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Public denied access to CIA's decades-old budget information

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    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Feb. 14, 2005    

Public denied access to CIA’s decades-old budget information

  • CIA budget information from the Cold War is exempt from the FOI Act because its release would compromise “intelligence methods,” a federal court has ruled.

Feb. 14, 2005 — The Central Intelligence Agency may withhold its decades-old budget information because its disclosure would reveal “intelligence methods,” a federal district court in Washington, D.C., ruled Feb. 9. The CIA’s 1963 budget must be disclosed, however, because of its previous, accidental release by the agency, the court ruled.

Judge Ricardo M. Urbina’s ruling came 10 years after Steven Aftergood, project director at the Federation of American Scientists, first requested CIA budget data from 1947 to 1970. In addition to the total amount spent on American intelligence, he asked for how the money was divided among individual agencies.

The CIA refused to release the records, relying on FOI Act Exemption 3’s incorporation of a federal law which allows the agency director to “protect intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure.” Aftergood sued.

The CIA’s then-Acting Director John E. McLaughlin argued in an affidavit filed with the court that the clandestine process of intelligence funding was itself an intelligence method and therefore protected from public release.

Aftergood, on the other hand, argued that American intelligence operations had not suffered “identifiable damage” when 1953-1955 budget data entered the public domain after it was discovered in the archives of a former member of Congress. Urbina ruled that Aftergood’s thoughts about the harmlessness of disclosure carried little weight because it is the CIA director and “not the plaintiff” who “is statutorily entrusted with” deciding if the budget’s release would jeopardize intelligence methods.

Aftergood also alleged that the CIA waived its right to exemption by acknowledging its earlier, accidental declassification of the complete 1963 intelligence budget. Urbina partially agreed with Aftergood, but only insofar as the CIA’s ability to ever again withhold the 1963 budget. Releasing one year’s budget is not tantamount to a wholesale waiver of any further exemption for all other years, he ruled.

Aftergood likely will ask Urbina to reconsider his decision, and may also appeal, he said. The information is important to determine “how much are we spending on intelligence versus how much we are spending on health care or education or defense,” Aftergood said. “Even if I had no interest in making those comparisons, our position is that no government records should be secret unless there is a valid reason for keeping it secret.”

This is not the first time the Federation of American Scientists sued under the FOI Act for intelligence budgets. Most of what Urbina said in his Feb. 9 ruling echoed what he wrote in an unpublished opinion in September when he similarly dismissed Aftergood’s request for 2002 budget information. In 1997, however, the federation succeeded in obtaining intelligence budgets after the CIA capitulated in the middle of litigation and released the requested data for that year.

Last year, one of the 41 recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission was that U.S. intelligence budgets be published.

(Aftergood v. Central Intelligence Agency; Media Counsel: Steven Aftergood, pro se; Washington, D.C.)RL

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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