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ARLINGTON, Va. — The first rule of the defense budget is you do not talk about the defense budget.

At the request of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, top defense officials have signed a nondisclosure agreement prohibiting them from talking about the budgeting process, said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell.

"This is highly sensitive stuff, involving programs costing tens of billions of dollars, employing hundreds of thousands of people, and [going] to the heart of our national security," Morrell told reporters Wednesday.

Gates himself has signed the nondisclosure agreement, which is meant to foster an atmosphere of candor among those crafting the defense budget by reassuring them that their conversations will not be leaked, Morrell said.

"Ultimately this product … [has] got to be judged as a whole, so if bits and pieces leak out, you start to tug on these strings, and the whole thing could unravel," he said.

The need for secrecy especially applies to aspects of the budget that might not be classified, Morrell said.

"If, indeed, not all the materials that this gang is working with are marked secret, or are classified, and therefore For Official Use Only, all the more reason for a nondisclosure agreement, so that those matters cannot be discussed as well," he said.

This is the first time Gates has had defense officials sign such an agreement, Morrell said.

Top U.S. officials have hinted that over-budget weapons systems could be on the chopping block as the Defense Department looks to cut costs.

"We’ll eliminate the no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq, and reform our defense budget so that we’re not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use," President Barack Obama told Congress on Tuesday night.

Morrell declined to say Wednesday what programs might have been talking about.

One reporter asked how the use of the nondisclosure agreement squares with the Obama administration’s pledge to be more transparent.

"I don’t think the administration has been advocating transparency in national security matters," Morrell said.

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