A bipartisan coalition in the House of Representatives is seeking disclosure for themselves and the public of top-line budget figures for 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.
“If you have unlimited money and nonexistent oversight, bad things happen,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., tells U.S. News. “The idea is that they know it’s not a free ride.”
Welch and Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., introduced the “The Intelligence Budget Transparency Act” with Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and David Price, D-N.C., in January and last week recruited 60 colleagues to join them in asking President Barack Obama to voluntarily disclose top-line budget requests for individual spy agencies when he proposes a budget for fiscal year 2015 later this year.
Members of Congress do not automatically have a right to know anything about funding for the intelligence agencies and therefore cannot participate in debates, oversight or votes on those appropriations. Funding for the intelligence agencies is generally approved by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
“Most of the members of Congress can theoretically get access to this information, but they basically have to break windows and kick down doors, and then when they get the information they have to sign a pledge that they won’t reveal the information to the people they represent,” Welch says. “This is not a workable situation because the whole point of a member of Congress having information is so that the American people – the folks paying the bills – are informed.”
The four-term Vermonter says he was personally surprised by intelligence budget numbers published in August by The Washington Post, based on classified documents released by exiled whistle-blower Edward Snowden. According to that report, intelligence agencies including the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency were awarded $52.6 billion in funding for fiscal year 2013, not including another $23 billion for military intelligence programs. The CIA was allocated $14.7 billion, the NSA $10.8 billion and the National Reconnaissance Office $10.3 billion, the Post reported.
“When the Snowden information was released it was news not just to most Americans, but also news to most members of Congress,” Welch says. Although he won’t accuse the intelligence committees of doing a poor job, he does advocate broader inspection of budget numbers.
“The whole Congress has to play a more active role in oversight – if you have intelligence completely walled off and only reviewed by the intelligence committee, then the rest of us in Congress, who each represent around 700,000 people, have no way of advocating sensible policies,” Welch says.
“Let’s say you had 16 different agencies with 16 different secret budgets administering the food stamp program or the highway program,” he adds. “You’d be mighty skeptical that we weren’t squandering some money in the process.”
Lummis, serving her third term in the House, tells U.S. News Snowden's leaks about dragnet NSA surveillance programs spawned the transparency push.
"When we learned the extend of intelligence gathering that was going on regarding the American people – in what many felt was stretching the Patriot Act beyond its intent – a number of Republicans and Democrats across the spectrum of political thought started to consider how to appropriately garner more oversight capabilities," Lummis says. “Although this particular bill won't specifically allow us to dig into details, it puts these 16 intelligence gathering agencies on notice that Congress is watching, that we want a preliminary look at their top line budget numbers and once we see those they may receive more questions from rank and file members of Congress.”
The 62 members of Congress who asked Obama to voluntarily disclose budget requests for intelligence agencies say doing so would not harm American security.
“We believe the top line number for each agency should be made public, with no risk to national security, for comparative purposes across all federal government agencies,” the 38 Democrats and 24 Republicans wrote. “The current practice of providing no specificity whatsoever regarding the overall budget requests for each intelligence agency falls woefully short of basic accountability requirements ... Providing basic information about the intelligence budget in your fiscal year 2015 budget request would be a further step in the right direction and is wholly consistent with the recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission Report.”
The letter is identical to a Jan. 14 plea from Gutierrez, Lummis, Price and Welch. It's unclear if either received a response. Spokespeople for the White House and the National Security Council did not respond to requests for comment.