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Revealed: America's $53 billion spying budget

Top-secret documents outlining the scale and detail of the country’s intelligence-gathering operation have been leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. Barton Gellman and Greg Miller crunch the numbers – and ask whether the US is getting its money’s worth

US spy agencies have built an intelligence-gathering colossus since 9/11, 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 $52.6bn “black budget” for the fiscal year 2013, 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 the money 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 US intelligence community, which has 107,035 employees.

“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 cyber-warfare,” said director of national intelligence James R Clapper Jr. “Our budgets are classified as they could provide insight for foreign intelligence services to discern our top national priorities, capabilities and sources.”

The notable revelations in the budget summary include:

● Spending by the CIA has surged past that of every other spy agency, with $14.7bn in requested funding for 2013. The figure vastly exceeds outside estimates and is nearly 50 per cent above that of the National Security Agency.

● The CIA and the NSA have begun 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”.

● Long before Snowden’s leaks, the US intelligence community worried about “anomalous behaviour” by employees and contractors with access to classified material.

● US intelligence officials take an active interest in friends as well as foes. Pakistan is described in detail as an “intractable target”, and counterintelligence operations are “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”.

● 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 US intelligence about Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes, and analysts know virtually nothing about the intentions of leader Kim Jong-un.

The “top-secret” blueprint represents spending levels proposed to the House and Senate intelligence committees in February 2012.

The document describes a constellation of spy agencies that track millions of surveillance targets and carry out operations that include hundreds of lethal strikes. They are organised around five priorities: combating terrorism; stopping the spread of nuclear and other unconventional weapons; warning US leaders about critical events overseas; defending against foreign espionage; and conducting cyber-operations.

In an introduction, Clapper said the threats facing the United States “virtually defy rank-ordering”. He warned of “hard choices” as the intelligence community seeks to rein in spending.

The summary provides a detailed look at how the US intelligence community has been reconfigured by the massive infusion of resources that followed the 2001 attacks. The US has spent more than $500bn on intelligence during that period, an outlay US officials say has succeeded in its main objective: preventing another catastrophic terrorist attack in the US.

The result is an espionage empire with resources and a reach beyond those of any adversary.

The current total budget request was 2.4 per cent below that of the 2012 fiscal year. In constant dollars, it was about twice the estimated size of the 2001 budget and 25 per cent above that of 2006, five years into what was then known as the “global war on terror”.

The CIA’s dominant position is likely to stun outside experts. It represents a remarkable recovery for an agency that seemed poised to lose power and prestige after acknowledging failures leading up to the 2001 attacks and the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

The surge in resources for the agency funded secret prisons, a controversial interrogation programme, the deployment of lethal drones and a huge expansion of its counterterrorism centre. The agency was transformed from a spy service struggling to emerge from the Cold War into a paramilitary force.

The CIA has devoted billions of dollars to recruiting and training a new generation of case officers, with the workforce growing from about 17,000 a decade ago to 21,575 this year.

There is no specific entry for the CIA’s fleet of armed drones in the budget summary, but a broad line item hints at the dimensions of the agency’s expanded paramilitary role, providing more than $2.6bn for “covert action programs” that would include drone operations in Pakistan and Yemen, payments to militias in Afghanistan and Africa, and attempts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme.

Despite the vast outlays, the budget blueprint catalogues persistent and in some cases critical blind spots.

Throughout, agencies attempt to rate their efforts in tables akin to report cards, generally citing progress but often acknowledging that only a fraction of their questions could be answered — even on the community’s foremost priority, counterterrorism.

In 2011, the budget assessment says intelligence agencies made at least “moderate progress” on 38 of their 50 top counterterrorism blind spots. Several concern Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, an enemy of Israel that has not attacked US 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 destabilising events in Moscow, such as large protests and terrorist attacks”.

A chart outlining efforts to address key questions on biological and chemical weapons is particularly bleak.

The documents describe expanded efforts to “collect on Russian chemical warfare countermeasures” and assess the security of biological and chemical laboratories in Pakistan.

A table listed five gaps for North Korea, more than any other country with or pursuing a nuclear bomb.

The documents make clear that US spy agencies’ long-standing reliance on technology remains intact. If anything, their dependence on high-tech surveillance systems to fill gaps in human intelligence has intensified.

A section on North Korea indicates that the United States has all but surrounded the country with surveillance platforms. Distant ground sensors monitor seismic activity and scan the country for signs that might point to construction of new nuclear sites.

In Iran, new surveillance techniques and technologies have enabled analysts to identify suspected nuclear sites not detected in satellite images. In Syria, NSA listening posts were able to monitor unencrypted communications among senior military officials at the outset of the civil war, a vulnerability that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces apparently later recognised. .

Across this catalogue 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 fleeing, first to Hong Kong and then Moscow.

The NSA was projected to spend $48.6m on research projects to assist in “coping with information overload,” an occupational hazard as the volumes of intake have increased sharply.

The budget includes a lengthy section on funding for counterintelligence programmes designed to protect against the danger posed by foreign intelligence services as well as betrayals from within the US spy ranks.

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, non-traditional computer coders with the skills the NSA needed.

Among them was Snowden, then a 29-year-old contract computer specialist whom the NSA trained to circumvent computer network security. He was copying thousands of highly classified documents at an NSA facility in Hawaii as the agency embarked on the new security sweep.

Washington Post