would begin to satisfy the constitutional requirement and would not damage the national security."

The Church Committee recommended that the intelligence committees "consider whether it is necessary, given the

constitutional requirements and the national security demands, to publish more detailed budgets." Just a few months before, the Pike Committee had recommended that "there be disclosure of the total single sum budgeted for each agency involved in intelligence."

During the two days of public hearings and a lengthy closed session held by the Church Committee, not one single official - including past CIA directors William Colby and Richard Helms, the new CIA director Stansfield Turner, and other former high officials of the CIA and the military intelligence agencies - argued that disclosing the secret budget number would endanger national security. Turner, for one, testified that it would "help the public put into perspective the intelligence activity of their country." But they opposed it nonetheless.

And, after conducting hearings on the matter a year later in May 1977, the newly created Senate Select Committee on Intelligence recommended by a one-vote margin that the aggregate amount appropriated for national foreign intelligence activities for fiscal year 1978 be disclosed. However, the full Senate did not act on this recommendation.

Still, the issue never died. Over the years, advocates of budget disclosure in the Congress continued to argue that the greater discussion that would result from publishing the national intelligence budget figure would be in the public interest, without sacrificing national security at all.

While the Congress supported disclosure over the years, it never voted to make the number public.

In 1991 consideration, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to require three disclosures: the aggregate amount of money requested by the president; the aggregate amount authorized to be appropriated by the conference committee on the Intelligence Authorization Act; and the aggregate amount given to the Executive Branch. The Congress as a whole then recommended but did not require that "beginning in 1993, and each year thereafter, the aggregate amount requested and authorized for, and spent on, intelligence and intelligence-related activities should be disclosed to the public in an appropriate manner."

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