WASHINGTON -- Under attack by Republicans for proposing deep cuts in the intelligence budget a decade ago, John Kerry is trying to justify them as efforts to slice away pork. The problem is that during the Senate debate on Feb. 19, 1994, Kerry was taken to task by two pillars of the then Democratic majority: Dennis DeConcini of Arizona and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.
DeConcini, the Intelligence Committee chairman, and Inouye, the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee chairman, assailed Kerry's unsuccessful efforts to cut the intelligence budget. DeConcini calculated it would cost $1 billion in intelligence spending that year and $5 billion over the next five years. Both senators suggested Kerry did not recognize the dangers existing then after the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. In opposing Kerry's amendment, DeConcini declared, "We no longer seem immune from acts of terrorism in the United States." Inouye asked: "Is this the time to cut the satellite programs that give our forces warning of attacks?"
Since George W. Bush's re-election campaign has made this dispute an issue, Sen. Kerry has faced a choice. He could admit an error in past judgment, which is never easy or perhaps prudent for a presidential candidate. Or, he could defend what seems a politically vulnerable position. Kerry has taken the latter course. When this column asked about Kerry's past position this week, campaign spokesman Chad Clanton replied: "You bet, John Kerry voted against business as usual in our intelligence community. It is no secret that we've got some serious problems with our intelligence."
The issue, first raised by Bush in March, has been revived by published accusations that the president's campaign has distorted the senator's record. This is a question worth exploring because it addresses Kerry's judgment as an experienced public servant. His unfortunate charges of American war crimes in Vietnam can be excused as the excesses of an angry 27-year-old war veteran. In 1994, he was 50 years old with 10 years experience as a U.S. senator and was a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The defense by the campaign is that Kerry's proposed intelligence cuts were aimed at what "was essentially a slush fund for defense contractors." Clanton added: "Unlike George Bush, John Kerry does not support every special spending project supported by Halliburton and other defense contractors."