By Dave Kopel
July 16, 1997
Should the U.S. intelligence budget be completely secret? Boulder Congressman David Skaggs and Denver Congresswoman Diana DeGette said "no" last week. Three former CIA Directors agreed, and told Congress there would be no harm to national security from disclosure of the total amount of intelligence spending, as long as individual budget items are kept secret.
At issue was the 1998 intelligence budget, being debated on the floor of the House of Representatives. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) offered an amendment to disclose the aggregate amount of spending by the federal governments fourteen intelligence agencies. Each individuals agencys budget would remain secret.
Democrats Skaggs and DeGette were cosponsors of the bill that the Conyers amendment was based on. But the four Republicans in the Colorado House delegationHefley, Schaffer, Schaefer, and McInnisall voted against disclosure. (On the Senate side, Colorado Republicans Allard and Campbell had voted against disclosure a few weeks ago.)
The anti-disclosure forces won 237-192, although this was the closest vote ever on the issue. In a sense, the vote will not change anything, because the total budget is already known: as reported in the Washington Post, next years appropriation will be 30 billion dollars, up from 29 billion this year.
But in a Constitutional sense, the vote was very important. The Constitution mandates:
"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."
This constitutional command is unequivocal: "No" means no.
During the Cold War, however, Congress kept the CIA budget secret. This unconstitutional concealment was not necessary. Canada, Britain, and even Israel make their intelligence budgets public. During World War II, Congress and the President adhered to the Constitution, by making public the budget of the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor to the CIA).
Today, with the Cold War won, there is no plausible risk from disclosing the overall intelligence budget. This was the unanimous conclusion of the Brown-Aspin Commission, which was created by Congress to study intelligence budget issues. The conclusion is also shared by former CIA Directors Turner, Gates, and Deutch.
The Brown-Aspin Commission, as well as the three retired CIA Directors, pointed out that no foreign state could learn anything useful merely by looking at the overall budget total, or yearly budget trends.
The Statement and Account clause was not a controversial part of the Constitution. It was widely regarded as providing an important check on potential abuses. In the Virginia Ratifying Convention, George Mason stated that certain government information (such as diplomatic correspondence) might need to be secret, but "he did not conceive that the receipts and expenditures of the public money ought ever to be concealed. The people, he affirmed, had a right to know the expenditures of their money."
George Mason would have been proud of David Skaggs, who told the House that disclosure "will enhance our responsibility to the American public for them to have as much information as possible about their government."
In a 1970s Supreme Court case dealing with the Statement and Account clause, Justice William O. Douglas reminded us "The sovereign in this Nation is the people, not the bureaucracy" He explained "The statement of accounts of public expenditures goes to the heart of the problem of sovereignty. If taxpayers may not ask that rudimentary question, their sovereignty becomes an empty symbol and a secret bureaucracy is allowed to run our affairs."
As Justice Douglas understood, the Statement and Account clause is not designed for the pleasure of accountants, but for the preservation of democracy: "The public cannot intelligently know how to exercise the franchise unless it has a basic knowledge concerning at least the generality of the accounts under every head of government."
In practice, intelligence spending has suffered from precisely the kind of waste, fraud, and abuse that is inevitable when total secrecy prevails. CIA spending has ballooned 80% in real dollars since 1980, even though the demise of the Soviet Union vastly reduces intelligence needs.
The CIAs National Reconnaissance Office, which operates spy satellites, bought itself a luxurious 300 million-dollar complex, with 14 extra acres not authorized by Congress. The Office has four billion dollars in unspent funds, of which it has lost two billion!
Three cheers for Democrats Skaggs and DeGette, for standing up in favor of fiscal responsibility and a strong Constitution.