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Congressional fight gives peek at intelligence spending

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Most of the recent battles over government spending have been dramatic, bloody and excruciatingly fought in public, but disputes over the approximately $80 billion budgeted every year for the intelligence community has generally been hidden — until now.

In a move that lifted the cloak ever so slightly, the White House this week issued a statement objecting to the House's fiscal year 2013 intelligence-policy bill, saying it misses some good chances to cut spending and save money.

But what those savings are and what the rest of the money is going toward are kept shrouded.

"The administration objects to unrequested authorizations for some classified programs that were reduced in the president's budget because they are lower in priority and would support deficit-reduction efforts," the White House said in a vague statement.

The House rejected the administration's concerns, passing the bill by an overwhelming 386-28 vote after making minor tweaks, all with unanimous support.

A few details about the bill are known: While it spends more than the president wanted, it reduces spending 4 percent compared with 2012 — though both years' dollar amounts remain classified.

The bill keeps personnel costs static in 2013, but does put money into stepping up surveillance of foreign spies.

While this year's spending isn't yet known, the government has released a top-line figure for 2011, when the government spent $24 billion on military intelligence programs and an additional $54.6 billion on civilian programs such as the CIA, for a total of $78.6 billion.

That was the first drop in years, according to the Federation of American Scientists, which tracks the numbers. It said civilian intelligence grew $1.5 billion from 2010 to 2011, but military intelligence programs dropped by $3 billion, for a net drop of $1.5 billion.

The reason for the drop, like so much else in this debate, is unclear, said Steven Aftergood, a senior analyst at the federation.

"It's supposed to be hard," he said.

There is reportedly plenty of waste and overlap. After an exhaustive investigation, The Washington Post reported in 2010 that "51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks."

In a report accompanying this week's bill, lawmakers on the House intelligence committee, which wrote the legislation, said they had scrubbed spending "where appropriate."

Some program details are available in a classified annex to the legislation, which is kept in a secure place, Room 304 of the House Visitor Center complex.

Any House member is allowed to go to the room and review the annex, but it's not clear how many of them bother to do that. The secrecy extends so far that a spokeswoman for the committee couldn't answer how many members have been over to take a look.

"My impression is that Congress tends to delegate most of the subject to the committee members, and to follow the committee's lead," Mr. Aftergood said. "The committees, for their part, do seem to take the subject seriously and tend to do their homework, but I would be surprised if a majority of the members of Congress actually read the classified annexes that the White House is objecting to."

Still, some fights have gone public.

Mr. Aftergood said the director of national intelligence, the administration's top intelligence coordinator, has been pushing for a reduction in commercial-satellite imagery as a way of cutting costs. But Congress and the industry have fought back.

Taxpayers, however, are largely left out of the fight, having to trust the judgment of the select few members of Congress who invest themselves in the debate — and to trust the lobbyists seeking the government contracts that are doled out.

"That's one of the defects in the intelligence-budget process — the playing field is skewed in favor of the beneficiaries," Mr. Aftergood said. "There may be programs that I would oppose if I knew about them."

Another fight the White House raised in its policy statement involved reporting requirements.

The administration said having to file so many reports with Congress eats up valuable resources, and asked to be released from 30 reports. The intelligence committee repealed just six of the requirements, saying that receiving reports is one way Congress is able to keep tabs on the otherwise murky world of the intelligence community.

A White House spokesman didn't reply to a request for comment Thursday on the administration's objections.

Unlike many other bills, the White House did not issue a veto threat on this legislation. The policy bill doesn't actually spend money, but authorizes the programs that the appropriations committee will fund later.

Underscoring the sensitivity of the matters at hand, the Republican leaders refused to let many amendments even be debated on the chamber floor.

"If we were to debate some of these amendments, we'd be put in the impossible position of supporting or opposing amendments based on facts we simply can't discuss for reasons of national security," said Rep. Richard B. Nugent, Florida Republican.

That meant the House never got to debate amendments that would have called for studying whether intelligence data centers could be consolidated to save money, nor did they consider amendments that would have restricted targeted killings or required the government to release the number of Americans who have had their communications monitored by the government in recent years.

The nine amendments that were allowed to come to the floor were all adopted by voice vote, and not a single member spoke out against any of them. They spanned less-thorny issues, such as urging the intelligence community to protect civil liberties or religious and ethnic minorities and allowing information-sharing with Mexico and Canada on drug-trafficking and border security.

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