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DOD denies reporters budget prep time

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent   |   Feb. 6, 2006 at 6:40 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- Breaking with years of past practice, the Office of the Secretary of Defense Monday declined to release its 2007 budget prior to a scheduled briefing on the $440 billion request.

It did issue a thinly detailed "blue top" - Pentagon slang for a press release -- which says how much the budget request is, and how it breaks down between major accounts and between the services. Reporters may not report on information in the document until Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld holds a press conference Monday afternoon.

This restriction exists despite the public release of the entire federal budget by the White House Monday morning.

For at least the last decade, the Pentagon has issued hundreds of pages of budget data to the press on the weekend before the budget is officially unveiled, on the condition the numbers not be reported until a specific time, a common practice known as an embargo.

The embargo allows reporters time to sift through the detailed documents to determine which programs are being cut and which increased, whether personnel costs are rising, and what the next five years are projected to hold for Pentagon spending, the largest discretionary account in the federal budget.

"This administration and this Pentagon are renowned for their efforts to manage public perception. And unfortunately this kind of gamesmanship with the press is one more effort to shape press coverage in the administration's favor," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C.

"There is an ongoing diminution of the press and an attempt to say that it has no special standing ... It's an attempt to diminish the standing of the press and to assert greater control over the portrayal of government activities," he said.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the embargoed blue top "gives extensive information" about the budget that adequately prepares reporters to ask questions.

The press release provides lump sum information on "Joint Air Support," "Joint Air Dominance," and "Joint Maritime Capabilities;" specific numbers are provided in only a few cases, including the Army's plans to buy a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles.

"To me it makes more sense that the people most knowledgeable about the budget highlight the things that are most significant" prior to the release of the data, Whitman said. "We're not controlling the information."

Whitman disputed the notion that the documents' release has been delayed, saying he only promised to provide information about the budget Monday morning, not the documents. He dismissed the past practice of providing the data early to reporters.

"Just because we've done it some way in the past, that's no model for doing it some way in the future," he said.

Former Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon, now president of Refugees International, called the change in practice "a mistake."

"First, it prevents the press from asking informed questions, which could lead to better stories. Second, the action looks small minded and defensive; pusillanimous might be the right word. Third, it suggests that there is something in the budget that the Pentagon doesn't want the press to find. Fourth, it irritates the press for no apparent gain," he said. "On the other hand, it's not the end of the world."

"If you want to have intelligent questions (from the press), you get better question if you give people time to prepare," agreed Steven Kosiak, director of Budget Studies at Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Aftergood said the tight-fisted control of information imperils the ability of journalists to do their work.

"If you don't have the possibility of asking questions and presenting answers that officials may find unwelcome, then you short circuit the deliberative process, end up magnifying the power of the executive and undermining the system of checks and balances. Needless to say the press is not immune from criticism. But the possibility of independent reporting on government needs to be preserved or all of us are potentially in jeopardy," said Aftergood.

The delayed release of the numbers pushes reporters up against tight deadlines. With hundreds of pages to review and little time to do it, they are less likely to be able to solicit comments from independent defense budget analysts who may be critical of Pentagon plans.

"Waiting till the end of the day means you don't have time to get people to react outside of the briefing, although so much of this has leaked," said Kosiak. "So I guess it does give them some advantage."

"It's difficult enough to really react to all the data typically included in defense budget. To not even have access to the basic top line over view before you have the opportunity to question the secretary seems problematic," said Kosiak. "It doesn't have the out years beyond 2007; usually, in fact in all previous blue tops, it had those numbers."

Half of all tax money not earmarked for entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid -- programs for which spending is mandated by law -- goes to the Defense Department.

"It makes reporter's job more difficult, but also gives them the responsibility to work to overcome the impediments put in their way," said Aftergood.

Many of the 2007 budget details have already been ferreted out by journalists -- including UPI -- who obtained unclassified but tightly controlled budget documents known as program budget decisions. Likewise, the Friday release of the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review was predated by a leaked draft of the document.

The Pentagon's decision not to provide embargoed copies of its budget -- as other federal agencies did last week -- may be linked to the QDR, said Kosiak.

Kosiak and others have criticized the QDR for failing to cancel any big ticket programs to free up money for higher priority items while keeping the federal deficit in check or reducing it, as President George W. Bush suggested in his recent State of the Union speech.

"One of criticisms of QDR is it didn't really do much to actually make the long-term plan more affordable," he said. "Maybe they thought they could focus attention on the QDR and not provide the budget data until later."

"It's perfectly understandable the press office would be frustrated by leaks. But they are the ones with the documents, they are the ones who need to exercise discipline," said Aftergood. "You can't ask the press not to report what they learn."

Aftergood said the Pentagon's "gamesmanship" with the 2007 budget numbers treads on the federal government's responsibility under the U.S. Constitution to issue "a regular statement and account of receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time."

"Publishing the budget is one of the most fundamental government responsibilities. It's not something to be trifled with," he said.

The defense budget is being published - albeit later than the budgets of the rest of the federal government -- but in a way that frustrates the role of knowledgeable journalists and outside analysts in scrutinizing it, said Kosiak and Aftergood.

© 2006 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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