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Edward Snowden leaks again: five takeaways from the ‘black budget’

The latest Edward Snowden leak reveals that the CIA claims the lion’s share of the $52.6 billion classified ‘black budget’ that the US spent on its intelligence agencies in 2013, topping the NSA.

Edward Snowden has struck again, this time via The Washington Post. The former National Security Agency data professional leaked a secret-filled 178-page summary of the US intelligence community budget to Post reporters Barton Gellman and Greg Miller, who published online a lengthy story about the document, illustrated with great charts and graphics, on Thursday.

The bottom line, or rather the budget top line, is that all US intelligence agencies combined spent $52.6 billion in fiscal year 2013. That’s about 2.4 percent less than they spent in FY 2012.

That’s not classified, strictly speaking: The US has released its overall intelligence budget since 2007, as Messrs. Gellman and Miller note. But breakdowns as to which agency gets how much and what the money is spent on have been classified, and the Post reveals those things, too.

Here’s our quick take on significant things in the story:

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The CIA is still first among equals. The nation’s human-oriented intelligence agency got $14.7 billion for 2013. The eavesdropping NSA, despite its need for expensive electronics, got less: $10.8 billion. The National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and maintains signal and photo intelligence satellites, received almost as much as the NSA, at $10.3 billion. That means those secret eyes and ears in the sky are really, really expensive.

Predicting the future: priceless. OK, maybe “priceless” isn’t quite the right word. There is a price tag here, a big one. The biggest single item in the breakdown of the budget by mission objective is “Provide Strategic Intelligence and Warning,” which gets 39 percent of intelligence community’s $52 billion. That means they are putting a lot of effort into the predictions that go into the president’s morning security briefings.

“Combat Violent Extremism” is the second-biggest function, with 33 percent of the budget. “Counter Weapons Proliferation” is third, with 13 percent.

Will Israel be insulted? The budget summary included discussion of the intelligence community’s priorities, successes, and failures, as well as numbers. For instance, it noted that the US takes an “interest” in countries that are allies, as well as countries that aren’t. Among the nations listed as counterintelligence “priority targets” are China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, and … Israel.

Pakistan, a nominal ally, is also listed as an “intractable target.” That’s not too surprising, is it, given that’s where Osama bin Laden was hiding in plain sight.

Why so many Spanish-speaking spies? Intelligence agencies pay bonuses to employees who maintain proficiency in foreign languages. The No. 1 bonus language is Spanish, with 2,725 bonuses dispersed. That’s more than twice as many as were paid out to the second-ranking language, Arabic. Arabic speakers got 1,191 bonuses. Chinese speakers got 903, and Russian speakers got 736.

Did Manning make Snowden possible? Near the end, the Post story notes that the intelligence community had budgeted for a “major counterintelligence initiative” in 2012 that would have tried to guard against insider threats by reinvestigating the activities of thousands of “high-risk, high-gain applicants and contractors.”

Mr. Snowden himself might well have fallen into that category. But the initiative never got carried out, the Post notes, because those resources were diverted to an all-hands-on-deck response to the leak of thousands of documents by WikiLeaks. Those documents were provided by Bradley Manning (who has recently asked to be known as a transgender woman named Chelsea). 

“The government panicked so strongly about the threat caused by leaking documents classified at a lower level than this [budget] document that it diverted resources from the very program that possibly would have exposed Edward Snowden before he could have leaked,” notes national security journalist Joshua Foust on his blog.