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A Lot of Money--but It's a Wise Investment : House refuses to cut U.S. intelligence budget any further

August 08, 1993

President Clinton won an undramatic but important legislative victory last week when the House, heeding his warning against further eroding national security, refused to approve any additional cuts in funding for intelligence activities.

At issue was a motion to slash next year's intelligence budget by a further 10%, on top of a smaller cut reportedly recommended by the House Intelligence Committee. Just how much is spent acquiring and analyzing intelligence is an official secret, though informed public estimates put the current figure at about $28 billion a year. So a 10% cut would be no small blow at intelligence capabilities.

Proponents of the cut argued that the end of the Cold War and the receding of the Soviet nuclear threat mean that major reductions can be made in the host of intelligence activities undertaken around the globe--very few of which, it might be noted, involve covert operations. Besides, whatever money can be saved in this area certainly can be put to immediate good use at home. One congressman contended that the 10% cut in intelligence spending would "put 56,000 deputy sheriffs on the road." That's an impressive point. Others could be suggested: a few billion dollars or so taken from the intelligence budget could build and equip an entire new University of California campus. Or contribute in a major way to flood relief in the Midwest. Or serve any of a dozen or more worthy domestic needs.

The trouble with the it-can-be-better-spent-elsewhere claims is not that they're wrong but that they're not really relevant. A lot of domestic needs deserve to be better funded, but that doesn't mean that less money ought to be spent on safeguarding the nation's security. The good thing about putting money into hiring more cops or building new schools is that the results can be seen fairly quickly. Spending that same money on expensive spy satellites or informers inside terrorist groups or trying to figure out what's going on inside Saddam Hussein's head can also produce important results. The problem, at least when it comes to making a case for intelligence spending, is that these results must often remain largely invisible to the public eye.

Not always, of course. The world was alerted to North Korea's threatening nuclear weapons program chiefly because of what U.S. intelligence found. Iraq was trounced in the Persian Gulf War in no small measure because intelligence was able to pinpoint its key strategic and tactical targets and monitor its military communications. Absent that information the war would surely have been far longer and far more bloody for all involved.

Is the high cost of intelligence justified by its results? Consider the alternative. Being caught unawares by an act of aggression that threatens U.S. interests can be crushingly expensive. Political leaders in Washington were surprised by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, though intelligence gave clear warning that it was coming. Thanks to other intelligence, the duration and costs of the subsequent conflict--and high-tech war can easily cost hundreds of millions of dollars a day to wage--were limited. The real question isn't whether the nation can afford to fund comprehensive intelligence gathering, but whether it can afford not to.

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