NEW YORK — The most detailed public disclosure of US intelligence spending in history shows a surprisingly dominant role for the Central Intelligence Agency, a growing emphasis on both defensive and offensive cyber-operations, and significant gaps in knowledge about targeted countries despite the sharp increase in spending after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The top secret budget request for the current fiscal year was obtained by the Washington Post from the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden and published in part on its website Thursday. The newspaper said it was withholding most of the 178-page document at the request of government officials because “sensitive details are so pervasive” in its description of spying programs.
The document shows that the agencies’ budget request for the year ending Sept. 30 was $52.6 billion, a small decrease since the 2011 peak of $54.6 billion after a decade of rapid spending growth. Of that, the biggest share was taken by the CIA, which carries out traditional human spying and intelligence analysis but also now conducts drone strikes against terrorism suspects in Pakistan and Yemen.
The CIA asked for $14.7 billion, significantly outpacing the two big technological spy agencies, the eavesdropping NSA, which sought $10.8 billion, and the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates surveillance satellites, at $10.3 billion. Although the document reflects dollars requested for fiscal year 2013 and not those actually received, the record of past expenditures suggests that real spending this year is probably very close to the amount requested.
The 16 US spy agencies employed about 107,000 people, including 21,800 working on contract, the document shows. The number does not include tens of thousands of contractors who work in support of the intelligence agencies, in some cases outnumbering actual employees, said Jeffrey T. Richelson, a prolific author on intelligence.
The disclosures offer by far the most granular look at how the billions for intelligence collection are spent.
Richelson said he thought the NSA budget figure understated the real cost of its electronic surveillance, because it omits much of the support it receives from military personnel who carry out eavesdropping on its behalf.
The latest disclosure underscores the extraordinary impact of the leaks by Snowden, 30, who has accepted temporary asylum in Russia as he tries to avoid prosecution in the United States on espionage charges.
The documents he took from his job as an NSA contractor and provided to The Guardian, the Post, and other publications have set off the most significant public debate in decades about surveillance and data collection by the government. The parts of the new budget document published by the Post, while containing no major surprises, offer by far the most granular look at how the billions for intelligence collection are spent. (The Guardian has recently shared some of Snowden’s documents with The New York Times.)
On Thursday, complying with President Obama’s call for greater transparency about government surveillance, the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., said his office would release more detailed information each year on the number of secret court orders and national security letters demanding data on Americans and the number of people affected.
For decades, administrations from both parties have hidden spy spending in what is popularly known as the “black budget,” asserting that letting adversaries know what the United States is spending would make the country less safe. Only since 2007 has even the total annual spending on what is called the national intelligence program been made public; another $23 billion is spent each year in a separate military intelligence budget.
Experts estimate that the government has spent about $500 billion on the intelligence agencies in the dozen years since the Sept. 11 attacks. That was a sharp increase in spending over the 1990s but is roughly what the Pentagon is spending this year alone.
Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists and has long campaigned for greater budget transparency, said the document “highlights the ascension of the CIA,” which before the Sept. 11 era accounted for about 10 percent of intelligence spending and now approaches a third of the total. President George W. Bush began a rapid expansion of the CIA’s work force in response to the terrorist attacks.