Whoever controls the purse strings of a government program has an outsized influence over its content and direction, not to mention its fate. That’s a reality of federal budgeting, one that ensures that the heads of congressional committees—legislators elected by the people—help determine how taxpayer dollars are spent.
Given this fact, it’s telling that the question of budgeting for intelligence programs has barely surfaced during the past two weeks. After all, if Americans want answers about the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency and the government’s collection of Americans’ phone records, then who is better placed to find them than the people who control the agency’s funding?
Yet this issue did not come up Tuesday during a House hearing featuring NSA chief Keith Alexander, nor did it emerge as a topic of interest in a June 12 House hearing with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
In part, the silence is an acknowledgment that hardly anyone in Congress has a good handle on intelligence spending. Intelligence programs span 16 federal agencies. Most of the budget figures are classified, except for a top-line number for the National Intelligence Program that doesn’t include many military-intelligence programs. Ninety percent of intelligence appropriations are in the Defense Department budget, according to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report. CRS says those funds are effectively “hidden” because of the secrecy surrounding the Pentagon budget. But the funding for intelligence programs continues to balloon, even as few Americans understand it.
“We know very little—that’s the honest truth,” says Todd Harrison, a senior fellow for defense-budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “The problem is, that makes it difficult to have an open, public debate about the cost effectiveness, when the costs are not even known.”
The oversight of such funding is spread across 10 different House and Senate committees that collectively oversee intelligence, armed services, homeland security, foreign relations, and appropriations. That means no single entity or group of people is ultimately responsible for the increasing sums of money the government spends on intelligence, including the money it uses to spy on Americans. And that, in turn, makes it difficult to hold anyone accountable, or to oversee the programs in any systematic way. “To really get any analytical traction on intelligence budgeting, you have to look at historical trends, or the spending on technology versus people, or big-ticket items compared to the other ones. You have to do your homework,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who specializes in defense and foreign policy issues. “Most [members of Congress] aren’t going to see that level of detail.”
What we do know about intelligence budgeting is that the numbers have mushroomed in the decade since 9/11. A seminal Washington Post investigative series by Dana Priest in July 2010 showcased this trend.
Thanks to a whistle-blower case, we know that the 1997 intelligence budget clocked in at $26.6 billion, according to CRS reports. Sixteen years later, defense-budget analysts like Harrison put that figure at roughly $80 billion, more than a threefold increase.
In fiscal 2014, President Obama’s budget requested $48.2 billion for the National Intelligence Program, which funds intelligence-gathering by the CIA and the NSA, among others. This top-line disclosure is only one piece of a very complicated puzzle. The military also receives separate funding for its intelligence programs, but that budget figure is classified information. Defense and military officials argue that keeping the funding levels and programs secret is crucial to national security; any details would give away, to our enemies, new advances or new strategies in intelligence-gathering. Critics argue that it’s hard to evaluate the effectiveness of the programs or justify their costs when there is so little information. It’s hard to even know if agencies are duplicating efforts.
The NSA leaks (regardless of what one thinks of the act of exposing government secrets) have given Americans a glimpse into the reach and scope of intelligence-gathering—and just how far it has spread into our everyday lives. But, without greater knowledge of the intelligence budget, it’s impossible for citizens or even lawmakers to judge the efficacy of the programs. “This is about risk management. You could spend the entire country’s [gross domestic product] on this,” says Ronald Marks, a former senior CIA official. “People are now debating publicly: How much intelligence-gathering do we want?”
That debate will unfold in the coming weeks if Americans continue to be curious or disturbed by the NSA surveillance programs and if the controversy does not just morph into the government’s latest scandal-of-the-month. Do the people overseeing the intelligence agency and its budget provide enough oversight? Do more people, or agencies such as the Government Accountability Office need to become involved, or does the power need to be concentrated in Congress to make lawmakers more accountable for the programs they fund?