Latest Snowden Leaks Detail The 'Black Budget' And How Much The Gov't Wastes On Useless Surveillance

from the i-could-use-me-a-black-budget-too dept

Barton Gellman and Greg Miller over at the Washington Post have the latest scoops from the Ed Snowden leaks, in which it appears they’ve been able to go through the details of the infamous “black budget,” detailing the money that is spent on intelligence operations. Apparently, the total budget is around $52.6 billion this year (which actually is a bit lower than I would have expected, but is apparently twice what the budget was back in 2001). There’s also another $23 billion spent on “intelligence programs that more directly support the U.S. military.”

Not surprisingly, the Post agreed to leave most of the document unpublished and is careful not to reveal anything really damaging (i.e., sources and methods), but the results are still quite revealing. Of course, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is still angry, arguing that any info from the budget “could provide insight for foreign intelligence services to discern our top national priorities, capabilities and sources and methods.” Blah, blah, blah. Someone doesn’t like being held accountable. Others point out that discussing the budget seems quite reasonable. The post quotes Lee Hamilton, the former chair of the 9/11 commission (and former chair of the House Intelligence Committee), who argues that having this info public is important to having an informed public debate on the surveillance state. That’s the only way that the intelligence community can be held accountable.

And, actually, what the budget reveals is a rather stunning lack of accountability for the budget — much of it going to the CIA. While many people had assumed that the CIA had been diminishing in power and authority within the intelligence community (especially in relation to the NSA), it turns out that its budget has been growing and growing, and is much more than the NSA’s. Furthermore, the CIA has basically been transformed from an “intelligence” agency into a “paramilitary force.”

And for all this funding, with so little accountability, it should come as no surprise to find out that much of this money appears to be wasted, and not particularly effective.

Throughout the document, U.S. spy 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, counter-terrorism.

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 blank spots 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 chart outlining efforts to address key questions on biological and chemical weapons is particularly bleak. U.S. agencies set themselves annual goals of making progress in at least five categories of intelligence collection related to these weapons. In 2011, the agencies made headway on just two gaps; a year earlier the mark was zero.

So, we’re spending all of this money (our money) on top secret operations, including spying on pretty much every American… and so far it’s been almost entirely useless against the actual threats we face. Well, that’s comforting. Oh, and if you wondered about the failure to connect the dots on the Boston Marathon bombings? It’s because the intelligence community and all that money have no idea how to figure out those kinds of attacks.

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 National Counterterrorism Center has convened dozens of analysts from other agencies in attempts to identify “indicators” that could help law enforcement understand the path from religious extremism to violence. The FBI was in line for funding to increase the number of agents surreptitiously tracking activity on jihadist Web sites.

But a year before the bombings in Boston the search for meaningful insight into the stages of radicalization was described as one of “the more challenging intelligence gaps.”

Also, the NSA is swimming in so much information that it asked for nearly $50 million to cope with the problem of having too much information. We’ve pointed out for years that the trick to finding the needles in haystacks isn’t to build bigger haystacks, but that’s long been the NSA’s approach. However, those haystacks have become so big that the NSA asked for $48.6 million designated for “coping with information overload.” Here’s a simple, and cheaper, plan: don’t collect so much irrelevant data. You can ship me half of the $48.6 million and keep the rest for something that’s actually useful.

Also, there’s this:

The agencies had budgeted for a major counterintelligence initiative in fiscal 2012, but most of those resources were diverted to an all-hands, 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

The budget, obviously, was submitted before Snowden absconded with it and gave it to the Post, so I would imagine that there have been some revisions to create yet another “all-hands, emergency response” to Snowden-like situations.

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Comments on “Latest Snowden Leaks Detail The 'Black Budget' And How Much The Gov't Wastes On Useless Surveillance”

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Anonymous Coward says:

“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…”

This is either bullshit of the highest grade or an alarming admission of their incompetence.


Home grown terrorism is not a recent development. They’ve had plenty of time to learn to cope with it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

They apparently want a more targeted domestic spying program that what they have today. It is pretty scary when you think about it. NSA seems to collect work from other government agencies along with their far too big haystacks of data. Meanwhile they are rated horribly by the employees.

I wonder if anyone in government is brave enough to reduce NSA funding and increase research funding, to help alleviate the mentioned lack of research? It would be the most reasonable way to solve this worry, but the drama that would ensue…

Greg (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well, you gotta admit that it’s a tough problem to solve. Many people to keep track of, with only a few liable to really go off the rails. They’re simply throwing money at the problem to see what sticks. They’re hoping that by gathering everything they can find good indicators in all that data. They then run into other very difficult problems because of simple data volume issues, so they need more money, etc. etc. They are desperate for solutions because the higher-ups know it’s their ass if there’s a terrorist strike on their watch. So, they spend your money and trample your rights because that’s the lesser of two evils in their opinion and there are huge incentives to lean that way. Standard government reaction to difficult problems, unfortunately.

If anyone had a solution acceptable to the government, (i.e. that does not involve significant foreign policy changes) you’d probably have heard of them by now. In other words, they want to destroy the threat without addressing the true cause. The hard line wins, but is ultimately only partially effective.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Ask a mathematician about this, the more data you collect, the more false positives and false negatives you can expect. You end up flagging a ton of people who shouldn’t be flagged, and investigating them and wasting resources. Plus you miss more of the people that are about to do no good. In the end this sort of surveillance makes us less safe.

Greg (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Sure, more data means more resources are needed to process it & take care of it (human & computer). Not to mention the opportunities for less scrupulous folks to abuse said data. I’m definitely not defending the idea of grabbing every scrap of data you can lay your hands on. I’m a software guy and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “Just capture everything. You might as well since we just might need it and there’s little additional cost.” There’s always additional costs & complexities & the additional “bad” data just tends to obscure the “good” and/or make the good harder to dig out. Bad design based on lazy thinking by the business side, usually.

Jonathan says:

Re: Re: Re: Don't your mathematicians know about complex numbers?

Do you think that a payment card fraud detection system gets less reliable with more data? Does Pandora get stupider the more you scratch its ears or scold it? Does it even need to be 100% accurate?

One enabling trick is to assign an uncertainty metric to each item of intelligence. You then know not only the consensus of the evidence, but of the relative quality of the confounding evidence, all of which can be valuable inputs into the uncertainty metric of the answer to the question asked.

The other enabling trick is to recognize you’re in intelligence, not in court. 100% accuracy is pointless and unachievable in the real world, so you work with what you got. 50%+1 constitutes probable cause, which is what you’re looking for if you want authorization to watch someone more specifically/closely and aren’t just playing tin-pot Kibo and grepping the Internet.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Possible, but the main problem I see with using other user’s accounts to hide his trail is that he’d still have to know the password. He could reset it, and enter a new password, but that would leave people unable to log in and in need of resetting their password every time he did so. Not exactly the most subtle of things

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Ever heard of Linux?

Let’s say that you have three users in your Linux system: “bob”, “alice” and “charlie”.

Let’s say that bob has root access, because…well…he’s the sysadmin. “bob” needs to do some maintenance (“alice” messed up her settings, so “bob” needs to go fix them…or some other credible story), so he writes:

su alice

Wait, what’s this? Now “bob” becomes “alice”. OMG! “bob” is impersonating “alice”! What an f-king genius hacker!

Now, for his next trick, “bob” will impersonate “charlie” for no reason at all:

su charlie

OMFGROFL! “bob” became “charlie”! How does he do that!? He’s an computer hacker!


Moral of the story? Reporters are morons. If Snowden was a proper sysadmin, and had root (super user) access, he had the ability to “switch user”, that is, change his current identity in the system to “become” another user. System administrators sometimes require this ability for maintenance and support reasons. So, what NBC news is celebrating is the fact that Snowden had the capability to do what almost any Linux monkey is taught to do in his first lesson.

This is pure propaganda for the ignorant masses.

TasMot (profile) says:

Oh, and if you wondered about the failure to connect the dots on the Boston Marathon bombings? It’s because the intelligence community and all that money have no idea how to figure out those kinds of attacks.

Oh come on, sure they do! Just watch for the Terror Threats to be broadcast on Twitter. See:

See, you can catch all of the terrorists just by watching for their pre-announcement on Twitter………. /SARC

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Do we think this really came from Snowden?

Or has he made it Liberty Hall for anyone (including anyone in Congress, who were on the circulation list for this doc) to give anything they like to the press about the NSA/CIA/Intelligence community, under the cover that “you got it from Snowden” ?

Yes, this came from Snowden. Barton Gellman was one of the original reporters who got the documents from Snowden.

Brandt Hardin (user link) says:


The dystopian fantasies of yesteryear are now a reality. We?ve allowed the coming of an age where the civil liberties our forefathers fought so hard for are being eroded by the day. Freedom of Press, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly are mere ghostly images of their original intent. We?ve woken up to an Orwellian Society of Fear where anyone is at the mercy of being labeled a terrorist for standing up for rights we took for granted just over a decade ago. Read about how we?re waging war against ourselves at

reginald joe says:

black budgets

Go to the details of the Kennedy assassination and you will see that there was an intelligence coup in this country at that time. The governments trained killers and their bosses rule. Look at how they lied to congressmen like they were sissies. While turncoat republicans want to stop foodstamp money which are tax dollars we put in going back to ourselves intelligence has set up their way to become millionaires by unaccounted expenditures. This conspiracy also aids the ruin of the middle class by waste of their tax dollars. Hello Communism!

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