The United States intelligence community, which includes the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, has traditionally avoided public scrutiny as a result of the clandestine nature of their work. On Aug. 29 the American people gleaned insight into how the intelligence community spends its money as well as how much it is actually spending. The Washington Post reported that former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden had leaked a document detailing the so-called “black budget” for the 2013 fiscal year.
The leaking of this document begs two important questions: First, are we getting our money’s worth from the intelligence community? Second, could the intelligence community be more transparent without threatening national security?
The sum total of the requested budget comes to $52.6 billion, with the CIA requesting $14.7 billion. To give some historical perspective, it is supposed that Cold War spending peaked at an amount that would be worth about $71 billion today, the report states.
Is it worth that large sum? The overall goal of our intelligence empire is essentially to prevent another devastating terrorist attack. Has this goal been achieved since 2001, when the surge in intelligence spending occurred?
In April, two bombs were detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring almost 300 people. Considering the enormous budget and strong focus on counterterrorism, it would seem that the intelligence community had a rather large blind spot in this instance. Despite the obscene amount of resources allocated, the U.S. still fell victim to another terrorist attack.
Further, the report states that “Long before Snowden’s leaks, the U.S. intelligence community worried about ‘anomalous behavior’ by employees and contractors with access to classified material.” I find it interesting that the community was worried about this, yet it does not seem it went to any great lengths to safeguard against it.
Given these two sizable oversights, I would argue that we are not necessarily getting a good return on our investment.
Traditionally, these agencies have argued that to reveal what their priorities are in terms of spending would be threatening to our national security. The leaked budget document, however, shows that this “sensitive information” may not be so sensitive after all. For example, the average person would not have to read the intelligence budget report to know that terrorism is viewed as the gravest threat to our national security or that North Korea is a difficult target to penetrate.
The American people are encouraged to blindly trust that the intelligence community is working in our best interests, yet it does so behind closed doors and is not required to keep the public informed about its relative successes and failures. The irony, of course, is that it is much easier to trust something that does not attempt to veil itself.
For now, that veil has been temporarily lifted. I would like to echo the sentiments of former U.S. Rep. and member of the U.S. Homeland Security Advisory Council Lee H. Hamilton who said, “The burden of persuasion as to keeping something secret should be on the intelligence community, the burden should not be on the American public.”
And since the public has access to this budget report, American citizens can have an informed discussion of intelligence priorities for the first time. This leak opens up the floor for important dialogue about matters of national security that was not previously possible.