For Steven Aftergood, it has been a daunting struggle against one of the world's most enigmatic forces: the Central Intelligence Agency.
Mr. Aftergood, a researcher for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, has been trying to make America's 13 intelligence agencies, including the CIA, reveal their total annual budgets to the public.
He argues that releasing the figure (estimated at $29 billion to $30 billion for 2000) is a first step in making the intelligence agencies fall in line with democratic processes that apply to other parts of government.
Beyond that, he says the amount - which is larger than the entire Russian federal budget - lends credibility to arguments that the CIA has not sufficiently reformed itself since the end of the cold war.
"The number itself is important so the public can know with confidence how much their government spends on intelligence," he says. "The larger issue has to do with the secretive character of our intelligence bureaucracy."
Aftergood's crusade suffered a setback this week, however, when the House of Representatives backed CIA Director George Tenet and rejected a measure to disclose the agency's 1999 budget. And on Wednesday, the CIA informed Aftergood that his request for the 2000 budget under the Freedom of Information Act had been rejected.
Backpedaling on openness
The defeats mark a sharp turn from successful disclosure efforts in 1997 and 1998, when officials revealed the intelligence budgets to be $26.6 billion and $26.7 billion, respectively. And Aftergood says this week's silence signals an "upward slope" of the CIA becoming more secretive.
In rejecting the measure, lawmakers cited a 1999 declaration by Mr. Tenet, which said: "Disclosure of the budget request ... [could] assist [foreign countries] in redirecting their own resources to frustrate the United States' intelligence collection efforts."
In other words, Tenet and supporters of a classified budget argue that enemies of the US could spot intelligence strengths and weaknesses by analyzing overall spending "trend lines."
And some argue that secrecy can inspire a beneficial awe in potential enemies. "I would like them to think that [we spend more than we do]," Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) of California said in House testimony.
The intelligence budget was classified in 1947, and disclosure requests have been a topic of debate for the past 20 years.
A 1996 intelligence commission chaired by former Defense Secretary Harold Brown took up the subject and concluded that disclosure "is a worthwhile purpose, and may, to some degree, help restore the confidence of the American people in the intelligence function."
Later that year, President Clinton announced intelligence reforms based on the Brown Commission. Among the reforms, Mr. Clinton authorized Congress to make public the "bottom line" intelligence appropriation.
Yet it took a Freedom of Information Act request and a lawsuit by Aftergood the following year to get the Directors of Central Intelligence (DCI) to release the figure.
In 1998, the DCI disclosed the appropriation voluntarily - after Aftergood had said he was filing a lawsuit.
Since then, however, the US intelligence climate has changed - partially because of a well-publicized failure to predict that India would test a nuclear weapon in 1998, and the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, which US officials blamed on an intelligence mapping mistake.
Some officials have used prior failures - and new technologies - to argue for greater intelligence spending. Indeed, analysts estimate that the budget has been significantly rising since 1998.
The 2001 budget includes a 6.6 percent increase from the previous year, Rep. Julian Dixon (D) of California said in testimony to the House (a CIA spokesman could not confirm that figure). That would put current spending levels in the neighborhood of their cold-war highs, analysts estimate.
Among the agencies that are expected to benefit from the spending boost is the National Security Agency, which had a publicized computer failure for a three-day stretch this year. The NSA was also recently accused of improperly prying into private e-mail of American citizens.
Also under the intelligence spending bill, the CIA director would be responsible for certifying that the State Department meets sufficient standards in protecting classified material - after the disappearance this year of a laptop computer containing secret information.
At the same time, it is unclear what, if any, programs are being cut back. Although intelligence agencies no longer face the threat of the Soviet Union, some argue that spying has become harder than ever because of diverse threats, including rogue states like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society