The Black Budget: Bigger Than Head Start, the Justice Department, and the Park Service Combined

The secret budget for the U.S. intelligence giant could pay for Head Start 5 times over. See what else it can do.

The seal of the Central Intelligence Agency sits on the floor of the foyer at the CIA Headquarters, Langley, VA on March 3, 2005.
National Journal
Matt Berman and Patrick Reis
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Matt Berman and Patrick Reis
Aug. 30, 2013, 2 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama rarely dis­cusses the na­tion’s vast sur­veil­lance and se­cur­ity ap­par­at­us by choice. He’d rather talk about lift­ing fam­il­ies out of poverty, pro­tect­ing the en­vir­on­ment, or mod­ern­iz­ing the na­tion’s crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture. But when it comes time to put a price tag on policy val­ues, it turns out that sur­veil­lance spend­ing dwarfs fund­ing for pro­grams that are more of­ten fea­tured in the pres­id­ent’s stump speeches.

Sur­veil­lance spend­ing is now more trans­par­ent be­cause of the “black budget,” a new leak from Ed­ward Snowden ana­lyzed by The Wash­ing­ton Post. As The Post writes, the $52.6 bil­lion budget

maps a bur­eau­crat­ic and op­er­a­tion­al land­scape that has nev­er been sub­ject to pub­lic scru­tiny. Al­though the gov­ern­ment has an­nu­ally re­leased its over­all level of in­tel­li­gence spend­ing since 2007, it has not di­vulged how it uses those funds or how it per­forms against the goals set by the pres­id­ent and Con­gress.

For the first time, we can really see ex­actly how this money is spent. Here’s the break­down of re­quests by pro­gram, ob­tained by The Post:

That comes to around $14.7 bil­lion for the CIA (which, The Post notes, is nearly 50 per­cent lar­ger than the budget for the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency), and is greatly above out­side es­tim­ates), $10.5 bil­lion for the Na­tion­al Re­con­nais­sance Pro­gram (largely to the Na­tion­al Re­con­nais­sance Of­fice, which runs spy satel­lites), and $11 bil­lion for the Con­sol­id­ated Crypto­lo­gic Pro­gram (which in­cludes the NSA).

Those budgets are all vast. But it’s when you com­pare them with oth­er pro­grams and agen­cies that the dif­fer­ences slip in­to or­ders of mag­nitude, par­tic­u­larly when com­pared with what the pres­id­ent is pro­pos­ing to spend on pro­grams his lib­er­al base cher­ishes:

The Black Budget Is…

1.6 times lar­ger than The Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health budget: Obama is ask­ing Con­gress for $31.3 bil­lion in 2014 for the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s premi­er med­ic­al-re­search or­gan­iz­a­tion.

1.9 times lar­ger than the Justice De­part­ment’s budget: The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has pro­posed a fisc­al 2014 budget of $27.6 bil­lion for the Justice De­part­ment. Justice does, however, get a 6 per­cent taste of the black budget. Still, the 2013 CIA budget alone is equal to more than half of the de­part­ment’s total 2014 re­quest.

5 times lar­ger than the Head Start budget: Obama’s pro­posed 2014 budget for the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment re­quests $9.6 bil­lion for Head Start, an early-edu­ca­tion pro­gram aimed at in­fants and tod­dlers from low-in­come back­grounds.

6 times lar­ger than the budget for high-speed and oth­er pas­sen­ger-rail pro­grams: The Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment’s 2014 re­quest in­cludes an av­er­age of $8 bil­lion per year over the next five years for freight, high-speed, and in­ter­city pas­sen­ger rail, part of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s aim to give four of five Amer­ic­ans ac­cess to the na­tion’s high-speed rail net­work with­in 25 years.

20 times lar­ger than the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice budget: The 2014 In­teri­or De­part­ment budget re­quest in­cludes $2.6 bil­lion for the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice, the agency in charge of pro­tect­ing the na­tion’s 400-plus na­tion­al parks and man­aging 84 mil­lion acres of pub­lic land.

31 times lar­ger than the Se­cur­it­ies and Ex­change Com­mis­sion budget: Obama is ask­ing for $1.674 bil­lion for the SEC, an in­de­pend­ent board in charge en­for­cing many of the anti-fin­an­cial-fraud and — since 2010 — par­tially over­see­ing the reg­u­lat­ory over­haul man­dated by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Re­form Law.

34 times lar­ger than the U.S. Fish and Wild­life Ser­vice budget: The 2014 In­teri­or re­quest in­cludes $1.55 bil­lion for the Fish and Wild­life Ser­vice, the agency tasked with pro­tect­ing most of the 1484 do­mest­ic spe­cies on the En­dangered Spe­cies List, as well as man­aging 500-plus Na­tion­al Wild­life Refuges.

106 times lar­ger than the Con­sumer Fin­an­cial Pro­tec­tion Bur­eau budget: The CFPB — the Eliza­beth War­ren-de­signed con­sumer watch­dog — says it plans to spend $497 mil­lion in 2014. The agency, which was born out of Dodd-Frank and charged with pro­tect­ing con­sumers from pred­at­ory lend­ing and oth­er threats, has been a polit­ic­al flash­point since it was cre­ated in 2010 and is a fre­quent fea­ture of Obama’s stump speeches on pro­tect­ing the middle class.

But there’s al­ways a big­ger fish…

But big though the “black budget” is, it can’t stack up to the gi­ants of fed­er­al spend­ing: en­ti­tle­ments and de­fense.

The Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice pro­jects the U.S. will shell out more than $500 bil­lion to fund Medi­care in 2014, along with an­oth­er $300 bil­lion or so for Medi­caid.

The De­fense De­part­ment’s fisc­al 2013 base budget re­quest was for $525.4 bil­lion, and — due to con­tinu­ing budget res­ol­u­tions — the de­part­ment ended up net­ting $527.5 bil­lion. And that doesn’t in­clude fund­ing for Op­er­a­tion En­dur­ing Free­dom, which spent $86.5 bil­lion in FY 2013, mostly in Afgh­anistan.

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