A federal judge has decided that CIA Director George J. Tenet can keep the intelligence community's budget secret, ruling that public disclosure could damage national security and reveal intelligence sources and methods.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas F. Hogan dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) under the Freedom of Information Act, saying the director of central intelligence has broad power "to protect the secrecy and integrity of the intelligence process." The opinion, dated Nov. 12, was made public yesterday.
"Obviously, Tenet cannot be certain that damage to our national security would result from release of the total budget request for 1999," Hogan wrote, "but the law does not require certainty or a showing of harm before allowing an agency to withhold classified information."
The FAS filed suit last year to force disclosure of the federal government's total spending on intelligence in fiscal 1999. The Clinton administration had voluntarily disclosed that the CIA and other intelligence agencies spent a total of $26.6 billion in 1997 and $26.7 billion in 1998. But the administration had declined to reveal this year's figure, saying it was under no obligation to make annual disclosures.
The FAS argued that revealing the 1999 spending total would not hurt national security, since comparable figures had been made public for two years in a row. The group also noted that a White House official said three years ago that President Clinton favored disclosure and believed it would not "harm intelligence activities."
But Hogan rejected that argument, finding that Clinton's public position on an earlier budget disclosure "is neither on point nor in any way legally binding." The judge accepted Tenet's argument that mandatory disclosure of 1999 spending, following voluntarily disclosures in previous years, "provides too much trend information and too great a basis for comparison and analysis for our adversaries."
CIA spokesman Bill Harlow applauded Hogan's ruling. "The principle of the intelligence budget being something which is not automatically releasable is one that is important to us," Harlow said, adding that Tenet could always choose to release future spending totals if he felt no damage would occur.
Steven Aftergood, who directs the FAS's project on government secrecy, said Hogan's ruling reverses a two-year trend toward greater disclosure.
"There's simply no question that the public is entitled to this information," Aftergood said. "It is the most rudimentary form of government accountability that is guaranteed by the Constitution."
Aftergood and his attorney, Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a nonprofit civil liberties group, said they are considering an appeal.