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The mystery budget

Enemies may come and go, but the federal government's intelligence budget just grows and grows.

Or at least administration and congressional officials say that the intelligence budget has continued to grow, and even those vague confirmations are given off the record. The annual cost of maintaining our worldwide intelligence network remains an official secret, even though changing world events have made that extraordinary secrecy harder to justify. More than anything, the intricate mystery surrounding the intelligence budget has had the effect of preventing serious oversight of the vast monitoring and surveillance bureaucracy that has built up since World War II.

Is the intelligence budget a fruitful place for congressional cost-cutters to direct their attention? Unless you're one of the relatively few Washington officials with access to the secrets contained in the details of that budget, it's almost impossible to say for sure _ and that's just the way that the intelligence community likes it.

It only stands to reason that the intelligence budget should be subject to a comprehensive review in light of the different world conditions that have resulted from the fall of the Soviet bloc. So far, though, Clinton administration officials have been no more eager than their Republican predecessors to engage in such a reassessment. CIA Director R. James Woolsey is said to have warned members of Congress that any attempt to cut the administration's proposed intelligence budget for the next fiscal year could have "devastating consequences" for national security.

All department heads tend to exaggerate the potential effects of budget cuts in their programs, but Woolsey's warnings, like those of past CIA directors, make it sound as if any serious attempt to audit the intelligence budget would be almost un-American.

According to the best available information, though, congressional critics of the administration's budget request aren't out to decimate our intelligence operations. Instead, they are asking only that President Clinton live up to his original promise to cut the intelligence budget by $7-billion over the next four years.

Instead, the Clinton administration apparently has asked for an increase of more than $1-billion for the coming year. The House Intelligence Committee has voted to make cuts that would leave next year's budget at essentially the same level as this year's _ about $27.5-billion. Woolsey and his cohorts should be able to scrimp by with that.

Budgets aside, the Clinton administration and Congress should be engaging in a comprehensive review of our intelligence priorities. Can't Washington redirect billions of dollars in resources that previously were part of a vast anti-Communist apparatus? On the other hand, shouldn't the government be doing even more to combat increased technological espionage in such crucial industries as aerospace and computers?

Those kinds of questions deserve a serious debate, even if it means removing a bit of the mystery that has enveloped this huge chunk of the federal budget.

If our chronic deficits truly are an internal threat to our long-term security, the intelligence community has an obligation to monitor its own spending as closely as it monitors the activities of our external adversaries.

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