The invisible department
Introducing the State Department’s budget request earlier this year, Secretary of State John Kerry quoted Vice President Joe Biden as saying, “Don’t tell me what you value — show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”
The disclosure last week of details of the government’s “black budget” plan for the current year — essentially the budget for the government’s “hidden department” known as the intelligence community — reveals something about President Barack Obama’s values.
Intelligence spending has risen under President Obama, most notably for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Although the government is cutting spending for almost all so-called discretionary programs subject to across-the-board cuts ordered by Congress and is reducing the size and budget of the Defense Department in particular, the intelligence community appears to be exempt.
This spending pattern suggests that, despite his repeated criticism of CIA activities under President George W. Bush, Mr. Obama places an even higher priority on intelligence collection and covert action than his predecessor did.
Such activities afford the president much greater freedom of action than ones subject to public debate and effective congressional oversight.
It appears that the government is spending about 11 percent more for the intelligence community than it did in 2008, the year before Mr. Obama took office.
The $52.6 billion total is down by about $2 billion from its 2011 peak, but it still ranks the hidden department as the fifth or sixth largest U.S. government agency, below the Defense Department, Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, and Education, and about on a par with State and Homeland Security.
With more than 107,000 employees, the hidden department ranks as the seventh largest federal agency in terms of personnel, behind Defense, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury and Agriculture. It is way ahead of the State Department.
State is scarcely larger than the CIA, which is the largest of the 16 separate intelligence agencies that make up the hidden department. Included is the National Security Agency.
According to “black budget” data published by The Washington Post, the CIA budget has grown rapidly and its workforce has increased from 17,000 to 21,575 over the past decade.
One sign of Mr. Obama’s increased emphasis on covert action has been a dramatic rise in lethal CIA drone strikes on suspected terrorists. Recent reports indicate that a new drone base will be placed in sub-Saharan Africa to deal with the rising al-Qaida threat in that region.
While such actions may be effective in containing terrorist threats, they present a strong contrast to the president’s claims that he is winding down foreign military operations and has largely crippled al-Qaida.
The Post’s careful coverage of secret “black budget” documents provided by fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden provides a rare look into a dark corner of government operations.
The hidden department is the repository of many surprising national secrets, as Mr. Snowden’s revelations have shown. The Post articles provide evidence that the department may also conceal bureaucratic bloat that Congress should curb.