WASHINGTON, Nov. 14 (UPI) -- Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte has asked one of his deputies to look into the circumstances under which another of them may have accidentally revealed the classified size of the annual U.S. intelligence budget.
Negroponte "has asked (Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Administration) Ambassador (Patrick) Kennedy, to review the situation," spokesman Carl Kropf told United Press International.
Last month, at a conference on intelligence from satellite photography and other imagery in San Antonio last week, veteran intelligence official and current Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Collection Mary Margaret Graham said the annual intelligence budget of the U.S. government was $44 billion.
The apparent slip was reported in the Nov. 14 edition of U.S. News and World Report, who had sent their national security reporter to cover the conference.
Negroponte's decision to order the review follows protests from House Republicans, including Rep. Bob Simmons, R-Conn., chairman of the homeland security subcommittee on intelligence, and a personal approach to Negroponte from House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich.
Simmons told United Press International he hoped some action would be taken against Graham, or a member of her staff if it was determined they were responsible.
"When mistakes are made... it is very appropriate that action is taken," he said. "You can't be too casual about" the release of classified information.
Hoekstra said the matter would also be looked into by a newly expanded pre-existing committee inquiry into leaks and other unauthorized disclosures of classified information, which he said would also probe the origin of press reports about the CIA's system of secret detention centers for suspected senior terror leaders.
GOP leaders of the House and Senate last week -- in a confusing flurry of contradictory statements and inconsistent releases -- signed what became in effect an open letter to Hoekstra and his Senate counterpart, Pat Roberts, R-Kan., calling on them to launch a joint investigation into the apparent release of information about the detention centers.
A number of Republicans with long track records in national security oversight poured scorn on this idea.
"Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C told the Washington Post, "The real story is those jails." Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., told the paper any investigation of the leak made sense only as an adjunct to an investigation of the prisons themselves.
Even Roberts acknowledged how difficult such an inquiry might be, joking it could take "decades."
Indeed, he and Hoekstra, rather than accede to their leadership's demands, have agreed to divide the different inquiries demanded by Republicans and Democrats -- who want a further probe into the intelligence that supported the decision to go to war with Iraq -- between them.
"Sen. Roberts and I share an understanding that we will keep other informed as to the progress of our work in areas of common concern," explained Hoekstra in a ten-page letter to the committee's ranking Democrat, California congresswoman Jane Harman.
He added those areas included "the issue of pre-war intelligence (on which the Senate will continue its oversight) and the issue of unauthorized disclosures of classified information (on which the House will continue its oversight)."
The CIA has already referred the detention leak to the Justice Department, to see if there might be grounds for a prosecution, and Hoekstra told reporters the committee would take care not to "prejudice or infringe on an ongoing criminal investigation."
Hoekstra also said the probe would look into the outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame -- another inquiry that Democrats have called for. An ongoing criminal investigation into that matter by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has resulted in one indictment on perjury charges, but remains open, at least for the time being.
By contrast, the revelation about the budget figure seems unlikely to result in any prosecution, not least because it is -- according to one account given to UPI -- "significantly wrong."
"You can read these numbers a lot of different ways," said one official. "But I cannot put together any set of budgets in any configuration that comes to that ($44 billion) number."
"My sense is that this is a number she read in a newspaper," said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.
"There's no reason anyone in that office (of the director of national intelligence) would know what the aggregate number is, because it includes a lot of military tactical intelligence programs which are run entirely within the Pentagon," he said.
Aftergood, in common with other advocates of government openness, argues that nothing substantive or damaging could possibly be revealed by declassifying the top-line budget total.
"That aggregate number does not tell you anything about anything -- unless you are a taxpayer who wants to know how much your country spends on intelligence," he concluded.
Nonetheless, as Aftergood points out, the CIA has spent lavishly from the public purse to protect the intelligence budgets even of 50 years ago.
Aftergood, the editor of the widely relied on e-newsletter, Secrecy News, sued the government in 1997 to force it to reveal that year's intelligence budget, he told UPI.
The previous year, the independent Aspin-Brown panel commissioned by Congress to make recommendations for intelligence reform, had recommended declassifying the figure, and the White House said it saw no reason to keep it secret.
Aftergood surmises that, without support from the White House, the CIA felt unable to continue to fight the case and disclosed the budget total for that year: $26.6 billion.
The following year's budget was disclosed upon request, but by 1999 the CIA had persuaded the administration to abandon its new policy, and has continued to fight in court the disclosure even of budgets of purely historic interest, such as those from the 1950s.
"My hope is that this whole affair will prompt a re-consideration of this Cold War secrecy policy," said Aftergood. "It is time for the United States to join Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and other advanced democracies that offer intelligence budget accountability to their citizens."
That's unlikely to happen as long as there is a role in the process for some House Republicans, to whom the secrecy of the U.S. intelligence budget has become almost a wedge issue. They fought hard and successfully to overturn the provision of the intelligence reform bill last year that would have declassified exactly the kind of total, top-line figure that Graham is accused of revealing.
They argue that the disclosure of the top-line figure would inevitably provoke demands for more detailed information. And, as time passed without visible repercussions, that itself would increasingly be seen as proof that no damage had been done, upping the pressure for further disclosures.
"Once you start disclosing, there is no end to it," said Simmons.