A Rare Look at the Government's 'Black Budget' for Spying

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A highly classified summary of nation's intelligence budget — leaked by Edward Snowden, of course — reveals that the CIA is still the biggest kid on the block when it comes to American spy agencies. Despite all the concern in recent months about the NSA's growing reach, our national eavesdropping service is still dwarfed by the Central Intelligence Agency, which has a budget that is nearly 50 percent larger.

But don't sell the NSA short, either. Both agencies have ballooned since September 11, 2001, to take up most of the country's $56 billion budget for intelligence gathering, surveillance, covert operations, and other shadowy programs. The Washington Post, which it says got a copy of the 178-page budget summary for the National Intelligence Program from Snowden, won't even reveal the full extent of the summary, instead choosing to make a bunch of fancy charts that show general patterns of where the money goes. 

While the rarely seen budget breakdowns are interesting, they still very vague. For example, we now know that $2.5 billion is devoted to "covert action," but there's no way to know how much of that goes to drone programs versus paramilitary operations versus simply paying off warlords in Afghanistan. How the money is spent and where is a mystery to all but the most highly-placed government sources.

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Perhaps the most interesting trend is the massive amount of money devoted simply to "data collection." That can mean a lot of things, of course, but it's by far the biggest chunk of the intelligence budget, particularly at the CIA.

However, the $56 billion "black budget" still doesn't approach the money (adjusted for inflation) spent the peak of the Cold War in the 1980s, nor does it come close to the money spent by the Defense Department, which has a budget nearly 10 times greater than all 16 intelligence agencies combined.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.