On Monday, Justice Department representatives were in federal court arguing that releasing the figure for 1999 would compromise national security -- even though the numbers for 1997 ($26.6 billion) and 1998 ($26.7 billion) are already available.
The president's comment in 1996, a Justice Department attorney told the judge, was simply a 'general policy statement.' Apparently it's just a given with this president that his general policy statements offer no reflection on his administration's actual policies.
The administration now claims that providing the figures could reveal much to a 'sophisticated adversary,' The Associated Press reports.
Yes, the United States still has enemies in this post-Cold War world -- enemies against which it is necessary to employ sophisticated covert intelligence techniques. But the lawsuit -- brought under the Freedom of Information Act by the Federation of American Scientists -- doesn't seek the release of line-item spending practices that could compromise individual operations. It merely seeks a total budget figure for 1999.
"No one in this courtroom could devise anything from the top line number -- other than how U.S. tax dollars are being spent," said Kate Martin, an attorney for the scientists. "The harm in this case is not to intelligence capabilities.... The harm in this case is to the public trust."
She's right. The Justice Department argument smacks more of an inherent, knee-jerk discomfort within the intelligence community over revealing anything at all, rather than a rational concern over jeopardizing U.S. security.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan, who took the case under advisement on Monday, should side with the plaintiffs.