Congress to intelligence community: Show me the money

Alexis Levinson | Political Reporter

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of members of congress is asking the White House to declassify the so-called black budget, the budget that funds intelligence operations and make public the amount of money spent on by each agency involved.

There are 16 agencies that are involved in intelligence for the U.S., and the budget for doing so cannot be found anywhere in the 1,500-page appropriations bill that congress will vote on this week. Rather, their budgets are considered classified, kept secret from Americans and even from most members of congress.

But several lawmakers want to change that.

The goal, said Vermont Democratic Rep. Peter Welch, a sponsor of the bill, is “to try to get back to the right balance between security and privacy” and to restore “accountability” to the process.

“The biggest threat to the implementation of a vital national program is the combination of unlimited money with nonexistent oversight, and that’s essentially the situation that congress has allowed to develop in the critical work of intelligence gathering,” he said at a press conference Tuesday.

Welch told The Daily Caller after the press conference that the legislation was not directly related to the treasure trove of classified documents released last year by Edward Snowden, one of which was the black budget for a number of the agencies indicating that the United States spends about $52 billion a year on intelligence. (RELATED: Snowden reveals the US intelligence ‘black budget’)

However, Welch said Snowden’s releases “really raised the question as to whether we’re way out of balance in the security versus privacy balance.”

“The revelation that there’s this huge metadata program where everybody’s phone logs and everybody’s emails are in custody of the NSA is very disturbing,” Welch said. “That wasn’t the intent of the Patriot Act, and it’s given an indication that there’s a lack of oversight when it comes to intelligence gathering activities.”

Whereas Snowden released all the information about the budgets, with breakdowns for how the funds would be allocated, lawmakers only want the top line sum to be put out there.

“Their sources and methods should be private,” said Wyoming Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a co-sponsor of the legislation. “We are not asking them to delve into their sources and methods, and we are not asking them to delve deeper into their budget priorities, other than to give us the topline.”

“We believe those topline numbers are appropriate for the American people to know; we believe those topline numbers are appropriate for members of congress to know,” she said.

The top lines would give people “a better understanding of where American taxpayer dollars are being spent,” said North Carolina* Democratic Rep. David Price, another sponsor of the legislation. It would also give people a comparison from year to year, illustrated which agencies were becoming more or less dominant, said Lummis.

The bill was originally recommended by the 9/11 Commission, which was set up to, among other functions, look at ways to prevent future attacks like the one on the Twin Towers. Former House Intelligence Committee Chairman and Vice Chair of the 9/11 Commission Lee Hamilton endorsed the bill.

The lawmakers sponsoring the legislation span the length of the ideologically spectrum. In addition to Welch, Lummis, and Price, Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, and Republican Reps. James Sensenbrenner, Jim Jordan, and Justin Amash have signed on as sponsors.

The sixteen agencies that would have to reveal their spending habits are: Air Force Intelligence, Army Intelligence, CIA, Coast Guard Intelligence, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Treasury Department, Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Marine Corps Intelligence, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, National Security Agency, and Navy Intelligence.

Lawmakers acknowledged potential criticism that revealing the budget would give enemies of the U.S. sensitive information, but said they believed revealing the top line would not do any harm.

“I don’t think [protection of the U.S.] will be compromised,” Price said. “In fact, it might be enhanced by confirming, rather than simply leaving to speculation, the substantial sums that we invest in our intelligence capabilities.”

*This post previously misidentified the state that Rep. David Price represents.

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