At the other end of the secrecy spectrum, the CIA continues to ardently defend a far more important piece of information — the amount of taxpayer money the U.S. spends each year on intelligence activities. Long an official state secret, the total intelligence budget total has also long been one of the worst-kept secrets in government. The number, which was easy enough to approximate using open sources of declassified information, was often inadvertently released, anyway. But because of the number’s size — about $27 billion — and the fact it wasn’t broken down into how much was allocated for each of the intelligence community’s hundreds of specific projects, it shed little light on how the money was actually spent.
According to openness advocates, however, that wasn’t the issue. What was and is important, is government accountability to the public. In the words of Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), without some insight into the CIA budget, “the American public will be unable to participate meaningfully in deliberations about intelligence spending.”
Given the CIA’s recent track record — the bombing of the Chinese embassy is a case in point — more, not less, insight into intelligence spending is warranted, according to advocates for greater openness.
Aftergood, who runs the FAS Project on Government Secrecy, has been after the intelligence budget figure for years. In 1997, his FOIA lawsuit forced the release of the total intelligence appropriation figures, but only after the CIA and other agencies had spent the money. In 1998, the CIA director released the figure only after Aftergood threatened a lawsuit, but by the time it came out the money was already being spent. Still, it was progress. This year Aftergood took another step, amending his case for the fiscal year 1999 figure by asking for the amount requested by the President for intelligence spending, in addition to the actual amount appropriated by Congress. The difference, of course, would indicate what amount of money Congress added to or subtracted from the President’s request.