INTELLIGENCE FILE Dodging the Budget Ax

The intelligence community is bracing for spending cuts.

The intelligence community is bracing for spending cuts.

When Congress and the White House reached a hard-fought agreement to raise the debt ceiling in August, intelligence officials had little reason to celebrate. The deal centers on future budget cuts, hundreds of billions of dollars of which could come from defense and national security programs.

It's not clear which sacred cows could be led to slaughter; in fact, there's nothing in the new law that says precisely how much Defense Department spending must decrease. (Defense comprises by far the largest portion of the $80 billion annual intelligence budget.)

Arguably, the law could have mandated even deeper cuts than it does. But a new committee of lawmakers is looking for as much as $1.5 trillion more in deficit-reducing savings, and what they spare from Defense or military accounts, they could easily take from costly and perhaps nonessential spy agency programs. The Homeland Security Department's budget also could end up on the block, under the terms of the deal.

Intelligence officials were preparing for this moment long before the debt ceiling debate consumed Washington. In May, the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a professional organization for current and former intelligence employees, issued a report that warned against excessive cuts, particularly to counterterrorism operations. Their argument was that although al Qaeda has been weakened in recent years, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down, and Osama bin Laden is dead, this is still not the time to turn back the tide of ever-rising budgets.

The intelligence community has fought this battle before. The post-Cold War "peace dividend" led to a reduction in human intelligence gathering, which didn't help the CIA and other agencies' efforts to track bin Laden in the run-up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. One should expect frequent allusions to that fateful period in history during the coming months as intelligence advocates face off with a deficit committee that is required to close its deal by Thanksgiving.

Intelligence spending is predictably cyclical. In times of relative peace, money dries up. Policymakers tend to fund espionage only when they feel like they need it. Agencies have no visible constituency-after all, the work they do is mostly secret. And the mantra "Support the troops" doesn't naturally encompass spy masters and analysts, even if the work they do is life-threatening.

For officials to stave off cuts now, they'll have to make a tight connection in lawmakers' minds between the soldier on the battlefield and the data cruncher sitting behind a computer in the safety of a base or an office building. That has never been an easy sell. It won't be this time either.

Shane Harris is a former staff writer for Government Executive and author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State.