If we want to shrink the budget deficit, shouldn’t we know where our taxes are being spent?
By Jim Kempton
While the Congress dithers about whether to drive the nation off the fiscal cliff now or put it off for six weeks, the debt (for which there seems to be no ceiling) continues to rise.
But what are our tax dollars actually going for? According to the Constitution, it should all be public. The statement and account clause in that revered document makes plain the fact that tax money spent must be accounted for. Yet vast hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars are spent by the security and intelligence community with no accounting whatsoever. Shouldn’t we know at least something?
The Fifth Estate, the new movie about the WikiLeaks scandal opened last week, offered an opportune backdrop to consider the secrets our nation has been keeping. What is our perspective about what should be secret and what shouldn’t? No matter what you think about the rights and wrongs of Julian Assange’s revelations that set the intelligence community (and the nation) abuzz, one thing seems perfectly clear: We the public know very little about what goes on inside the intelligence apparatus of our government.
The number and functions of these bureaus themselves are bewildering: CIA, NSA, FBI, NRO OHS, DIA, OICI, INR, and TFI, just to name ones that aren’t directly attached to the military. The budget or number of employees in any of these agencies is “classified,” so it is not public knowledge even though it sometimes leaks out. But from whistleblowers and inside leaks, best estimates include some 195,000 intelligence employees.
Disclosure of the total intelligence budget, defenders complain, would lead to security leaks. True, yet sensitive data on where and what certain programs spend could be shielded—but does the entire budget have to be unknown? The Constitution says absolutely not—the public must know how much the government is spending.
Covert activities were what our Founding Fathers were most afraid of, and the reason we have our Bill of Rights too. King George cavalierly imposed capricious taxes for his own needs, and the colonists greatly resented it. Yet today we spend vast swaths of our tax dollars with no accounting available.
Our Constitution provides many interlocking controls to protect our free and open society. One of the core protections is that the United States shall not have government in secret. So why does our government—going back at least to the Roosevelt administration and encompassing every other president from JFK to Reagan and Bush to Obama—keep so much secret information from us?
The Constitution tells us that in the long run, government in secret is far more dangerous than is the disclosure of information. Adhering to the Statement and Account clause would be a good start if this Congress means what it told the voters about its fidelity to the Constitution and its commitment to open government.
Jim Kempton is a strong supporter of the U.S. Government, as a good, honorable entity with the ability to protect, defend and enhance the lives of its citizens. Although he admits inexcusable self-imposed ignorance about many governmental activities, he never-the-less believes they should not be kept hidden from the public, especially when it pays for them.
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