Black Budget, Black Box

Edward Snowden’s leaked information continues to gradually make its way into the public eye.  Yesterday the Washington Post ran a carefully worded story discussing the “black budget” for U.S. intelligence agencies for fiscal year 2013.  It’s called the “black budget” because very little light is shed on what the intelligence agencies are actually doing with the money they are receiving.  And it’s a lot of money.  According to the Post story, the “black budget” for fiscal year 2013 was an eye-popping $52.6 billion.

Spending on intelligence has skyrocketed since the September 11 terrorist attacks, and you get the sense that the intelligence community saw the attacks as an opportunity to expand their manpower, their budgets, and their influence.  They were hugely successful.  There are now 16 federal agencies involved in intelligence gathering, and they collectively employ more than 107,000 people.

The Post story focused on areas where the intelligence community apparently is unable to provide much meaningful information — like North Korea — but I think the real story is the size of our spy operations.  From the President on down, I’m skeptical that there is much in the way of meaningful oversight of what those 16 different agencies are doing — to say nothing of coordination of their activities.  How much assurance can we have that the agencies are complying with laws and directives, including those that prevent routine intelligence gathering about Americans engaged in domestic activities?

Size and money may allow you to buy neat spy gizmos and establish operations in faraway lands, but they also have a disadvantage.  Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying:  “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.”  The more people involved in secret activities, the less likely it is that they will remain secret for long.  With 107,000 people involved in intelligence gathering, is it any wonder that our government leaks like a sieve and people like Edward Snowden can collect and disclose reams of classified information?

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