WASHINGTON Feb 25 Top Pentagon officials have had to agree in writing to keep this year's budget talks a secret as they confront thorny questions about the future of expensive U.S. weapons programs, a spokesman said on Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the unusual step of requiring nondisclosure agreements of all senior officials who wanted to participate in the fiscal debate, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
President Barack Obama, who inherited a recession and a trillion-dollar deficit when he took office on Jan. 20, will send his first budget proposal to Congress on Thursday but a comprehensive fiscal plan is not expected until April.
Some budget watchers believe the Pentagon's base budget could rise as much as 4 percent from a current $515 billion but would remain well below the $581 billion initially sought for the new fiscal year by the Bush administration.
Up to now, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been funded by separate supplemental bills and not through the base budget.
Total U.S. government spending stands at more than $3 trillion a year.
"Everybody who's participating in this process -- these are the highest-ranking people in this department -- were asked to sign," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters.
Obama has pledged to break with the unprecedented secrecy of the Bush administration and allow greater openness in government activities.
But Gates, a former CIA director, is trying to prevent leaks as his department weighs cuts in expensive programs and rebalances budget priorities to reflect the demands of unconventional warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Pentagon officials also said some budget details are classified and cannot be revealed without violating federal law, while others are commercially sensitive.
"This is highly sensitive stuff involving programs costing tens of billions of dollars, employing hundreds of thousands of people and go to the heart of national security," Morrell said.
Budget discussions are expected to include high-stakes decisions on the fate of programs such as Lockheed Martin Corp's (LMT.N) premier F-22 fighter jet.
Obama himself vowed to crack down on costly military programs this week, citing a project to build a new presidential helicopter that is more expensive than the president's plane.
Gates has also told Congress the global economic downturn and war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan would force tough decisions on weapons programs.
"We understand these (programs) involve huge corporations that have a lot riding on the outcome of these discussions," Morrell said.
Top Pentagon suppliers Boeing Co (BA.N), Northrup Grumman Corp, General Dynamics Corp (GD.N), BAE Systems (BAES.L) and Raytheon Co (RTN.N) are anxiously awaiting news of possible cuts in their programs.
Lockheed defended its F-22 program this month in a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post that emphasized the number of jobs sustained by the program. (Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by John O'Callaghan)
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