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Leaked 'black budget': Mixed views on damage to US intel operations

Some analysts, as well as the US government, say Edward Snowden's new leak, of the 'black budget' for US clandestine operations, reveals too much about US intelligence priorities. Others, who argue for more transparency, practically cheer.

By Staff writer / August 30, 2013

The National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md., June 6, 2013.

Patrick Semansky/AP/File

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The "black budget" for US clandestine operations – newly leaked by former US contractor Edward Snowden – portrays a sprawling global operation that is geared to detect and defeat terrorists, but is dominated by a data-collection program so massive that other priorities could easily be crowded out, analysts and critics said one day after the top-secret document was published.

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Details from the 2013 National Intelligence Program budget, portions of which the Washington Post made available as of Thursday on its website, identify top US spending priorities as fighting terrorism, halting the spread of nuclear weapons, warning of critical events overseas, counterintelligence, and cyberespionage and cyberattack operations.

Some information in the 178-page summary document simply validates what was already thought to be true – such as the level of spending for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA). But the amount of detail, together with a big-picture overview of intelligence operations, provides a much fuller picture of a government activity that has expanded dramatically over the past decade.

Some experts immediately denounced the leak as irresponsible and damaging to US national security. Others said much of the data that were released should have been public all along, and they questioned the integrity of the US classification system and suggested that the leaked information shows that US intelligence services need more accountability to the public.

“We want to be a more open society, and this leak shows that the general level of secrecy is set too high,” says James Lewis, a senior fellow and the director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We have to rethink how we get more information on these programs before the public for them to think about and debate, so that we have better policy decisions.”

The document reveals that the US spent $52.6 billion in fiscal year 2013 across 16 spy agencies within the US intelligence community. The lion’s share – about 68 percent – goes to three agencies: the CIA ($14.7 billion), the NSA ($10.8 billion), and the National Reconnaissance Office that runs America’s spy satellites ($10.3 billion).

By program category, 39 percent of overall "black budget" spending went to efforts to warn the president and US leaders of dangerous events emerging globally; 33 percent to fight terrorism; 13 percent to counter weapons proliferation; 8 percent to enhance cybersecurity, and 7 percent to stop foreign spies.

The budget also identifies “gaps,” or blind spots, in the effectiveness of US intelligence programs. Some progress was made in 2011, when the budget assessment said intelligence agencies "made at least 'moderate progress' on 38 of their 50 top counterterrorism gaps,” the Post reported. Gaps include Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons during transport, and China’s next-generation fighter aircraft.

"Black budget" spending today is twice what it was in 2001, and it's 25 percent higher now than it was at the peak of the "global war on terror" in 2006, the Post reported. The newspaper says the spending points to an “espionage empire.”

US intelligence officials say those numbers are hardly excessive.

“The United States has made a considerable investment in the Intelligence Community since the terror attacks of 9/11, a time which includes wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction technology, and asymmetric threats in such areas as cyber-warfare,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. responded to the Post. “Our budgets are classified as they could provide insight for foreign intelligence services to discern our top national priorities, capabilities, and sources and methods that allow us to obtain information to counter threats.”

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