Thursday, February 26, 2009

Top generals sign secrecy letter on budget

Top generals sign secrecy letter on budget

By PAULINE JELINEK

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They long ago pledged honor and duty to country, but this year their spoken word was not enough.

Top Pentagon generals and admirals had to sign a letter promising to keep defense budget details secret if they wanted to work on the military's fiscal plan.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates set the rule, requiring for the first time that each military and civilian official helping prepare the budget sign a non-disclosure statement, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Wednesday.

The entire Joint Chiefs of Staff signed, promising not to leak information while the budget was being put together. Gates also signed, as did all the high-ranking civilian defense officials working on the budget document, Morrell told a Pentagon press conference.

"He wants to create an environment in which the best possible budget can be built," Morrell said of Gates. "And he believes the only way to do that is to make sure that we are doing this in utter and complete secrecy until that budget is rolled out."

President Barack Obama plans to submit his budget to Congress on Thursday.

Keeping the secret until the budget proposal is ready and whole allows people to offer their honest opinions without fear of them becoming public, Morrell said of Gates' reasoning.

"He thinks that by having people pledge not to speak out of school, if you will, on these matters while they are a work in progress, that you'll create a climate in which you can ultimately produce a better product, because people can speak candidly with the confidence that it will not be leaked," Morrell said.

Officials across the federal government also have been known to leak information on a wide range of subjects ahead of time in hopes of sabotaging proposed actions they don't like.

The letter defense officials signed was a one-page agreement not to talk about "planning, programming, and budgeting system documents and databases, and any other information, pre-decisional or otherwise, concerning the administration's deliberations" on the budget.

The three-paragraph letter ends: "I pledge that I will not divulge the budget-related information covered under this agreement to any individual not authorized to receive it and under no circumstances will I disclose such information outside the Department of Defense and other agencies directly involved in the defense planning and resource allocation process."

Asked how the new requirement to sign the letter squares with Obama's call for greater openness in government, Morrell said: "I do not believe that the president's call for a greater transparency means that we should get rid of classification of materials that are highly sensitive."

A defense official later clarified to reporters that Morrell had misspoken and that the budget is not classified.

Analysts said Obama's defense budget would likely be about $537 billion, higher than the roughly $515 billion in the Pentagon's budget for the current fiscal year. But that would be 9 percent lower than the $584 billion recommendation that the Joint Chiefs of Staff made last fall, said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, a Washington think tank that tracks defense spending

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