April 14th, 2014
Written by William R. Rusk, GEI Associate
A recent bi-partisan bill and the Snowden leaks have brought increasing attention to how the US funds its intelligence agencies. The so-called "black budget" is an almost ethereal amount of money that funds the sixteen intelligence agencies that the US government utilizes for data collection and analysis, facilities management and support, as well as data processing and exploitation. The black budget is presented to Congress as part of the annual federal budget, however it is not itemized and it is not even clear as to which agencies will actually receive the funding. These specifics are often simply replaced with the word "classified".
On January 14th, 2014, Representatives Peter Welch (D-VT), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and David Price (D-NC) announced new legislation (H.R.3855 - Intelligence Budget Transparency Act of 2014) that will force the President to disclose how much money is going to each intelligence agency. In a letter to the President, signed by the sponsors of the bill along with 59 other representatives, the argument is made that disclosing the top line budget numbers is the "first step toward accountability and oversight..." The letter also references the recommendation from the 9/11 Commission Report which states that "when even aggregate categorical numbers remain hidden, it is hard to judge priorities and foster accountability." They go on to call upon the President to enact this reform as part of his proposal for intelligence agency reforms, and to include the information in the fiscal 2015 budget request.
While Congress may be writing legislation to force the executive branch to disclose its funding of intelligence agencies, others are not as patient. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence's multivolume FY 2013 Congressional Budget Justification (also known as the "black budget") to media outlets such as the Washington Post. The document not only gives the amounts in a per-agency breakdown, but also how those funds are used inside of the agencies. Some of the more interesting revelations have been that CIA and NSA budgets have increased by more than 50% since 2004 and the financing of an NSA team that is responsible for hacking into foreign networks. Compared to the amount of information from the leak by Snowden, the Congressional request for top line budget numbers seem quite modest.
It seems clear that even if Congress does not succeed in passing the Intelligence Budget Transparency Act, there is little that can be done to prevent this information from getting to the public, by one way or another. However, this issue is at the forefront in the war of governmental transparency and the when (or if) the bill is actually brought up for a vote, it will be very telling of the direction that the federal government is moving in. While, it seems like an easy way for Obama to partially fulfill his promise of "usher(ing) in a new era of open government" by supporting the bill, there is little evidence that will be the case given the administration's track record on transparency.
- H.R.3855 - Intelligence Budget Transparency Act of 2014 (Congress.gov, 13 January 2014)
- 62 Lawmakers Call on President to Reveal Top Line Intelligence Spending Levels in FY2015 Budget (Congressman Peter Welch, 12 February 2014)
- Obama Outlines Calibrated Curbs on Phone Spying (Mark Landler and Charlie Savage, New York Times, 17 January 2014)
- Inside the 2013 U.S. intelligence 'black budget' (Matt DeLong, The Washington Post, 29 August 2013)
- The Black Budget (Wilson Andrews and Todd Lindeman, The Washington Post, 29 August 2013)
- 'Black budget' leaked by Edward Snowden describes NSA team that hacks foreign targets (Max Ehrenfreund, The Washington Post, 30 August 2013)
- On Day One, Obama Demands Open Government (Marcia Hofmann, Electronic Frontier Foundation, 23 January 2009)
- Committee Report Reveals Great Fallacy of Obama White House Transparency (Energy & Commerce Committee, 31 July 2012)