WASHINGTON - SENIOR Pentagon officials have had to promise they will keep the details of the US military budget secret as the Defence Department prepares to make tough cuts on weapons programmes, a spokesman said on Wednesday.
In an unprecedented move, Defence Secretary Robert Gates asked top military officers and civilian officials to sign non-disclosure forms in which they agree not to reveal deliberations about the politically charged budget.
'Everybody who's participating in this process - these are the highest ranking people in this department ... were asked to sign an agreement in which they would agree not to speak to any of the matters that they are working on as part of this budget process,' press secretary Geoff Morrell told a news conference.
'This is highly sensitive stuff involving programmes costing tens of billions of dollars, employing hundreds of thousands of people and - and go to the heart of national security,' he said. Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were among those required to sign, and Mr Gates himself signed the form, Mr Morrell said.
'This is to reinforce the message that indeed this is classified material. These are highly secret discussions. And we should remember that, be mindful of it, and honour it,' Mr Morrell said. News of the bid to impose secrecy came as President Barack Obama prepares to present his budget request to Congress on Thursday.
Mr Gates has warned he plans to take a hard look at expensive weapons programmes, which enjoy the backing of powerful defence firms and lawmakers in Congress.
The non-disclosure forms may carry less legal weight than the strict security clearances already governing top officials and officers. But the defence secretary's step may have been designed more as a symbolic message to curb leaks about sensitive budget negotiations, analysts said.
Mr Gates is 'trying to invoke personal loyalty,' said Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
'Gates is trying to send the message that if you do that (leak) you're actually hurting me and I'll take it as a personal affront and I'm personally asking you not to do it,' Mr O'Hanlon told AFP.