WASHINGTON — President Bush had just signed a bill ending a decades-old practice of classifying the amount the nation's spy agencies spend. A day later, some in Congress were again trying to make it secret.
The requirement that the president disclose the intelligence total was a provision of a broad security measure carrying out recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission. Bush signed it Aug. 3.
The commission, in making its recommendations in 2004, argued that overclassification does not contribute to good government, and that revealing the overall spending for intelligence activities would help Congress in its oversight duties.
As the commission found, said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., declassification would not reveal investments in specific programs or expose sources and methods. "Instead, it simply provides greater transparency to American taxpayers," Thompson said.
But this and past administrations have worked hard to keep the number hidden.
The White House, when the Senate was considering the 9/11 bill, put out a statement saying disclosure "would provide no meaningful information to the general American public, but would provide significant intelligence to America's adversaries and could cause damage to the national security interests of the United States."
But in the end, Bush signed the bill, which includes significant upgrades in port and aviation security and changes how Washington distributes security grants to the states.
The next night, shortly before Congress recessed for its August break, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., introduced an amendment into the 2008 defense-spending bill that would prevent the intelligence portion of that budget from being made public. The amendment was accepted without debate.
"Publicizing a budget sounds pretty benign until you realize the bad guys are looking at what goes into our intelligence," Issa said in an interview. He said that even without releasing the specifics of intelligence budgets, noticeable changes in spending from one year to another could be of use to both the single terrorist and to spy agencies in countries such as China and Russia.
The Senate, which supported disclosure in its 9/11 bill, still has to consider the defense bill. Leslie Phillips, spokeswoman for Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said, "We are disappointed by the House action and will work to reverse it."
Under the 9/11 bill, the president must disclose the intelligence community budget for this fiscal year and fiscal 2008. From 2009, the president may waive the disclosure requirement if he can make the case to Congress that it would harm national security.
It is broadly estimated that current intelligence spending exceeds $45 billion a year. That covers 16 agencies, including the CIA, the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists said advocates of open government had been trying for decades to make the intelligence budget public.
Former CIA director George Tenet released the intelligence budgets in 1997 and 1998 — $26.6 billion and $26.7 billion — after the Federation of American Scientists filed Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. But the budget has been classified again since 1999, despite numerous attempts in Congress to reverse that policy.
The 9/11 bill is a landmark in that it is the first time Congress has required declassification of the budget over the objections of the executive branch, Aftergood said.
"It has become a symbol of entrenched secrecy," he said. "By tackling this symbol, you will help galvanize a process of reform."