War Stories

Bush Insults Kerry’s Intelligence

The president’s latest attack is even more dishonest than the last.

Intelligent decision-making

There he goes again.

Yesterday, President Bush told a crowd of supporters in Houston that, back in 1995, two years after the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Sen. John Kerry introduced legislation to cut the intelligence budget by $1.5 billion. “Once again, Sen. Kerry is trying to have it both ways,” the president said. “He’s for good intelligence; yet he was willing to gut the intelligence services. And that is no way to lead a nation in a time of war.” Bush further charged that Kerry’s bill was “so deeply irresponsible that he didn’t have a single-co-sponsor in the United States Senate.”

Bush and his operatives are making a practice of mischaracterizing the voting record of the presumptive Democratic nominee. Two weeks ago, the Republican National Committee put out a “Research Brief” that flagrantly distorted Kerry’s votes on weapons systems. (Click here for the real facts.) Bush’s remarks yesterday are more dishonest still.

One thing is true: Kerry did introduce a bill on Sept. 29, 1995—S. 1290—that, among many other things, would have cut the intelligence budget by $300 million per year over a five-year period, or $1.5 billion in all.

But let’s look at that bill more closely.

First, would such a reduction have “gutted” the intelligence services? Intelligence budgets are classified, but private budget sleuths have estimated that the 1995 budget totaled about $28 billion. Thus, taking out $300 million would have meant a reduction of about 1 percent. This is not a gutting.

Second, and more to the point, Kerry’s proposal would have not have cut a single intelligence program.

On the same day that Kerry’s bill was read on the Senate floor, two of his colleagues—Democrat Bob Kerrey and Republican Arlen Specter—introduced a similar measure. Their bill would have cut the budget of the National Reconnaissance Office, the division of the U.S. intelligence community in charge of spy satellites.

According to that day’s Congressional Record, Specter said he was offering an amendment “to address concerns about financial practices and management” at the NRO. Specifically, “the NRO has accumulated more than $1 billion in unspent funds without informing the Pentagon, CIA, or Congress.” He called this accumulation “one more example of how intelligence agencies sometimes use their secret status to avoid accountability.”

The Kerrey-Specter bill proposed to cut the NRO’s budget “to reflect the availability of funds … that have accumulated in the carry-forward accounts” from previous years. Another co-sponsor of the bill, Sen. Richard Bryan, D–Nev., noted that these “carry-forward accounts” amounted to “more than $1.5 billion.”

This was the same $1.5 billion that John Kerry was proposing to cut—over a five-year period—in his bill. It had nothing to do with intelligence, terrorism, or anything of substance. It was a motion to rescind money that had been handed out but never spent.

In other words, it’s as if Kerry had once filed for a personal tax refund—and Bush accused him of raiding the Treasury.

By the way, the Kerrey-Specter bill—which called for the same intelligence cut that George W. Bush is attacking John Kerry for proposing—passed on the Senate floor by a voice vote. It was sheer common sense. It also led to major investigations into the NRO’s finances, both by the White House and by the CIA’s general counsel.

John Kerry’s bill died—its title was read on the floor, then it was sent to the Senate Budget Committee—but, again, not because it was an abhorrence. It died for two reasons. First, some of its provisions, including the intelligence cut, were covered in other bills. Second, Kerry’s bill was not just about the intelligence budget; it was a 16-page document, titled “The Responsible Deficit Reduction Act of 1995,” that called for a scattershot of specific cuts across the entire federal budget. (The New York Times today, reporting on Bush’s attack, states that Kerry’s bill “also proposed cuts in military spending.” The story neglects to mention that it proposed just as many cuts in non-military spending.)

Through the early-to-mid-’90s, Congress was rife with bills and amendments to reduce the deficit and balance the budget. Most of them were tabled to committees, then hung out to dry. Kerry’s was one of them—not because it was unpatriotic but because it was redundant.

Kerry’s campaign office has thus far been a bit off-the-mark in responding to Bush’s outlandish charges. A Kerry spokesman, Chad Clanton, is quoted in today’s Times as saying that the senator had “voted against a proposed billion-dollar bloat in the intelligence budget because it was essentially a slush fund for defense contractors.” Not quite. The NRO had a slush fund, but not for “defense contractors.” It’s difficult to correct the distortions of a 10-second sound bite. Usually, it takes a minute or so to set the record straight, and that’s too long for the networks. But this one should have been easy. How about something like: “Sen. Kerry was merely trying to return unspent money to the taxpayers. Shame on President Bush for twisting a simple bookkeeping adjustment to make it look like an act of treachery.”