There’s a brouhaha developing over the latest U.S. intelligence community funding bill, but it’s not the right one. The fuss is over the effort by the House intelligence committee to force the White House to provide classified briefings about ongoing covert operations to committee members. Until that’s agreed to, the House proposes to hold back 75 percent of the funding for those covert ops. Because of that, the White House is threatening to veto the measure.
That’s all well and good. But, to me, the real issue is the staggering size of the intelligence budget. As recently as the late 1990s, and even at the start of the Bush Administration, the spooks’ got something like $29 billion a year. That’s a lot of money, and you could argue — based on results — that we weren’t exactly getting our money’s worth. According to the Washington Post, however, the 2009 intelligence budget will top $55 billion. John Pike’s invaluable site, globalsecurity.org, suggests the actual figure for 2009 is more than $66 billion. He cautions: “The US intelligence budget is classified. This is an educated guess as to what the numbers look like.”
According to Pike’s breakdown, the CIA gets about $10 billion of that, while the Pentagon, under which the big-ticket agencies such as the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office are located, gets more than $43 billion.
So the bottom line is: we’re spending between $55 and $66 billion a year and we still can’t find Osama bin Laden. If the Republicans were truly concerned about wasteful spending, they’d start hacking away at the spy budget. Most of it goes to spy satellites and other high-tech gizmos that are staggeringly expensive, but they’re still relics of the Cold War spy apparatus aimed at the USSR and its ICBMs.
Most of that money is spent on contractors who make up the intelligence-industrial complex. Six years ago, I wrote a piece for The American Prospect which detailed how the district-by-district lobbying power of giant intelligence contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing influenced congressional largesse for our spies. Here’s an excerpt:
Despite the James Bond-inspired romantic notions of intelligence agencies, and despite the widespread belief that the CIA and other intelligence agencies spend most of their time and money on covert operations, such activities account for only 1 percent of the intelligence budget. Much of the rest–amounting to tens of billions of dollars–pays for high-technology satellites, electronic eavesdropping devices, staggering arrays of ground processing stations, and vast computer systems. And behind each one of those high-tech gizmos stands a contractor.
Some of these companies are familiar; some are known only to insiders. The biggest ones, who build and maintain the costly satellites and other systems, can be counted on one’s fingers: Lockheed Martin, TRW, Rockwell, Hughes, Boeing, E-Systems, General Dynamics, and McDon nell Doug las. John Pike, a Federation of American Scientists analyst who has studied the U.S. intelligence-industrial complex, marvels at the scope of their presence. Standing over a table and pointing at a map, Pike highlights the contractors scattered around Westpark, in Tysons Corner, Virginia, just down the road from CIA headquarters. “Here’s TRW, Unisys, and Wang,” he says. “And over here is PRC, Honeywell, GTE Spacenet, MCI, BDM, Data General, PSI, and MITRE Corp.”
A definitive book on the topic is Tim Shorrock’s Spies for Hire, which you can read about here.
The Mother Jones blog lists other provisions that have the White House knickers in an uproar:
The bill contains provisions calling for prohibiting detainees from being interrogated by contractors (like at Abu Ghraib); the establishment of an inspector general of intelligence; regular reports to Congress on the nuclear weapons programs of Iran, Syria, and North Korea; and a regular National Intelligence Estimate on Syria’s WMD programs.
The Federation of American Scientists has helpfully posted a link to the full list of the White House’s objections to the bill. (The Senate, incidentally, has not acted on the funding bill, so the version passed by the House isn’t likely to make it the president’s desk anyway, at least in its current form.)