Congress's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Intelligence Appropriations

In a curious role reversal, the administration wants to make the spy budget public, but the House says no

The intelligence authorization bill passed by the House of Representatives just before the Memorial Day recess contains two noteworthy points: first, money; second, CIA use of journalists as spies.

The Constitution says: "A regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time." You wouldn't know this from the way Congress has behaved with the money it annually showers on the intelligence services.

Congressional laxity about constitutional accounting requirements is not new. President Washington had the first secret contingency fund. What is new is the amount of money involved, currently about $30 billion a year. That figure is officially secret but known to one and all.

Also new is the astonishing continued resistance in Congress to administration assurances that publishing the figure would not hurt national security. This is a curious role reversal. Usually Congress complains about administration secrecy and the administration complains about congressional carelessness in handling secrets. Yet the House voted against making the national intelligence budget public as President Clinton has proposed.

This budget is no simple matter. A former director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the official who is supposed to keep track of these things, has complained (privately) that even he was deceived about what was in the CIA budget. A former CIA case officer has said (also privately) that for one covert operation he kept three sets of books - one for OMB, one for his boss, and one for himself. It would be reassuring if we could be confident that the congressional intelligence committees were diligent enough to get at the truth, but nobody suggests that such details be made public.

The only suggestion is that the total figure be made public, and Congress consistently balks at doing so. For a long time, this reflected the opposition of the intelligence community itself. Finally, during the Carter administration, then-director of central intelligence Adm. Stansfield Turner said he had no objection to publicizing the overall figure. Even so, the House Intelligence Committee voted not to. Turner could have released the figure himself, but refrained out of deference to the House committee. The CIA is rarely willing to be more forthcoming than Congress. In 1993 the House again rejected publishing the total figure by a margin not much different from this year's.

The administration go-ahead now comes, not from the director of central intelligence, but from the president. The director owes Congress a certain deference, but the president does not. Mr. Clinton's relations with Congress, especially since the GOP won the 1994 elections, have been more combative than deferential.

Let the president therefore seize the initiative and publicize the intelligence- budget figure himself. This would give him a splendid opportunity to make a point about its size and growth (now more than the administration requested) at a time when the rest of government is shrinking. The contrast might trigger a public outcry, and rightly so, about misplaced priorities. There is a suspicion that fear of such an outcry is the real reason for congressional, mainly GOP, reluctance to disclose the intelligence budget.

Now about the CIA and journalists. The House made a stab at resolving this old controversy: Under the new rules (if the Senate agrees), the CIA cannot, without a presidential explanation to Congress, use bona fide journalists to do its work. But it can pass its own officers off as journalists. This arrangement would somewhat protect journalists working for well-known newspapers, while a CIA officer could masquerade as a "freelance writer" or as the correspondent of a nonexistent news service, such as "John Doe's Foreign Affairs Newsletter."

As usual, the matter is not as simple as it seems. There is the inevitable loophole. "Voluntary cooperation" with the CIA is not precluded - but of course there is no way that the CIA could force a journalist to work for it involuntarily. So the problem and the solution come down to the individual journalist's sense of professional responsibility. If he thinks it is inappropriate to moonlight as a spook, he can just say no. If he doesn't think it's inappropriate, he ought not to be a journalist.

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