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Searching for accountability on U.S. intelligence spending.

11:00 PM, Dec 18, 2006 • By MICHAEL TANJI
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HOUSE SPEAKER-DESIGNATE Nancy Pelosi has reportedly said she will create a new panel to examine President Bush's intelligence budget to ensure that taxpayer funds are being spent wisely. This coincides with another intelligence-related item on her to-do list, which is to attempt to make intelligence decisions more transparent. In essence, Pelosi is angling to pork-bust the intelligence community.

Porkbusting has gained considerable momentum lately. Consider that this past fall President Bush signed into law the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, more popularly known as the Porkbusters bill. Once implemented by the Office of Management and Budget it will allow the public access to government grants and contract awards over $25,000. A less widely known public accountability effort was launched this past February. The website is also run by the OMB and it publishes performance ratings of hundreds of federally-financed programs. Both of these efforts were attempts to democratize access to, and understanding of, federal budget efforts--as well as a way to hold program administrators and legislators accountable for their actions. Both of these attempts at openness exclude access to intelligence-related programs.

Average citizens hoping to figure out what goes on behind the closed doors of the intelligence community have few reliable resources and when it comes to the intelligence business, the government has long argued that even budget numbers should remain secret--lest our adversaries determine the level of effort we are waging against them. Even if a member of the Director of National Intelligence's office had not inadvertently revealed what is probably a ball-park figure for the intelligence budget in public, any adversary that can do simple math could come up with a working number by evaluating our declared and observable capabilities, looking at public financial statements of government contractors, and counting parking spaces outside of secret agency headquarters.

They could do that but I'd be willing to be that they don't. because trying to outspend the United States is a sucker's game. And since no one can outspend us our enemies are forced to outwit us. Given that nations such as Cuba, Ecuador, and Liberia--hardly economic giants--have each successfully penetrated our intelligence agencies in one fashion or another, that doesn't seem to be a terrible strategy.

IF THERE IS AN AREA OF GOVERNMENT we should expect to get more than our moneys worth it's national security. As the recently declassified "Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate on Global Trends in Terrorism" has revealed, for all the money we spend on secret intelligence, the end-result is not very impressive. If there is one criticism of intelligence products held by both ends of the political spectrum, it's how pedestrian they are: few keen insights, no groundbreaking assessments, and obvious, wishy-washy conclusions. You would think that for a few billion dollars the cumulative effort of 15 agencies would be much, much more impressive.

Congressional Democrats claim to have a "100-day plan" designed to implement--among other things--all of the changes of the 9/11 Commission. It's hard to think of a better way to help facilitate these reforms than allowing web-based accountability efforts to include the intelligence budget and related programs.

Michael Tanji is a former senior intelligence officer and an associate of the Terrorism Research Center. He opines on intelligence and security issues at Haft of the Spear.