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Oct 5, 2004 5:02 pm

Keep the Intelligence Budget Secret

Opponents of excessive government secrecy are crowing over the Senate's decision to disclose the annual total funds the government spends on intelligence.

But is it a good idea?

"I have drawn the conclusion that basically this destroys the [intelligence] network," said Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont), according to an account in the newsletter of the Project on Government Secrecy."And we wonder why we do not have human resources on the ground in some areas in the world and, yes, even in our own country. I will tell you, if this [budget information] is disclosed, this will be one of the main reasons that we will have."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a supporter of disclosure, responded:

The idea that our enemies can somehow determine something about our intelligence capability by knowing the total of what we spend is simply not accurate. Year-to-year changes in any specific program will not move the overall total number enough to give an adversary any indication of how that money is being spent

I am sure I would have agreed with Rockefeller a few months ago, but not after reading George Crile's CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR, which tells the story of the CIA war to support the Afghan Mujahadeen.

According to Crile's impressive account, Congressman Wilson succeeded in raising so much money so quickly for the Afghans that it was doubling every year several years in a row, until it reached more than a billion dollars. At one point the little CIA team plotting the war--the CIA's largest war ever--was spending more than half the funds the agency was appropriated. Had the intelligence budget been disclosed in the 1980s as is now proposed, the Soviets surely would have wondered where the big increases in the budget were going. At the time they had little idea of the extent of the CIA war, which was largely conducted in secret, of course. If they even suspected the range of the CIA's efforts they may well have been able to sabotage the program before it had a chance to see results.

Further, the Saudis, who had agreed to match every dollar the Congress appropriated, may well have worried that their own contributions would have become known if Congress disclosed the budget. Imagine how things might have worked. A big increase in the budget is disclosed. Members of Congress who aren't on the intelligence committee wonder is going on. Critics cry out that the CIA must be up to something nasty. So the members began holding news conferences to demand to know where the money is going. The CIA can't say; it's secret. But that doesn't stop the members from investigating on their own. As happened in the 1980s the agency could silence its critics with facts if it could get around the problem of protecting the secrecy of the operation, but it can't. The operation has to remain secret. Worried that the enemy may figure out that the money is being used against them, the CIA then puts out a cover story deflecting attention to something else, claiming, perhaps, that the money is going for a new satellite. Under these circumstances in effect the agency would be lying to our own Congress (at least those members not in the loop).

You see where this is going? It's a mess.

And because the agency can't protect itself given the necessity of protecting its secret operations, it could get battered needlessly, s happened during the 1980s when conservatives went after the CIA for supposedly ignoring he Mujahadeen. The CIA wanted to let them know that the agency in fact was providing hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance. But it simply could not. So the conservatives wailed on the agency in ignorance of the facts.

Like I said, I wouldn't have taken a position against disclosure a few months ago. But I read Crile's account and now can't pretend that I didn't.

Response from Steven Aftergood, who puts out the newsletter of the Project on Government Secrecy

I don't buy it, for several reasons. One is that today we are not facing a peer superpower like the Soviet Union. Nobody else would be in a position to draw meaningful inferences from the release of a single aggregate figure. Second, you presume that the Soviets had no idea of the role of US intelligence in Afghanistan.

Even before the use of Stingers announced covert US aid, I doubt that that was correct. Recall that the 1980s were"the decade of the spy" and that Aldrich Ames, for one, was at his peak"productivity" at the time. U.S. budget secrecy, at the aggregate level, was never a problem for the Soviet Union. It was irrelevant.

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