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Opinion

The cost of intelligence

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

In the wake of the Cold War, that long period of geopolitical tension between the US and the Soviet Union, many Americans believed the cost of intelligence should go down, appalled by just how much taxpayers’ money was being spent on funding straggler spies and their lives of espionage.

I am reminded of this as our lawmakers debate on the propriety of allotting confidential and intelligence funds to the Office of the President and the Office of the Vice President, offices whose main mandates are not surveillance or intelligence work. President Marcos is asking for P4.5 billion while Vice President Sara Duterte is asking around P650 million or P500 million for the Office of the Vice President and P150 million for the Department of Education.

Why such huge amounts in confidential and intelligence funds?

For one, the country is already grappling with a ballooning national debt – at P13.517 trillion as of end-September, up 3.8 percent from P13.021 trillion as of end-August. Every peso in taxpayers’ money is critical in moving the economy forward, especially coming from a two-year debilitating pandemic.

One wonders, really, how allocating such huge amounts in intelligence and confidential funds can be justified?

I can think of so many other more useful and critical areas where funding should increase. Education and public health are just a few of the sectors that need more funding.

We need to produce intelligent students. We need new and improved government hospitals. We need major improvements in social services, including our state owned health insurer. We need to improve social protection for many Filipinos. We need to increase the budget for our key shelter agencies.

Senators Risa Hontiveros and Senate Minority Leader Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III are correct in opposing the allocation of these funds to agencies that are not responsible for national security or law enforcement.

Pimentel said not even the creation of an Oversight Committee on Intelligence and Confidential Funds can justify such funding in the national budget.

He was quoted as saying that ordinary Filipino taxpayers should also question the propriety of appropriating confidential and intelligence funds to agencies with no clear mandate to use them.

“This is the time our people should now take part, first by understanding what confidential funds are,” Pimentel said.

What are confidential and intelligence funds?

In a report published last Oct. 5, 2022, The Philippine STAR highlighted provisions of the guidelines on confidential and intelligence funds as detailed in a 2015 joint circular between the Commission on Audit (COA), Department of Budget and Management (DBM), Department of the Interior and Local Government, Governance Commission for Government-Owned and Controlled Corporations (GCG) and the Department of National Defense.

The joint circular defines confidential and intelligence funds as lump sum allocations set aside in the national budget for expenses that involve surveillance and intelligence information gathering activities.

“These expenses are related to surveillance activities in civilian government agencies that are intended to support their mandate or operations. Similarly, intelligence funds are for intelligence expenses related to information gathering activities of uniformed and military personnel and intelligence practitioners that have direct impact on national security,” the report also said.

Confidential funds, according to the report, may be used for:

“Purchase of information necessary for the formulation and implementation of program, activities and projects relevant to national security and peace and order;

“Rental of transport vehicle related to confidential activities;

“Rentals and the incidental expenses related to the maintenance of safe houses;

“Purchase or rental of supplies, materials and equipment for confidential operations that cannot be done through regular procedures without compromising the information gathering activity concerned;

“Payment of rewards to informers;

“(Uncovering and preventing) illegal activities that pose a clear and present danger to agency personnel or property, or other facilities and resources under the agency protection, done in coordination with appropriate law enforcement agencies.”

Intelligence funds, meanwhile, are for the intelligence and counterintelligence activities that have direct impact on national security.

The report noted that confidential and intelligence funds cannot be used for compensation or other fringe benefits of officials and employees who are employed by the government in whatever capacity. It also cannot be used for the construction of buildings or housing structures, the report also said.

It is important to note too, that these funds are not audited in the same transparent way that funds of other agencies are, making them prone to abuse and corruption.

Furthermore, the amount that President Marcos is set to get is larger than the amounts allocated for the intelligence fund of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (P1.74 billion), the Philippine National Police (P800 million) and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (P500 million), according to news reports.

In comparison, the president’s and vice president’s offices under previous administrations typically got confidential funds but at more modest amounts, according to The Philippine STAR report.

“For example, in the last budget submitted under the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, her office asked for P600 million in confidential and intelligence funds, which amounts to around P930 million when adjusted for inflation.

“Even more modest were the confidential and intelligence funds requested by Benigno Aquino III, who in his last budget asked for only P500 million in total, amounting to just a little under P600 million in today’s money.”

Our lawmakers are targeting to approve next week the budget for 2023.

May they approve an expenditure bill that would translate to progress and economic growth for the country and not one that would fund unjustified expenses.

Intelligence funds are meant to address threats against the state.

Against this backdrop, may our government realize the need to address social problems such as poverty, which are really at the root cause of rebel movements including insurgency in the country.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen on FB.

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