You Spent $47.5 Billion* on Intelligence Last Year

Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 9:25 am

Some instances of government secrecy are genuinely malign, but most are frivolous. The cardinal example there is the intelligence budget. For reasons no one has ever compellingly explained, the annual budget of the 16-agency intelligence community was for decades a guarded secret.

Yes, this is taxpayer money, but the thinking went that if the figure became public, the Soviet Union or the Chinese or Al Qaeda or Cobra Commander could nefariously infer how much money we spent on the CIA station in Sao Tome or something. Congress appropriated the money in secret. I’m not making this up. It went on for decades.

But then Michael McConnell became director of national intelligence! And he came up with a fairly smart strategy. McConnell could blatantly misrepresent the importance of the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program; demagogue the congressional debate about the program, and belittle the severity of waterboarding. But if he just declassified things that don’t really matter but are treated as if they possess Utmost National Importance, he’ll come out of the administration looking like a paragon of openness.

All of that is preamble and context for telling you that McConnell just sent me and all the other reporters on his press release a notice informing us that Congress devoted $47.5 billion to intelligence matters in fiscal 2008. But wait! There’s a caveat!

Any and all subsidiary information concerning the intelligence budget, whether the information concerns particular intelligence agencies or particular intelligence programs, will not be disclosed. Beyond the disclosure of the top-line figure, there will be no other disclosures of currently classified budget information because such disclosures could harm national security. The only exceptions to the foregoing are for unclassified appropriations, primarily for the Community Management Account.

That’s bureaucratese for “Don’t think this means I’m going to tell you how much money we spent on any particular program. The cost of my allergist’s Lexus is no more your business than is the price tag on our Death Ray.” Plus ca change.

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