Few documents have been more closely held by the U.S. intelligence community, but now the "black budget" — the detailed breakdown of how American spies spend their money — has largely been made public.
Courtesy of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the Washington Post on Thursday described large portions of the 178-page document for fiscal year 2013, and released selection of pages from the budget itself. The materials depict an expanding intelligence apparatus that is struggling to respond to myriad challenges despite enjoying unprecedented levels of funding. Here are five key insights from Thursday’s report.
The NSA saw Snowden coming and couldn’t stop him
According to the Post, American intelligence agencies budgeted for a major effort in 2012 to prevent intrusions by foreign intelligence agencies and to guard against betrayals by their own employees. But most of that money was diverted into an "all-hands, emergency response" to deal with secrets disclosed by WikiLeaks. For the following year, 2013, the budget pledged that the intelligence community would carry out a "review of high-risk, high-gain applicants and contractors" — contractors like Snowden, for example. The NSA, specifically, said it would carry out a "minimum of 4,000 periodic reinvestigations of potential insider compromise of sensitive information."
Somewhere in those 4,000 reinvestigations, the agency missed Snowden.
SIGINT is the holy grail of U.S. intelligence
In the aftermath of the Iraq war and the erroneous intelligence assessment of Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs, the American intelligence community was frequently criticized for being overly reliant on signals intelligence at the expense of effectively recruiting agents and defectors. Judging by the black budget, the U.S. intelligence community remains extremely reliant on its digital surveillance tools and hasn’t taken to heart the criticism that it needs to invest more in human sources. Even in the fight against al Qaeda, now in its second decade, signals intelligence remains "often the best and only means to compromise seemingly intractable targets," according to the leaked documents. And in just about every example of a difficult problem facing the intelligence community, the Post describes a technical solution. With Iran, new surveillance methods have enabled U.S. intelligence officials to identify nuclear sites missed by orbiting satellites. With North Korea, U.S. intelligence agencies have surrounded the country with surveillance tools, including air sniffers, infra-red imaging, and seismic monitoring.
Going forward, the NSA is pursuing what might be considered the holy grail of signals intelligence. Here’s how the intelligence budget puts it: "We are investing in groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities to defeat adversarial cryptography and exploit internet traffic." Translated into English, the NSA is seeking the ability to decrypt any and all encrypted communications, which would vastly expand the agency’s capacity to comb through global communications.
To underscore U.S. intelligence agencies’ reliance on signal intelligence, the summary list of proposed targeted investments for the entire intelligence community in 2013 makes no reference to human intelligence efforts. Of the CIA’s $14.7 billion budget, $2.3 billion goes to human intelligence operations, with another $2.5 spent in support of those operations. But even the CIA has now gotten in on collecting signals intelligence and spends $1.7 billion annually on what is described as a smaller version of the NSA’s massive data collection activities.
The gaps in U.S. intelligence are scary
Even as U.S. intelligence agencies tout their ability to collect digital communications, there remain frightening gaps in what the U.S. government knows about several critical threats. U.S. officials, for example, understand little about security for Pakistani nuclear parts during shipment, nor do they have a good sense of the abilities of China’s new fighter jet — or how Russian leaders would react in the face of "potentially destabilizing events in Moscow, such as large protests and terrorist attacks," for that matter. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence agencies have made little progress on figuring out how to respond to homegrown terrorists, which the budget describes as one of "the more challenging intelligence gaps."
As for surrounding North Korea with a slew of surveillance technologies, that decision seems to have come at least in part because the United States knows next to nothing about Kim Jong Un or his intentions, despite the fact that he has now been in power for a year and a half and has already managed to spark a crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
The NSA is spending millions of dollars to figure out how to cope with the mountains of data it collects
The NSA doesn’t have much of a sense of irony. The agency is currently spending nearly $50 million on figuring out how it can best cope with "information overload." In other words, the NSA is collecting so much data that it doesn’t know what to do with it all. It’s a research project that yet again underscores the degree to which signals intelligence now dominates the American intelligence community. As the Snowden revelations have broadly demonstrated, the NSA is engaged in a massive data-mining project in which it collects as much information as possible in order to ferret out threats before they metastasize.
The U.S. intelligence apparatus is unprecedented in scale
In total, the black budget for the U.S. intelligence community amounts to $52.6 billion dollars, which in all likelihood is the single largest annual outlay on intelligence operations in American history. Given the classified nature of the intelligence budget, historical comparisons are difficult to make. But according to the Post, combined intelligence spending — both within the agencies and for the military — likely surpasses the Cold War peak of the late 1980s. Combining the black budget and military intelligence spending, the Post puts the total intelligence budget at $75.6 billion. That figure is higher than the entire military budgets of the United Kingdom, Japan, and France, who, respectively have the fourth- through sixth-largest military budgets in the world. Only China and Russia spend more on their militaries than the United States spends on its intelligence gathering.