War Stories

When Is a Cut Not a Cut?

When it’s a con. Bush’s deceptive new ad.

Have you seen George W. Bush’s latest campaign ad—the one with the wolves? A shaky hand-held camera moves through a forest at twilight. Suddenly a wolf darts across the screen, then another, until finally we see a whole pack of wolves, rising from their slumber to come get us. Over a soundtrack of rustling leaves and spooky music, the narrator—a breathy woman—says:

In an increasingly dangerous world, even after the first terrorist attack on America, John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America’s intelligence operations. By $6 billion. Cuts so deep, they would have weakened America’s defenses. And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.

The key phrase here is “after the first terrorist attack on America.” At first viewing, I took this as a reference to the aftermath of 9/11. (Millions of other viewers probably did, too; no doubt the scriptwriters meant us to make the connection.) This puzzled me, because nobody proposed cutting intelligence after 9/11. On second viewing, though, I realized that the phrase was a veiled reference to the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

Once this is clarified, the rest becomes plain. The Bush campaign appears to be repeating a falsehood that the Republican National Committee first propagated last March. We’ve been through this before, but now, with the “Wolves” ad, it’s worth reciting again.

In 1995, several legislators, among them Sen. Kerry, did introduce amendments to cut the intelligence budget by $1 billion to $1.5 billion, which, spread out over several years, could have added up to $6 billion.

But these were not cuts in the sense that the term is usually understood. Certainly none of the amendments would have resulted in a cut—much less a “slash”—in “America’s intelligence operations,” as the ad puts it.

Here’s the background: In the early-to-mid ‘90s, the National Reconnaissance Office—the branch of the U.S. intelligence community that controls spy satellites—had come under investigation for serious financial malfeasance. The probe found vast waste, extravagance, and hoarding. In one instance, the NRO canceled the launching of a highly expensive spy satellite, didn’t tell Congress (or any federal agency) about it, and kept the money.

So, Congress voted to cut the budget—not to curtail intelligence operations, but simply to retrieve money that was never spent. As I put it at the time, “[I]t’s as if Kerry had once filed for a personal tax refund—and Bush accused him of raiding the Treasury.”

Another distortion in the “Wolves” ad: It wasn’t just “the liberals in Congress” who voted for this refund. The sponsor of the Senate amendment that passed—and it passed without controversy—was Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania.

Now, it may be that the ad is referring to a slightly different amendment, an omnibus deficit-reduction bill that Sen. Kerry proposed in 1994. It would have imposed cuts across several federal agencies, including a $1 billion cut—for that year and each of the following five years—in the intelligence budget. Kerry didn’t link these cuts to specific programs, though the NRO scandal was emerging, and it was widely known that waste and inefficiency pervaded intelligence programs, especially in the high-tech sectors. The amendment didn’t pass, mainly because omnibus budget cuts of all sorts rarely pass.

If this is the bill that the “Wolves” ad refers to, Sen. Kerry might be charged with legislative vagueness, but hardly with pushing “deep” cuts that “would have weakened America’s defenses.” The annual intelligence budget totaled about $30 billion at the time. In other words, Kerry’s bill would have cut it by 3 percent.

By the way, Kerry was hardly alone in proposing intelligence cuts. Around the same time, in 1995, Rep. Porter Goss—who was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee—co-sponsored another omnibus budget-trimmer, which among other things would have cut intelligence personnel by 4 percent a year in each year from 1996 to 2000. Goss, of course, is the man that President Bush recently appointed as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. If the wolves are coming after anyone, they have more cause to howl at Porter Goss—and, by implication, George W. Bush—than at John Kerry and the Democrats.