U.S. DISTRICT Judge Thomas Hogan has thrown out a lawsuit that sought to compel the government to tell the public how much it spent on intelligence in fiscal year 1999. The government had released the intelligence budgets for two previous years. Yet by this year, when Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists requested it, the figure once again had become sensitive. The CIA vigorously contested Mr. Aftergood's Freedom of Information Act suit to force its release. That the agency now has won does not make its position any more defensible.

The aggregate intelligence budget is something of an open secret, which alone devalues the contention that it needs to be even nominally secret. While he was director of central intelligence, John Deutch said publicly that President Clinton did not believe its disclosure would harm the intelligence community. Moreover, in 1996 the bipartisan Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the U.S. Intelligence Community suggested that both the administration's budget request and the actual appropriated figures should be made public each year.

Yet the CIA now contends -- and persuaded Judge Hogan -- that none of this is relevant. The agency argued that disclosure of the figure for a third year in a row, as Judge Hogan put it, "provides too much trend information and too great a basis for comparison and analysis for our adversaries."

As a reflection of trends in intelligence, aggregate expenditures -- which are measured in the tens of billions of dollars -- seem crude. Especially when compared with a recent speech given at Georgetown University by CIA director George Tenet -- who discussed the agency's aspirations for recruitment and improving its capabilities -- the overall budget numbers seem quite benign. And whatever minor risk the CIA may imagine must be weighed against the obvious benefit of some accountability.

It simply cannot be that the same figures can sensibly be unclassified one year and classified the next. For the CIA to claim they can is to invite public doubt about its other assessments of what does and does not need to be kept secret.