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Intelligence budget agreement hints at more reform

Nov. 11, 2010 - 04:48PM   |  
By BEN IANNOTTA   |   Comments
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (File photo / Getty Images)

A preliminary agreement to pull national intelligence spending out of the Defense budget could breathe fresh life into a long-dormant recommendation by the Sept. 11 Commission to simplify oversight of intelligence spending, intelligence experts said.

On Nov. 2, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told the audience at the annual Geospatial Intelligence Symposium that he had reached">a "conceptual agreement" with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to shift approximately $50 billion in annual intelligence spending out of the Defense budget starting in 2013. The change would leave the approximately $30 billion military intelligence program intact within the Defense budget.

Clapper described the agreement as "one specific way" his office will "accrue more authority," but Defense officials and independent experts said they were skeptical that would be the effect. Clapper is already legally responsible for overseeing the $50 billion National Intelligence Program, which covers expenditures by the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office and National Security Agency, they said. The change would stop the process of hiding national intelligence spending in the Defense budget but would not change the intelligence director's authority, they added.

A top Defense official described the practice of sprinkling intelligence spending throughout the Pentagon budget as a relic of Cold War secrecy that needed to end, but he downplayed the bureaucratic impact of ending the practice. A member of his staff called it "an accounting" matter.

The real significance is that it sets the stage for separate intelligence appropriations, which was one of the reforms recommended by the Sept. 11 Commission in 2004 but never implemented, experts said.

"It's a momentous change. It will place intelligence on its own budget footing at long last, after more than half a century of concealing intelligence spending within the Pentagon budget," said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, who advocates less government secrecy.

"Does it increase [the director's] authority? I don't think so, but it suggests there could be further reforms or changes down the road," said Andy Johnson, a former Democratic staff director on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Whether Congress will react by creating separate subcommittees for intelligence appropriations remains unclear. As it stands, the Defense appropriations subcommittees assess the national intelligence program, and the House and Senate intelligence committees draft authorization bills. The agreement "could give the appropriators and authorizers some really interesting options in terms of how they want to organize themselves," Johnson said.

In 2004, the Sept. 11 Commission criticized the "secrecy and complexity" of the intelligence oversight process and recommended that the U.S. pass a separate intelligence appropriations act and publicly reveal how much it spends on intelligence.

The Obama administration addressed one part of that recommendation on Oct. 28 when it lifted the veil on overall national intelligence spending as directed by the 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act. The U.S. appropriated $53.1 billion for intelligence in 2010, Clapper's office announced.

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