Forced by law to reveal how much the nation spends on its spy agencies, the Bush administration disclosed Tuesday that the country’s intelligence budget was $43.5 billion last year, an increase of about 50% since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The disclosure marked the first time in nearly a decade that the federal government has offered even a partial glimpse of how much it spends on the CIA and the other 15 agencies that make up the intelligence community. Only the overall figure was provided.
The Bush administration had vehemently opposed releasing even that number, arguing that doing so would give the nation’s enemies valuable insight into how much money the United States was spending on clandestine activities.
But the release fulfills one of the recommendations of the commission that investigated the intelligence failures surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks. The commission urged the government to disclose the figure in order to foster greater public scrutiny of the nation’s spending priorities. The recommendation was in legislation passed by Congress earlier this year.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said releasing the figure is likely to demonstrate that basic information about the nation’s spending on its spy programs can be shared without harming national security.
The information is probably of little use to adversaries trying to scrutinize U.S. intelligence activities, Aftergood said. His organization had unsuccessfully sued the government to force release of the figure.
“What it does tell you is how much we’re spending on intelligence compared to other government functions such as defense and healthcare,” Aftergood said. “Also, it makes it possible to openly debate the level of intelligence spending, something that has not been possible before in Congress.”
But the Director of National Intelligence, J. Michael McConnell, declined to provide any further details on spy spending. He said that there “will be no other disclosures of currently classified budget information because such disclosures could harm national security.”
The government must disclose the comparable budget amount in 2008. But the intelligence director can block disclosure in subsequent years if he makes the case to Congress that it is necessary to protect national security.
Some officials said that the director’s office may take that step because many intelligence officials believe that releasing numbers over a period of years would allow adversaries to examine trends in U.S. intelligence spending.
“If they see a blip, they can direct collection [by their own intelligence agencies] on what that blip might be,” said a congressional official involved in classified intelligence budgets, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing issues surrounding classified information.
The $43.5-billion figure is in line with independent estimates of the budget in recent years, and represents the total spent during the fiscal year that began October 2006 and ended Sept. 30.
The intelligence budget is typically about 10% of military spending. Last year, the defense budget was about $600 billion.
The figure represents spending on an array of intelligence activities, but the CIA and two other agencies account for the bulk of the budget. Those are the National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on phone calls and intercepts e-mails around the world, and the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds spy satellites.
Those agencies may each account for as much as $10 billion of the total, according to intelligence experts. The CIA’s budget is believed to be between $5 billion and $8 billion.
The $43.5 billion does not include spending by the armed services on intelligence equipment and activities for military operations in the field, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
Total spending on the nation’s spy programs was disclosed voluntarily in 1997 and 1998 by then-CIA Director George J. Tenet. The figure for 1997 was $26.6 billion, and for 1998 it was $26.7 billion. But the numbers were again kept classified in succeeding years, although experts estimate that they probably approached $30 billion annually leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.