The Devil is in the Classified Details

Posted: July 24, 2006 in Beltway Drama, National Security

The Associated Press has an interesting story on how convicted former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham used the classified appropriations process in his capacity as a member of the House Intelligence Committee to steer appropriations money for projects of his choice that would “benefit him or his associates.”

Here’s the basics of the AP story:

An independent investigation has found that imprisoned former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham took advantage of secrecy and badgered congressional aides to help slip items into classified bills that would benefit him and his associates.

The finding comes from Michael Stern, an outside investigator hired by the House Intelligence Committee to look into how Cunningham was able to carry out the scheme. Stern is working with the committee to fix vulnerabilities in the way top-secret legislation is written, said congressional officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the committee still is being briefed on Stern’s findings.

Cunningham’s case has put a stark spotlight on the oversight of classified – or “black” – budgets. Unlike legislation dealing with social and economic issues, intelligence bills and parts of defense bills are written in private, in the name of national security.

That means it is up to members of Congress and select aides with security clearances to ensure that legislation is appropriate.

Speaking from personal experience at my previous job where on a few occasions I had to go through similar documents and trying to fact check or analyze the data they contain, government budget documents which are available to the public generally tend to be monstrous in size and mind-numbingly dull in scope and detail to begin with. What makes this budget bill different is that anything dealing with the intelligence community budget is classified, because the U.S. government does not want to give any hints to foreign governments or intelligence agencies any ideas about what the CIA, NSA, NRO, NGA, DIA, or other agencies in the U.S. intelligence community alphabet soup might be up to based on how much money they’re getting from Congress.

As the AP story points out, pork projects buried in classified budgets are nothing new, citing Senators Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) and Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) as examples. However, given all of the recent controversies involving the practice of earmarking, as well as some of the projects which were going to receive congressional funding (i.e. the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska), it would not be surprising to me if at some point in the future, a massive overhaul of the appropriations and earmarking process will be necessary.

Finally, the article also adds that when dealing with classified budgets the judgment is strictly up to the committee members and a handful of aides who have the appropriate security clearances. Because of this, no outside interest groups (i.e. Citizens Against Government Waste or POGO) or the media can go through it and look for possible evidence of pork projects, wasteful spending, conflicts of interest, or corruption.

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