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Think Again Part 1: The Intelligence Community (After Reading Their Budget)

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

Of all the Snowden leaks, few will have as much impact on our intelligence community (IC) as the release of the secret intelligence budget. With this budget, the American people--and tragically, their elected representatives--have better insight into the intelligence community than ever before. The release of the budget, like most of the leaks coming from Edward Snowden, shows that the unelected leaders of the intelligence community have consistently exaggerated, misled, and deceived Americans about both the threats facing our country and their actions to counter those threats. 

In this case, how they spend money.

So consider this a "Think Again: The Intelligence Community". It will tackle three different types of myth, including myths the release from last summer overturns, myths the intelligence community continues to peddle to lawmakers and the American public, and the myths the intelligence community uses to attack Edward Snowden and the journalists releasing classified information. 

Myth 1: There is nothing new here. In future posts, we plan to hold some NSA defenders’ feet to the fire when it comes to this claim. Supporters of the NSA manage to argue two contradictory statements about nearly every Snowden leak: 1. “Oh, everyone already knew that” and 2. “This devastates our national security.”

How can something everyone knows devastate our national security if everyone already knew it? 

And with the budget release, this line of attack is especially disingenuous. The biggest update is that, far and away, most national security observers had been drastically underestimating the size of particular agencies. For instance, most analysts believed the CIA was still operating under budget constraints, when they had the single largest growth in funding since 9/11. In this case, the intelligence agencies didn’t lie per se, but chose to pretend that they were cash-strapped agencies.

Speaking of underfunding...

Myth 2: The intelligence community is underfunded. This is frankly an incredibly shocking statement...and it comes from the Director of National Intelligence, General James Clapper. In his words:

Never before has the IC been called upon to master such complexity and so many issues in such a resource-constrained environment...

Apparently General Clapper never learned to never say, “Never say never.” As the Washington Post describes later describes:

Spending in the most recent cycle surpassed that amount based on the $52.6 billion detailed in documents obtained by The Post, plus a separate $23 billion devoted to intelligence programs that more directly support the U.S. military.

That’s $75 billion on intelligence, by my calculations. To be clear, the U.S. spends more on intelligence than every other country in the world--besides China and Russia--spend on all their military spending. The United Kingdom has the third largest military spending in the world, and it only spends $60 billion per year on its whole military.

Worse, in historical terms, the amount spent on intelligence rivals any time during the Cold War. In other words, far from being “resource-constrained”, the intelligence community has never had as much money on hand as it does now.

Frankly, General Clapper can only get away with calling the budgeting environment "resource constrained" because a majority of our representatives don't have the ability (or the time) to read the secret IC budget . He can only get away with it because academics can't chart the budget historically, or in detail. He can only get away with it because think tanks and lobbyists funded by defense and intelligence contractors spread this myth through reputable journalists.

Myth 3: The U.S. only spends 1% of its GDP on intelligence. Again from General Clapper: "Even with stepped up spending on the IC over the past decade, the United States currently spends less than one percent of GDP on the Intelligence Community.”

Actually, I cannot debunk this fact. General Clapper is correct that we spend less than 1% of GDP on intelligence. The myth is that the U.S. should even think about pegging its intelligence spending to GDP. It is simply stunning that General Clapper could use this argument.

Maybe the definition of a security state is one which spends one percent or more of GDP on intelligence. So yes, we aren't there yet, but we're on our way...and should be, according to intelligence officials.

seven comments

Instead of spending billions tracking phone calls you’d think it would be both cheaper and more effective to just do something like putting cameras in every Radio Shack, matching facial images with transactions, and flagging anything that could be detonator-related.

But then I suppose you have to ask whether or not the institutions exist to fill their mandates or to simply grow and perpetuate themselves.

. . . though I could also say that the US would see a better return on investment if it ploughed that money into several hundred thousand speed bumps across American roads, slowing traffic and reducing the number of fatal accidents each year. And there would still probably be enough money left over to give every child a free breakfast at school every day of the year.


A domestic law enforcement department would have a substantial societal impact on human suffering even with 0.5% of that “black budget”. A negligible amount of $375,000 would easily facilitate more objective-specific sensitivity training, enhanced community outreach programs, or even sponsored substance abuse rehab. programs.

@ 5150 – totally agree. We’ve got way more on that particular objection, answering how the NSA money could be put to better use.

This unfettered, untracked spending is absurd.

5150 touches on the corollary issue of how policing is practiced at the local level in the USA. A domestic law enforcement program would likely spend any extra money on whiz bang stuff like APCs, new guns for their “SWAT” teams or similar, not outreach programs. Outreach and rehab is not sexy; new toys are very sexy.

@ Case – Excellent point.

Great article. Just came across this site while reading on Mike Murphy.

I’ve been in the intelligence community for some time now and am looking forward to future posts.