Restrain use of secret funds
Confidential and intelligence funds (CIF) are again generating a lot of criticism in the ongoing deliberations in Congress on the proposed 2024 national budget of the Marcos administration, not only because of the huge amount involved but also for the large number of agencies requesting such money. A total of P10.14 billion in CIF is being sought by more than 17 departments and offices of the executive branch, led by the Office of the President at P4.56 billion, in the proposed budget for next year.
The troubling trend of agencies seeking CIF, at times even if their mandates do not seem to call for one, has been legitimized in the national budget proposal with nary a resistance from Congress. This has now put into question the eight-year-old Joint Memorandum Circular No. 2015-01 promulgated by the Commission on Audit (COA), the budget and management, interior and local government and defense departments, and the Governance Commission for Government-Owned or -Controlled Corporations which sets the guidelines on the “entitlement, release, use, reporting, and audit” of CIF as allowed by the General Appropriations Act.
According to the circular, only agencies expressly allotted a CIF in the national budget are entitled to such funds. Vice President Sara Duterte had repeatedly cited the circular at Senate budget hearings as the legal basis for the entitlement of the Office of the Vice President and the Department of Education (DepEd), which she heads as concurrent education secretary, to P500 million and P150 million in CIF, respectively.
The problem with the circular, as Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri has pointed out, is that it provides a “too broad” menu of possible justifications for otherwise illegal expenditures. Under the circular, the CIF may be used for purchases of information for programs, activities, and projects relevant to national security and peace and order; rental of transport vehicles for confidential activities, or rentals and incidental expenses related to the maintenance of safe houses.
It may also be used to buy or rent supplies, materials, and equipment for confidential operations; pay rewards to informers, and uncover or prevent illegal activities that pose a clear and present danger to agency personnel and property. Such wide-ranging guidelines, in effect, provide the legal basis for any state agency to ask for CIF.
Zubiri has promised that they will change the rules on the executive branch’s CIF and remove the allocations for a number of agencies that do not deserve to get such funding. “We want to make sure that the guidelines are simplified, and we want to limit its scope so that it can’t cover anything under the sun,” he promised. COA also agrees to the need to revisit all existing rules and regulations on the CIF to see if these are still applicable. “Because of the increase in the [CIF], we will try to convene interagency with the same [offices that promulgated Joint Memorandum Circular No. 2015-01] … so that we can update this because it has been a long time since the circular was created,” COA chair Gamaliel Cordoba said during the House panel hearing on his agency’s proposed budget for 2024.
Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel has lamented that it is “a huge mistake” that the executive department is seeking a considerable amount of CIF in its proposed 2024 national budget while many Filipinos are suffering from calamities. The senator argued that this budgetary decision of the Marcos administration only proves that it does not have a genuine understanding of the real needs of and the challenges being faced by the country. This shows a “lack of empathy and understanding” of what ordinary Filipinos really need, he continued, adding that it would be better if these funds were instead used to address the impending effects of the El Niño dry spell on the economy.
From the looks of it, there is no stopping Congress from granting the CIF requested in the proposed 2024 budget. Given this, lawmakers should be prodded to work on promoting transparency and prudence in its use by revising the existing rules governing CIF. In reviewing the guidelines, a provision should be added requiring agencies to report on how much of their purported secret work resulted in positive outcomes, such as arrests and convictions or the prevention of any imminent danger to the country’s security. It must also indicate what percentage of the funds led to a dead end.
At the end of the day, the benefits must outweigh the cost of such confidential and intelligence operations. Under the revised rules, each agency must be mandated to show more positive outcomes in the use of their CIF. The required reports under the current memorandum circular on how the money is spent should not be enough. In short, Congress and COA must ask for results—not receipts—from each agency’s use of its CIF. Otherwise, they are simply allowing these agencies to waste precious taxpayer money under the guise of intelligence and confidential operations.