New bill would dramatically improve the transparency of America’s spy budget

Wyden and House reps introduce bill to require disclosure of intel budget

The overall number is already public, but these lawmakers say that’s not enough.

Three lawmakers on Wednesday introduced a bill to shed more light on how much money the U.S. intelligence community gets for its operations.

The Intelligence Budget Transparency Act, from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), would make public the overall budget figures for the 16 agencies that make up the intelligence community.

The overall spy budget has been disclosed for nearly a decade, and Wyden said that it was time to go further. More specific figures are classified.

“Revealing the overall intelligence budget number has not jeopardized national security, as opponents of the proposal argued at the time, and has led to a more open and informed debate on national security spending,” Wyden said in a statement. “My House colleagues and I are pushing to declassify the topline budget numbers for each intelligence agency to provide Americans with more information about how their tax dollars are spent, in a responsible manner that protects national security.”

The world got a good look at the breakdown of the U.S. intelligence budget in August 2013, when documents released by Edward Snowden and published by the Washington Post revealed the so-called “black budget” in startling detail. The total cost of surveillance operations in 2013, according to the documents, was $52.6 billion.

“The biggest threat to the successful implementation of a vital national program is the combination of unlimited money with non-existent oversight,” Welch said in the statement. “That’s the situation Congress has allowed to develop in the critical work of intelligence gathering.”

Civil liberties groups, which have long-demanded more information about how the government allocates resources for the nation’s spy program, cheered the bill’s introduction and said it was long overdue.

“After everything we’ve learned in the past two years about mass spying, the public interest in knowing how much taxpayer money is flowing to the NSA, CIA, and other agencies should be a no-brainer,” said Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel in the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office. “We’ve seen the ballooning total price tag for years, without any harm to legitimate national security objectives. But we, the people, have a fundamental right to further know, at the very least, how much is being spent on each agency.”

“Disclosing the top line budget amount for these intelligence agencies would not harm national security and would promote agency accountability to the taxpayers who fund them, and to taxpayers’ representatives in Congress,” said Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology and director of the center’s Freedom, Security & Technology Project. “Secret spending is no way to run a democracy.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation endorsed the bill but said it did not go far enough.

“This bill would be another important step in bringing much needed transparency to the Intelligence Community,” said Sophia Cope, a staff attorney with the EFF. “However, more needs to be done to enable fully effective public oversight. The public has a right to know, for example, how much the intelligence agencies are spending on surveillance and in researching, buying and exploiting zero-day vulnerabilities.”

This is not the first time that lawmakers have attempted to require the disclosure of more granular intelligence budget figures. Reps. Welch and Lummis introduced the same bill in January 2014, but it never made it past consideration by the House Budget Committee.

“We do not propose exposing intelligence program details, or sources and methods,” Lummis and Welch wrote in an April 2014 op-ed about their bill. “We are simply insisting that the total amount spent on intelligence at each agency be made public.”

The 16-member intelligence community includes high-profile agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency as well as the intelligence arms of the military’s four branches, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and other agencies scattered across major government departments. It is overseen by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The DNI did not respond to a request for comment on the transparency bill.

“Disclosing the top-line budgets of each of our intelligence agencies,” Lummis said in the statement, “promotes basic accountability among the agencies charged with protecting Americans without compromising our national security interests.”

Photo via pirateyjoe/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III 

Eric Geller

Eric Geller

Eric Geller is a politics reporter who focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance, encryption, and privacy. A former staff writer at the Daily Dot, Geller joined Politico in June 2016, where he's focused on policymaking at the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.