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."
While the Kerry campaign suggests the senator somehow foretold the 1995 "slush fund" scandal over the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) hoarding $1 billion in unspent funds, he never mentioned the NRO in 1994. His amendment, offered without co-sponsors, would have cut intelligence across the board.
In the floor debate, DeConcini said his committee had pruned the intelligence budget by $1.2 billion for that fiscal year, and that is "as deep as the intelligence community can withstand." He added "it makes no sense for us to close our eyes to developments around the world." Noting imminent bombing in the Balkans, Inouye warned "we are putting blindfolds over our pilots' eyes."
In the debate, Kerry did not respond to criticism from DeConcini and Inouye. He did not address intelligence specifically, much less single out pork barrel projects in the intelligence budget that his campaign now says he was targeting. However, 10 days earlier on the Senate floor, Kerry declared: "The madness must end."
Kerry's amendment failed 75 to 20 -- opposed by his Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy; a future Intelligence Committee chairman, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida; and the Appropriations Committee chairman, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
The senator is described by campaign aides as attempting to restore human intelligence to learn about terrorism, drug trafficking and international crime. But at an Intelligence Committee meeting in 1995, Kerry asked "whether we should use paid clandestine human assets in situations where the ramifications of discovery are so great and the risk of U.S. security is so minimal."
Such suspicion of human intelligence had been the liberal line since the early 1970s, grinding down CIA assets. Indeed, Kerry's assault on intelligence spending had been urged by liberals for the past quarter of a century. The presidential candidate now attempts to rationalize his past conduct rather than repudiate it.