The annual U.S. Intelligence budgets declined greatly after the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton gutted intelligence during his presidency according to many, and I wanted to track down some sources to corroborate that judgment.
The Intelligence budget was not made public for most of Clinton's tenure in the White House, so it's not easy fnding good figures.
The best source I've seen is a document from 1996 called "Preparing for the 21st Century: An Appraisal of U.S. Intelligence."
Chapter 13 is entitled "The Cost of Intelligence" and includes a chart on Intelligence spending from 1980 and projected to 2000 (see chart on the right). Intelligence spending enjoyed a tremendous increase from the beginning of Reagan's presidency, then started a decline during Bush's years and continued downward throughout the Clinton years.
Former CIA Director George Tenet wrote in March, 2004:
The record shows that despite the well-documented resource reductions we took in the 1990s and the enormous competing demands for our attention, I and a series of DCIs before me saw to it that the resources committed to the counterterrorism effort were not only protected but also enhanced.Tenet also said in April, 2004:
The cost of the post-Cold War “peace dividend” was that during the 1990s our intelligence community funding declined in real terms, reducing our buying power by tens of billions of dollars over the decade. We lost nearly one in four of our positions. This loss of manpower was devastating, particularly in our two most manpower intensive activities: all-source analysis and human source collection. By the mid-1990s, recruitment of new CIA analysts and case officers had come to a virtual halt. NSA was hiring no new technologists during the greatest information technology change in our lifetimes. Both Congress and the Executive Branch for most of the decade embraced the idea that we could surge our resources to deal with emerging intelligence challenges, including threats from terrorism.
From a budget perspective, the last part of the 1990s reflects CIA’s efforts to shift to a wartime footing against terrorism. CIA’s budget had declined 18 percent in real terms during the decade and we suffered a loss of 16 percent of our personnel (this is slightly less of a cut than the 1 in 4 cited for the Intelligence Community as a whole earlier).
In a 2004 article called "How the Left Undermined America's Security Before 9/11," David Horowitz wrote that a study by Terry Cooper showed that the Democratic congressional leadership in the 1990s often voted to cut Intelligence funding. Unfortunately, I don't see a link to the Cooper study anywhere.
By the mid-1990s the Intelligence Community was operating with significant erosion in resources and people and was unable to keep pace with technological change. When I became DCI, I found a Community and a CIA whose dollars were declining and whose expertise was ebbing.
- We lost close to 25 percent of our people and billions of dollars in capital investment.
- The pace of technological change and a $3 trillion telecommunications revolution challenged the National Security Agency’s ability to keep up with the increasing volume and velocity of modern communications.
- The infrastructure to recruit, train, and sustain officers for our clandestine services—the nation’s human intelligence capability—was in disarray.
- We were not hiring new analysts, emphasizing the importance of expertise, or giving analysts the tools they needed.
UPDATE: Did Clinton gut the Intelligence Community budgets during his presidency? I've noticed some sites on the internet running cover for Clinton by noting that decreases in the intelligence budget began while George H.W. Bush was president, therefore somehow that means Clinton didn't gut the budget or Bush gutted it first.
The intelligence budget reached its peak sometime between 1987-1990. When Bush was president, he faced a hostile, Democrat-led Congress. He was a former Director of the CIA, and had no interest in cutting the intelligence budget.
Why cut at all? Because the Soviet Union collapsed and many commentators on the left felt this meant that we didn't need much in the way of intelligence anymore. In January 1991, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) introduced legislation to abolish the CIA and hand over its duties to the State Department! Other democrats felt the intelligence budget needed to be cut drastically. Socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont wanted across-the-board intelligence cuts of 10% every year for years! That's what Bush had to work with in those days.
Bush remarked in November 1991:
We need a strong intelligence community to consolidate and extend freedom's gains against totalitarianism. We need intelligence to verify historic arms reduction accords. We need it to suppress terrorism and drug trafficking. And we must have intelligence to thwart anyone who tries to steal our technology or otherwise refuses to play by fair economic rules. We must have vigorous intelligence capabilities if we're to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
But Congress had other ideas and voted to cut intelligence. Even Sen. John Glenn (D-OH) was concrened about those cuts. He offered an amendment to keep funding at current levels for the proposed FY1992 budget but it was badly defeated:
Of greatest concern to me are the reductions in the intelligence budget contained in this legislation. I remain unconvinced of the rationale for these reductions. Our concerns with the intelligence community's priorities should not be addressed by deep budget cuts, but rather by restructuring existing resources. I am convinced that during this time of unprecedented change and uncertainty in the international system, the need for a strong and reliable intelligence capability is particularly compelling.
I am convinced that significant reductions in our intelligence capabilities, especially during this period of international instability, are unwise and could ultimately be damaging to U.S. national security.
After the intelligence budget had been cut, Bush said:
I am concerned that the authorizations for appropriations below my request do not adequately provide for today’s intelligence challenges.
No, Bush didn't want to cut intelligence, but Congress did, and that's what happened.
Let's move forward to the FY1993 budget. Bush proposed an intelligence budget without any major reductions. This infuriated the congressional Democrats, who were discussing how necessary it was to make significant cuts because the Soviet Union was no longer around. Therefore, we didn't need much in the way of intelligence did we? That was the level of the discussion by our elected leaders.
Congress cut the intelligence budget for FY1993 by about 6%, and assuming the numbers thrown out by the press in those days, that meant about $1.5 billion.
Enter Bill Clinton. How did he feel about the intelligence budget? Did he want to protect it at current levels as Bush had wanted? Not exactly. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton promised that if elected he would slash the intelligence budget by $1.5 billion every year for 5 years from 1993-1997. That represented something like an annual cut of 5% for 5 years, or 25% total. Ouch.
Clinton promised that. Unlike Bush, he wanted to cut intelligence, and said so. Did he succeed?
As he was about to leave office in early 1993, Bush warned:
As we face a more turbulent and unpredictable world, and as our military forces are being reduced, I just don’t think that we ought to be contemplating significant reductions in the intelligence budget. We need more intelligence, not less.
Next month, Sen. Moynihan said $10 billion could be cut from the intelligence budget and no one would ever miss it. Former CIA Director Robert Gates criticized Congress for not properly exercizing their oversight responsibilities of the intelligence budget in any meaningful way.
When discussing the budget for FY1994, Clinton said:
It is clear that the intelligence community must do more with limited resources. As I promised during the campaign, we will save a total of $7 billion over the years 1993-1997 from the previous administration's request for
national and tactical intelligence programs.
The congressional bill sought about another 4% in cuts from the FY1993 budget. Socialist Bernie Sanders wanted 10% cut. Rep. Barnie Frank (D-MA) agreed. Clinton, sensing political trouble if the far left got its way, repsonded by saying the 10% reduction proposal was just a bit too much:
I will oppose any amendment on the House floor which seeks to reduce intelligence spending beyond the reductions already proposed by the committee.
The Sanders amendment was defeated, and the budget ended up slightly less than the previous year. Democratic Senator Dennis DeConcini warned:
Last year, the cut imposed by Congress was particularly severe, the largest percentage cut in at least 20 years. In addition to these funding cuts, Congress levied an across-the-board 17.5-percent reduction in personnel in all
intelligence agencies, including the CIA, by 1997. So, there should be no mistake, Mr. President, intelligence has been cut and cut severely over the last 5 years.
For FY1995, it was noted that Clinton's goal of cutting intelligence by $7.5 billion in 5 years had been realized in only 3! As Rep. Larry Combest (R-TX) said:
There is no shortage of facts and figures I can cite to demonstrate the rather remarkable, indeed reckless, slope of decline on which we have put the intelligence community. Despite a consensus of informed opinion that intelligence cuts should be avoided or at least minimized in a period when we are cutting our defense capabilities, we are again this year cutting intelligence more than defense at large. It is downsizing at a rate twice that recommended by the President's National Performance Review for the Government. President Clinton made a campaign promise in 1992 to cut the Bush administration's proposed intelligence budget over a 5-year period by $7 billion. This was an incredibly ambitious--and many would say a foolhardy--goal. Yet, as Director Woolsey has stated publicly, this has been accomplished with 2 years to spare, and it appears the cuts over the 5 years will likely be more than $14 billion. This irrational urge to keep cutting intelligence has taken on a life of its own and it will, unless stopped, inevitably lead to disaster.
The final appropriation was about 1.5% less than FY1994.
What did Clinton have to say about all this? When FY1996 came around he said:
Today, because the cold war is over, some say that we should and can step back from the world and that we don’t need intelligence as much as we used to, that we aught to severely cut the intelligence budget. A few have even urged us to scrap the central intelligence service. I think these views are profoundly wrong. I believe making deep cuts in intelligence during peacetime is comparable to canceling your health insurance when you’re feeling fine.
One can only wonder what he thought had been happening the past few years! His remarks seem directed at Sanders but he had already presided over steep, or even reckless, cuts.
But something positive finally happened: Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, took control of Congress. Not coincidentally, the intelligence budget began increasing. And that fact affected Clinton's behavior. Knowing intelligence cuts were a thing of the past, he started recommending increases. The new Republican Congress enacted increases larger than his. The intelligence budget for FY1999 went up around $3 billion--the largest increase in 15 years! It was orchestrated by Gingrich, not Clinton. His budget was ignored.
Clinton, you might say, rolled with the punches. He promised to cut intelligence and he did. But the Democratic congresses cut even more and faster than he had proposed. Once Republicans took over in Congress, Clinton started asking for increases but the Republicans appropriated more than he wanted.
Why the roller coaster ride? Why did the intelligence budget need to be cut so deeply in the early 1990s but then went up again in the late 1990s? It depended on who controlled Congress. The Democrats wanted steep cuts and it didn't matter who the president was. The Republicans then brought the budget up to former levels. It was all political, with a lot of nonsensical talk on the floor of the House and Senate throughout those years by elected officials who knew nothing about intelligence.
Clinton, ever the politician, proposed whatever he thought would sell and wouldn't endanger him politically.
George H.W. Bush fought against cuts; Clinton promised them. But Congress was the ultimate decider.