WASHINGTON — U.S. spy agencies have built an intelligence-gathering colossus since the Sept. 11 attacks but remain unable to provide critical information to the president on a range of national-security threats, according to the government’s top-secret budget.
The $52.6 billion “black budget” for fiscal 2013, obtained from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, 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.
The 178-page budget summary for the National Intelligence Program details the successes, failures and objectives of the 16 spy agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, which has 107,035 employees.
The Washington Post is withholding some information after consultation with U.S. officials who expressed concerns about the risk to intelligence sources and methods.
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“The United States has made a considerable investment in the Intelligence Community since the terror attacks of 9/11, a time which includes wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction technology, and asymmetric threats in such areas as cyberwarfare,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in response to inquiries.
Among the notable revelations in the budget summary:
• Spending by the CIA has surged past that of every other spy agency, with $14.7 billion in requested funding for 2013. The figure vastly exceeds outside estimates and is nearly 50 percent above that of the National Security Agency (NSA), which conducts eavesdropping operations and has long been considered the behemoth of the community.
• The CIA and NSA have launched aggressive new efforts to hack into foreign computer networks to steal information or sabotage enemy systems, embracing what the budget refers to as “offensive cyber operations.”
• The NSA planned to investigate at least 4,000 possible insider threats in 2013, cases in which the agency suspected sensitive information may have been compromised by one of its own. The budget documents show that the U.S. intelligence community has sought to strengthen its ability to detect what it calls “anomalous behavior” by personnel with access to highly classified material.
• U.S. intelligence officials take an active interest in foes and friends. Pakistan is described in detail as an “intractable target,” and counterintelligence operations “are strategically focused against (the) priority targets of China, Russia, Iran, Cuba and Israel.”
• In words, deeds and dollars, intelligence agencies remain fixed on terrorism as the gravest threat to national security, which is listed first among five “mission objectives.” Counterterrorism programs employ one in four members of the intelligence workforce and account for one-third of all spending.
• The governments of Iran, China and Russia are difficult to penetrate, but North Korea’s may be the most opaque. There are five “critical” gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and analysts know virtually nothing about the intentions of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
On Thursday, meanwhile, complying with President Obama’s call for greater transparency about government surveillance, Clapper said his office would release more detailed information each year on the number of secret court orders and national-security letters demanding data on Americans and the number of people affected.
“Hard choices” ahead
The “top-secret” budget blueprint, formally known as the Congressional Budget Justification for the National Intelligence Program, represents spending levels proposed to the House and Senate intelligence committees in February 2012. Congress may have made changes before the fiscal year began Oct 1. Clapper is expected to release the actual total spending figure after the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
The document describes a constellation of spy agencies that tracks millions of individual surveillance targets and carries out operations that include hundreds of lethal strikes.
The agencies are organized around five priorities: combating terrorism, stopping the spread of nuclear and other unconventional weapons, warning U.S. leaders about critical events overseas, defending against foreign espionage and conducting cyberoperations.
In an introduction to the summary, Clapper said the threats facing the United States “virtually defy rank-ordering.” He warned of “hard choices” as the intelligence community — sometimes referred to as the “IC” — seeks to rein in spending after a decade of often double-digit budget increases.
The summary provides a look at how the U.S. intelligence community has been reconfigured by the massive infusion of resources that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.
The United States has spent more than $500 billion on intelligence during that period, an outlay that U.S. officials say has succeeded in its main objective: preventing another catastrophic terrorist attack in the United States. Spending in the most recent cycle, $52.6 billion as detailed in the Snowden documents, does not include a separate $23 billion devoted to intelligence programs that more directly support the U.S. military.
Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who was a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and co-chairman of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, said access to budget figures has the potential to enable an informed public debate on intelligence spending for the first time, much as Snowden’s disclosures of NSA surveillance programs brought attention to operations that had assembled data on nearly every U.S. citizen.
“Much of the work that the intelligence community does has a profound impact on the life of ordinary Americans, and they ought not to be excluded from the process,” he said.
Experts said access to such details on U.S. spy programs is without precedent.
The only meaningful frame of reference came in 1994, when a congressional subcommittee inadvertently published a partial breakdown of the National Intelligence Program.
At the time, the CIA accounted for just $4.8 billion of a budget that totaled $43.4 billion in 2012 dollars. The NSA and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which operates satellites and other sensors, commanded far larger shares of U.S. intelligence budgets until years after the end of the Cold War.
During the past decade, they have taken a back seat to the CIA. The NSA was in line to receive $10.5 billion in 2013, and the NRO was to get $10.3 billion, both far below the CIA, whose share had surged to 28 percent of the total budget. Overall, the U.S. government spends 10 times as much on the Department of Defense as it does on spy agencies.
“Today’s world is as fluid and unstable as it has been in the past half century,” Clapper told The Post. “Even with stepped-up spending on the IC over the past decade, the United States currently spends less than 1 percent of GDP on the Intelligence Community.”
Despite the vast outlays, the budget blueprint catalogs persistent and in some cases critical blind spots.
In 2011, the budget assessment says intelligence agencies made at least “moderate progress” on 38 of their 50 top counterterrorism gaps, the term used to describe blind spots. Several concern Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, an enemy of Israel that has not attacked U.S. interests directly since the 1990s.
Other gaps include questions about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear components when they are being transported, the capabilities of China’s next-generation fighter aircraft, and how Russia’s government leaders are likely to respond “to potentially destabilizing events in Moscow, such as large protests and terrorist attacks.”
A table of “critical” gaps listed five for North Korea, more than for any other country that has or is pursuing a nuclear bomb.
The intelligence community seems particularly daunted by the emergence of “home grown” terrorists who plan attacks in the United States without direct support or instruction from abroad, a threat realized this year, after the budget was submitted, in twin bombings at the Boston Marathon.
The documents make clear that U.S. spy agencies’ long-standing reliance on technology remains intact.
A section on North Korea indicates the United States has all but surrounded the nuclear-armed country with surveillance platforms. There are distant ground sensors to monitor seismic activity and platforms to scan the country for signs that might point to construction of new nuclear sites. U.S. agencies seek to capture photos, air samples and infrared imagery “around the clock.”
In Syria, NSA listening posts were able to monitor unencrypted communications among senior military officials at the outset of the civil war there, a vulnerability that President Bashar Assad’s forces apparently later recognized.
War against leaks
Across this catalog of technical prowess, one category is depicted as particularly indispensable: signals intelligence, or SIGINT.
The NSA’s ability to monitor emails, phone calls and Internet traffic has come under new scrutiny in recent months as a result of disclosures by Snowden, who worked as a contract computer specialist for the agency before stockpiling secret documents and then fleeing, first to Hong Kong and then Moscow.
The agencies had budgeted for a major counterintelligence initiative in fiscal 2012, but most of those resources were diverted to an emergency response to successive floods of classified data released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
For this year, the budget promised a renewed “focus … on safeguarding classified networks” and a strict “review of high-risk, high-gain applicants and contractors” — the young, nontraditional computer coders with the skills the NSA needed.
Among them was Snowden, now 30, a contract computer specialist who had been trained by the NSA to circumvent computer-network security. He was copying thousands of highly classified documents at an NSA facility in Hawaii, and preparing to leak them, as the agency embarked on a security sweep.