THE POPULAR wisdom proclaims that the Cold War is over and so is the need for secrecy in the United States intelligence budget.
It is true that the days of the Cold War are no more. Gone is the high tension and high stability of those years. Today we confront the low tension and high instability of the new age. The "new world order" seeks to establish itself within a seemingly more unstable and increasingly dangerous world where proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, ethnic warfare, terrorism, narcotics, organized criminal activity and contempt for international law have replaced the fears of global annihilation.
The contention that there is no longer any justifiable security rationale for keeping the United States intelligence budget classified rings hollow. The suggestion is that we can afford to reveal the aggregate spending of the intelligence community without harming national security, as long as we keep the details secret. The reasoning behind this, however appealing, is fatally flawed for it ignores the political reality of Capitol Hill.
Intelligence budgets are enormously complicated. To master them and the sometimes arcane intelligence process is no small feat. Merely providing overall spending levels for public scrutiny, however, serves little but the appetite for more. The democratic process is neither advanced nor buttressed, for it provides none of the details required to make a considered judgment.
In fact, those who propose this approach admit that revealing anything but the total budget figure would be inappropriate for security reasons. I find this disingenuous. If the details of the budget are to remain secret, then what is the purpose of the exercise? It will only erode the ability to maintain the secrecy of budget details.
The result of disclosing the total intelligence budget, intended or not, will be to stir up political demands for fuller disclosure of classified information. This is the real security issue. It will bring within range a part of the federal budget that has been traditionally spared politicization.
The political reality is clear: Declassifying the intelligence budget would provide another target for deficit reduction. Such declassification is nothing but a ploy whose real target is the intelligence community itself -- a community that is, by nature, a tempting whipping boy for those who essentially distrust government and believe its days and missions are history.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., recently proposed slashing the intelligence budget by $500 million. Other than contending the Cold War was over, no one provided any other reasoning to support the cuts. It was not enough, apparently, that a more than a billion-dollar-plus reduction in the intelligence budget was exacted by the select congressional committees. Representative Frank's introduction of his amendment is a precursor of what could become the norm with an intelligence budget figure disclosed.
The congressional intelligence committees have professional staffs with audit and budget units that scrutinize the intelligence budget for waste, duplication and plain value. The members reflect the political diversity and atmosphere of the country. It has been reported that President Clinton's central intelligence director, R. James Woolsey, received a chilly reception with his recent budget submission and at the end of the day felt the knife of the Cold War dividend, which cut deep.
What is needed is not a knee-jerk reaction to cut for publicity's sake, but a measured approach that advances our interests and keeps at least one segment of the federal budget from being politicized.
For these reasons, publicizing the intelligence budget provides us with no discernible benefits. Intelligence by its nature is a secret affair. It is best to keep true to its nature.
Paul M. Joyal is the former director of security for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.