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.

Patrick Semansky/AP/File
The National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md., June 6, 2013.

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.

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.”

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.

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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