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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.

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The US intelligence community, as presented by the black budget, has 107,035 employees – and a little more than 10,000 of them receive bonuses for their language capabilities. The black budget also showed that intelligence operations were not immune to budget-cutting, dropping 2.4 percent overall (or $1.3 billion) since fiscal 2012 and shaving off 1,241 positions.

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Some areas, though, are expanding, such as signals intelligence (SIGINT), which includes intercepting and analyzing digital data flowing through computer networks and fiber-optic lines.

“We are bolstering our support for clandestine SIGINT capabilities to collect against high priority targets, including foreign leadership targets,” the budget summary states. “Also, we are investing in groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities to defeat adversarial cryptography and exploit internet traffic.”

Some experts say public disclosure of the black budget will harm the US, giving adversaries a heads' up on US intelligence priorities and relative weak spots.

"This kind of information also tells our adversaries about the structure and focus of our efforts, including by implication the approximate number of agents we’re training,” writes Joel Brenner, the former senior counsel at the NSA and the former head of US counterintelligence under the Director of National Intelligence. “Putting the information out for general consumption is not in the public’s interest if the public is serious about wanting a robust foreign intelligence capability – which is now an open question.”

Others, however, say the black budget reveals that the government continues to overclassify as secret information that should be available for public policy debate.

“The disclosure seems likely to be welcomed in many quarters (while scorned in others) both because of a generalized loss of confidence in the integrity of the classification system, and because of a more specific belief that the US intelligence bureaucracy today requires increased public accountability,” Steven Aftergood, director of the government secrecy program at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, wrote in his blog.

The black budget also raises questions about policy priorities that are now more likely to get attention in congressional hearings and debates.

For instance, CIA programs received 29 percent of the $52 billion budgeted for clandestine operations. The next-largest outlay, at 21 percent ($11 billion), is for the Consolidated Cryptologic Program. That program, with 35,000 employees, includes surveillance and code-breaking at the NSA, Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marines, the Post reported. But is spending on data-gathering coming at the expense of building resources to understand growing regional threats in Syria and Iran?

“It raises a question about whether the Director of National Intelligence really has established budget priorities – or whether these reflect institutional priorities left over from a previous decade,” says one federal policy analyst who asked not to be named because he is not allowed to speak to the press. “What really are the key threats we face, including evolving threats in Syria and Iran nuclear issues? Are those things underresourced?”

Much of the material in the “Congressional Budget Justification Book,” leaked by Mr. Snowden to the Post, was not made public because “sensitive details are so pervasive in the documents,” the newspaper reported.

The black budget does indicate that clandestine computer espionage and sabotage operations ($1.7 billion spent) are an emerging area at the CIA and the NSA – and that efforts akin to the Stuxnet cyberweapon (which targeted Iran's nuclear program) may be accelerating. 

There is no small irony in the fact that one NSA budget priority that fell by the wayside was a program to investigate 4,000 possible insider threats in 2013 – instances in which sensitive information might have been compromised by the NSA’s own employees. Snowden may have benefited from that as he copied "thousands of highly classified documents at an NSA facility in Hawaii,” the Post reported.

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