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U.S. News: Obama Won't Disclose Spy Agency Budgets

February 2, 2015
In The News

US News

Resisting a campaign for greater transparency, the White House has decided to keep American taxpayers in the dark about how much they’re likely to spend on government spy agencies.

President Barack Obama unveiled his fiscal 2016 budget requests Monday with the continued omission of proposed spending levels for specific intelligence agencies, which are funded with a so-called “black budget” supplement debated and voted upon behind closed doors by congressional appropriators.

Last year, dozens of members of Congress asked Obama to voluntarily disclose the dollar amount requested for individual spy agencies, pressing for more democratic decision-making as a check against potential waste and arguing limited transparency would not harm national security. Sixty-two members signed onto legislation that would have forced the disclosure.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., one of the effort’s leaders, calls the non-disclosure "a missed opportunity for transparency and rebuilding public confidence in the intelligence community."

“The top-line intelligence budgets for 16 federal agencies are unknown to the American taxpayer and largely unknown to most members of Congress in spite of the strong recommendation by the 9-11 Commission that they be disclosed,” he says. “Doing so in this budget would have sent a clear signal that intelligence agencies are not off limits to oversight and accountability.”

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence disclosed Monday the administration's aggregate non-military intelligence spending request is $53.9 billion, up from $50.4 billion for fiscal year 2015. It's unclear why the request is higher than the last fiscal year, or which agencies would benefit from the increase.

"Any and all subsidiary information concerning the [national intelligence program] budget, whether the information concerns particular intelligence agencies or particular intelligence programs, will not be disclosed," the office said in a statement, claiming "such disclosures could harm national security."

A cursory two-page "fact sheet" says the aggregate disclosure "reflect[s] the administration’s commitment to transparency and open government."

Welch said last year he first learned of individual agency budgets from whistleblower Edward Snowden, who supplied fiscal year 2013 information to The Washington Post. Spy agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, were awarded $52.6 billion in funding that year, not including another $23 billion for military intelligence programs, the Post reported. The CIA received $14.7 billion, the NSA $10.5 billion and the National Reconnaissance Office $10.3 billion.

“When the Snowden information was released, it was news not just to most Americans but also news to most members of Congress,” Welch said. “Most of the members of Congress can theoretically get access to this information, but they basically have to break windows and kick down doors, and then when they get the information they have to sign a pledge that they won’t reveal the information to the people they represent.”

Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, says it’s not surprising the administration continues to keep secret its agency-specific funding requests.

Only recently, Aftergood says, have aggregate intelligence spending requests voluntarily been disclosed. And though requests for military and non-military intelligence operations were disclosed for fiscal year 2015, he says, the appropriated amounts were not.“The individual agency budget requests have been deemed too sensitive,” says Aftergood, who won the then-groundbreaking disclosure of aggregate intelligence budget information for fiscal year 1997 with a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. “That's not necessarily true – it's a judgment call – but that has been the policy up to now.”