Pssst. Want to know how much your government spends on intelligence gathering? I'd tell you, but I'd have to kill you.

Truth is, the size of the intelligence budget remains classified even in this era of open government.While the Clinton administration is releasing reams of previously classified files, the cost of running the CIA and other intelligence agencies is cloaked by a "top-secret" designation.

This being Washington, that doesn't mean that the figure - or someone's best guess - hasn't made its way into print. (Keep this quiet, but most major newspapers seem to agree that the intelligence budget is about $28 billion this year.)

So members of Congress engage in the annual ritual of debating the intelligence budget without mentioning its size.

"Under the law, it is illegal to mention the gross total," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who unsuccessfully pushed to force disclosure earlier this year.

In the Senate, Sen. Dale Bumpers' frustration boiled over last month when opponents countered his efforts to cut intelligence spending by arguing the budget had already been cut 3.7 percent.

"Three-point-seven-percent of what? Nobody had a clue," the Arkansas Democrat said. "What kind of nonsense is it for us to come here as 100 men and women of the United States Senate and say we cannot dare mention the total amount we are talking about."

Bumpers took his revenge by pulling out a large chart comparing the U.S. intelligence budget with defense spending in other countries. When an angry Republican accused him of spilling government secrets, Bumpers gleefully noted that his $28 billion figure came with an asterisk indicating that number was based on press reports.

Bumpers and Frank, both liberal Democrats, aren't alone in seeking disclosure.

Late last month, the chairmen of both the House and Senate intelligence committees joined Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, House Speaker Thomas Foley and several other lawmakers in urging the president to end the secrecy.

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"I don't think that putting an aggregate number out lets our enemies know anything," said Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kan., chairman of the House intelligence panel.

Some critics of the change disagree. Others fear that releasing the budget total could lead to additional disclosures that could damage national security.

But the CIA's defenders have another reason to oppose disclosure: Keeping the numbers secret makes it harder for critics to attack them as too high.

"Not having them makes it almost impossible to have an intelligent, legitimate debate on how much we ought to be spending," Bumpers said. "How can the American people evaluate whether they think it is too much or not?"

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