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US News & World Report: Obama Keeps Public in Dark about 'Black Budget' Requests

February 9, 2016
In The News

The self-described “most transparent administration in history” declined to say how much it seeks to bill taxpayers for individual spy agencies as part of President Barack Obama's final budget request to Congress.

Disclosing any agency-specific information -- such as whether the controversial National Security Agency or lesser-known National Reconnaissance Office won backing for a raise or a cut -- “could harm national security,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Tuesday in a press release.

Agency-specific figures will be reviewed and debated behind closed committee doors, where only some representatives will have a meaningful opportunity for input. Members of Congress not serving on the relevant committees can gain access to the information, but many are unwilling to make the effort or do not do so out of principle.

The Obama administration has resisted releasing the agency-specific requests despite a sustained campaign following whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 disclosures about mass surveillance, making continued non-disclosure no surprise.

The administration did release its aggregate request for non-military intelligence agencies, $53.5 billion for fiscal year 2017. Although the disclosure was first required by legislation passed in 2010, the ODNI congratulated the Obama administration for doing so.

“Reflecting the Administration’s commitment to transparency and open government, this Budget continues the practice begun in 2012 of disclosing the President’s aggregate funding request for the [National Intelligence Program],” the ODNI says in a fact sheet, referring to the umbrella term for non-military spy agencies.

“That’s a business as usual claim,” retorts Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. “There is no transparency there -- they’re complying with the thinnest of laws about the [aggregate] number. Members of Congress and the American public really are learning nothing.”

Demonstrators urge the German government to give asylum to Edward Snowden in Berlin. New poll results say Snowden has an 84 percent approval rating in Germany.

A reform push led by Welch and Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., featured a 62-congressman plea to the president in 2014, backed by legislation that was reintroduced in May, urging him to release the top-line budget figures for the sprawling 16-agency intelligence community.

Welch says he and many of his colleagues first learned of individual spy agency appropriations from Snowden, who released to the Washington Post information about the fiscal 2013 budget, revealing $14.7 billion in funding for the CIA and $10.8 billion for the NSA that year.

Though it’s possible for members of Congress to review spy agency requests, Welch refuses to do that, saying he would not be able to discuss the information with constituents and would be unable to influence the decision-making process anyhow.

“It’s like going in there with a blindfold and coming out being mute,” he says of reviewing classified budget requests.

Welch says it would be possible to review the information and then challenge pending appropriations, but “only if we wanted to be escorted off the House floor in handcuffs” -- and he says using the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause as a shield from criminal charges isn’t part of his legislative strategy.

The ODNI fact sheet released Tuesday says the administration’s request “achieves savings” by focusing on programs “that have the most impact and highest priority,” a claim impossible to verify.

It’s unclear what was appropriated for the non-military intelligence agencies in fiscal 2016, but the aggregated total request was slightly more than the new request. 

Appropriated funding for the National Intelligence Program and the Military Intelligence Program has been disclosed since 2007, as with the aggregate budget requests in response to legislation -- though with a lag, after a fiscal year ends.

The latest figures, released in October, indicate $50.3 billion was appropriated for the NIP and $16.5 billion for the MIP for fiscal 2015. It's possible covert activities received supplemental funding from other sources.

Lummis spokesman Joe Spiering says she’s disappointed the Obama administration declined to disclose agency budget requests.

Lummis, he says, “understands national security and safeguarding freedoms are fundamental roles of the federal government and effective intelligence is critical to that work, but also that writing checks without any idea of where the money is going is bad policy.”

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, an opponent of government secrecy, says future steps toward spy agency transparency can be mandated by Congress or taken voluntarily by the executive branch, "but there doesn't seem to be much enthusiasm for it."

Aftergood won then-unprecedented disclosure of the 1997 NIP appropriation using a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, but says he got lucky with that case when the government decided not to fight him. A second attempt failed, and he's doubtful of a lawsuit's chances at winning agency-specific budget information.

A once-plausible constitutional argument -- that the government must publish a "statement and account" of all expenditures -- likely won’t succeed given disclosure of aggregate amounts, he says.