"Black," or classified, programs requested in President Bush's 2004 defense budget are at the highest level since 1988, according to a report prepared by the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The center concluded that classified spending next fiscal year will reach about $23.2 billion of the Pentagon's total request for procurement and research funding. When adjusted for inflation, that is the largest dollar figure since the peak reached during President Ronald Reagan's defense buildup 16 years ago. The amount in 1988 was $19.7 billion, or $26.7 billion if adjusted for inflation, according to the center.
"It's puzzling. It sets the mind to wondering where the money's going and what sort of politically controversial things the administration is doing because they're not telling anybody," said John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a research group in Alexandria that has been critical of the administration's defense priorities.
Pike said part of the surge in the classified budget probably can be explained by increases for the Central Intelligence Agency's covert action programs, which are central to the war on terrorism. Traditionally, Pike said, much of the funding for the CIA is hidden in Air Force weapons procurement accounts.
But unlike the 1980s, when it was widely known that the "black" budget was going to the development of stealth aircraft such as the B-2 bomber and F-117 fighter, the uses of the classified accounts today are far murkier, Pike said.
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments is a Washington research group that analyzes many aspects of the defense budget. Steven Kosiak, who prepared the report on classified spending, said he reached his conclusions by comparing sums requested for "open," or nonclassified, programs with the total Defense Department request for fiscal 2004.
Some black spending in the Pentagon budget is designated for code-named programs such as the Army's "Tractor Rose" and the Navy's "Retract Larch." But sources said some names may be accounting fictions that do not stand for actual programs.
Other classified spending is accounted for under such bland headings as "special activities."
Officials at the Pentagon and in Congress declined to comment on the center's report, which was compiled earlier this summer. Key congressional defense committees will meet in the next several weeks to resolve differences over the 2004 Pentagon spending plan, including those involving classified programs.
According to the Kosiak analysis, the Air Force's classified weapons procurement budget has jumped from $7 billion in 2001 to almost $11 billion as requested for 2004. In dollar terms, total classified spending in the Pentagon budget request has almost doubled since the mid-1990s, according to tables provided by Kosiak.
Kosiak said in his report that performance in the classified programs has been mixed. He noted that highly successful weapons systems such as the F-117 and the B-2 were initially developed within the classified budget. But so was the Navy's A-12 medium attack plane, which was canceled in 1991 after a series of technical problems and cost increases.
After it was canceled, manufacturers complained that secrecy in the program kept them from acquiring critical data needed to head off some of the problems.
"Restrictions placed on access to classified funding have meant that the Defense Department and Congress typically exercise less oversight over classified programs than unclassified ones," Kosiak wrote.
In the case of the new defense budget, it is anybody's guess where most of the classified money is going, Pike said. But he said it is a good bet that some of it is going to programs that the administration is known to strongly favor, such as missile defense and the development of hypersonic planes that can fly beyond Earth's atmosphere.
"This is an administration that likes to play I've got a secret," he said. "The growth of the classified budget appears to be part of a larger pattern of this administration being secretive."www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A50108-2003Aug26?language=printerE-mail this article