A wealth of secrets
Once again, the Office of the President (OP) is asking Congress for the lion’s share of confidential and intelligence funds (CIF) for 2024, at P4.56 billion, same as this year’s. Let’s not forget, too, that President Marcos is the concurrent agriculture secretary, and for next year, the Department of Agriculture wants P50 million for secret expenses that are notably absent from its 2023 budget.
Not to be outdone, the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and the Department of Education (DepEd)—now sister agencies by virtue of their concurrent leader Vice President Sara Duterte—have requested a combined P650 million in confidential outlay for the second year in a row.
Barring unforeseen political realignments, Mr. Marcos and Duterte will together retain control of over half of the P10.14 billion in CIF tucked into the 2024 national budget, an outrageous amount of public money placed in the hands of some civilian agencies with neither the mandate nor the expertise for surveillance and information gathering.
But perhaps more galling is the likelihood that our taxpayers won’t ever know how these mysterious funds are going to be spent, in the same way we remain clueless about their use or misuse over the years—even before the Rodrigo Duterte presidency when Malacañang’s share never exceeded P1 billion.
Budget managers define confidential expenses as those associated with surveillance to thwart illegal acts and prevent harm to an agency’s operations, while intelligence expenses are for collecting information with a direct impact on national security, often by military and police.
The release of intelligence funds is subject to the president’s approval, but confidential funds require only the department secretary’s nod, which may explain why Duterte’s offices have an abundance of the latter but none of the former.
Under a joint 2015 budget and audit circular, agencies must present plans and submit a quarterly accomplishment report on CIF use, while the Commission on Audit (COA) performs a postaudit of the liquidation of disbursements based on the offices’ own submissions.
“The utilization of such funds is generally confidential and classified by nature, which requires not only strong internal controls in the release and utilization thereof, but also strict accounting and auditing rules to prevent mishandling or improper application of the funds,” the circular states.
The operative word here is “internal,” because beyond COA’s secretive walls, any documentation of CIF under existing regulations is fated never to see the light of day.
As Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman put it, the scrutiny of CIF amounts to little more than “furtive auditing procedures behind closed doors between the audited and the auditor.”
The secrecy isn’t actually a new development but what has changed—quite dramatically over the past handful of administrations—is the sheer size and proportion of the confidential money going into the fiscal pockets of the OP, and as of late, the OVP.
The latter, a largely ceremonial office, is seeking another P500 million in confidential funds, a portion greater than those of the departments of defense (P87 million), justice (P471.29 million), and interior (P100.6 million).
DepEd’s P150 million in secret outlay has similarly raised eyebrows. In fact, the more urgent question facing educators today isn’t how well surveillance on campus can benefit them and the students, but how many armchairs can P150 million buy.
Responding to her critics, Duterte reasoned that “education is intertwined with national security.” Said Duterte: “It’s very important that we mold children who are patriotic; children who will love our country and who will defend our country.’’
That logic, however, is challenged by the searing ills confronting the education sector: lack of facilities and resources, underpaid teachers, and students who can barely read, write, and do arithmetic.
To be clear, the problem isn’t that these secret funds exist. No doubt, CIF helps preserve order and keep our nation safe from threats. The trouble lies in the lack of transparency mechanisms to ensure that these funds are serving their rightful purpose and that the officials handling them are faithful to the task, especially at a critical time when the economy is recovering from a pandemic, prices of goods remain high, and multitudes are reeling from new and recent disasters.
The Senate, to be fair, has attempted intermittently to examine CIF spending, but to this day, any result or accomplishment of its “select oversight committee” remains a mystery. Still, it is heartening to hear Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri’s promise to open hearings on CIF.
For now, however, the public’s only line of defense in keeping in check the increasingly powerful offices in charge of these funds are our overworked state auditors, who are compelled by their own rules to do so—in secret. They must perform that task with courage and honor.