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The presidents’ spymasters

Korean presidents regard the NIS as a secret police agency working for them.
Nov 22,2017
The so-called “black budget” that pays for spy operations, intelligence and weapons research remains classified in the United States. Only the total amount of the budget is revealed, and the spending plans are not. There are 16 separate government agencies in the U.S. intelligence community, including the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency.

Last year $73.3 billion was allocated to these agencies. How much went to which agency is secret. A bill dubbed the Intelligence Budget Transparency Act requiring the administration to disclose basic details about budgetary appropriation to spy agencies has been introduced, but has failed to gain traction due to disputes about risking national security.

Korea also releases only the overall annual budget of its National Intelligence Service (NIS). Under the NIS Act, the spy agency is required to file a total budgetary figure. It needs not specify in detail what it will do with the taxpayers’ money. The National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee flips through the budgetary outline as a formality. The review process is done strictly behind closed doors. Committee members are legally bound to confidentiality about the spy agency’s spending plans.

The NIS budget falls under special activities expenses that do not require documentary evidence. The special activities account refers to spending on classified intelligence and investigative activities. Such accounts also exist for law enforcement agencies like the Ministry of Justice and National Police Agency as well as the Ministry of Defense, Presidential Office and other members of the executive branch. But the NIS is the only agency whose budget can be entirely categorized as a non-documented special operations account. About 1 trillion won ($912.6 million) of funding for the NIS is hidden not just from enemies, but also the public and elected officials.

Three NIS chiefs who served under President Park Geun-hye have been arrested for misappropriating the agency’s special operation funds. Two — Nam Jae-joon and Lee Byung-kee — have been detained for trial on charges of embezzlement. The last chief, Lee Byung-ho, could face charges without physical detention. The three are accused of taking 50 million to 100 million won regularly from the agency’s account for special operations and giving it to former President Park. The three allegedly sent staffers carrying a black case stuffed with cash to the Blue House, where they handed it to the three closest aides of Park.

It is pitiful that the spy agency chiefs were forced to make regular “tributes” to the president with money reserved for intelligence work. The bigger problem, of course, lies with our former president. Lee Byung-ho testified that the president personally demanded the spy agency hand over some of its funds. It is a shocking exposure of Park, who repeatedly claimed she had not spent a dime of public money on her own personal interests. It is astonishing to learn that the president, who has her own activity allowances and special expenses, had to shove her greedy hands into the NIS accounts.

The NIS chiefs under Park are also suspected of having used some NIS funds to outsource dirty tricks campaigns against opposition lawmakers and anti-government figures and to finance rightist groups. The prosecution has been criticized for indulging in a political vendetta against former conservative governments on behalf of the incumbent liberal government. But the fact that NIS chiefs regularly made cash deliveries to the president is a different matter. It is an unquestionably grave criminal act that must be investigated, tried and severely punished.

The spy agency is under scrutiny as a target of reform. Reforming the NIS had been attempted many times, but little headway was ever made. Presidents tend to regard the NIS as a secret police agency working for them and they think the chief of the NIS serves the president instead of the nation.

Such malfeasance and excesses will never end as long as the president puts a loyalist at the head of the spy agency. The agency cannot change as long as its chief places loyalty to the president ahead of national security interests. If reforms fail this time, we might as well shut down the agency. We must have an intelligence service that stays true to its work regardless of changes at the Blue House.

The Director of National Intelligence oversees the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. Former President Barack Obama appointed James Clapper, former Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, as head of the DNI, saying that he was a person who could talk straight to the president. Clapper was Obama’s intelligence director for six years. There was little dispute about intelligence spending and capabilities during their time. Moon and his NIS chief Suh Hoon should benchmark that relationship.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 21, Page 35

*The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Bae Myung-bok