“How much does the NSA cost us?” appears to be a question without a clear answer. Not having that answer makes cost/benefit analysis impossible. The usual questions asked of other government programs don’t even get asked about the NSA. The unasked questions tell us a lot. (More)

Examples of Transparency and Accountability:

Congress asks very detailed questions about any dollars spent on the poor, on Social Security, on Medicare and Medicaid. If we think back to the government shutdown, tons of details were available on a variety of programs. Take the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as an example:

It currently provides over 47 million participants in about 23 million low-income households with debit cards they can use to purchase food each month.

SNAP has one of the most rigorous payment error measurement systems of any public benefit program. Each year states pull a representative sample (totaling about 50,000 cases nationally) and thoroughly review the accuracy of their eligibility and benefit decisions.

In addition, the combined error rate — that is, the sum of overpayments and underpayments (see box, “Combined Error Rate Does Not Represent Excessive Federal Spending or Fraud, p. 9) reached an all-time low in 2011 of just 3.8 percent. In fact, the combined savings from underpayments and improper denials may actually exceed the loss resulting from overpayments of benefits.

NSA Reforms:

The current discussions about the National Security Agency mostly address privacy and the collection of metadata. President Obama’s speech on January 17 addressed the reforms he is proposing for the NSA.

In fact, even the United States proved not to be immune to the abuse of surveillance. In the 1960s, government spied on civil rights leaders and critics of the Vietnam War. And partly in response to these revelations, additional laws were established in the 1970s to ensure that our intelligence capabilities could not be misused against our citizens. In the long twilight struggle against communism, we had been reminded that the very liberties that we sought to preserve could not be sacrificed at the altar of national security.
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And finally, intelligence agencies cannot function without secrecy, which makes their work less subject to public debate. Yet there is an inevitable bias, not only within the intelligence community but among all of us who are responsible for national security, to collect more information about the world, not less. So in the absence of institutional requirements for regular debate and oversight that is public as well as private or classified, the danger of government overreach becomes more acute. And this is particularly true when surveillance technology and our reliance on digital information is evolving much faster than our laws.

Black Budgets:

Nowhere in his speech does President Obama mention the budgets for our intelligence operations or the failure rate of those same intelligence agencies. We know a lot more about SNAP than we do about intelligence agencies. I can understand why the budgets for individual operations would need to be classified to protect the missions and the people involved. I find it difficult to understand why the overall budget totals are classified. Even some members of congress didn’t know them until Snowden leaked thousands of pages of classified documents.

The National Security Agency’s activities are classified. And so is its annual budget.

That’s because the NSA, a Defense Department agency created in 1952, falls under the category of a “black” program in the federal budget, a term applied to classified efforts.

The NSA is one of at least 15 intelligence agencies, and combined the total U.S. intelligence budget in 2012 was $75 billion, said Steve Aftergood, director of the government secrecy program at the Federation of American Scientists, a nonpartisan think tank that analyzes national and international security issues.
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Unlike other parts of the federal budget, which are debated openly on Capitol Hill, classified intelligence programs and their funding are not.

“Several years ago Congress opened the black budgets to a wider congressional audience. When I first started almost no one knew and the budget was not ever discussed outside of an exceedingly small group,” said Steve Bell, who served on the Hill for 25 years, including as staff director of the Senate Budget Committee.

The Washington Post shows The Black Budget total as $52.6 Billion. The CIA gets “$14.7 billion,” the NSA gets “$10.8 billion and the National Reconnaissance Office “$10.3 billion.” The CIA budget has increased 56% since 2004 and the NSA has increased 53% since 2004. The intelligence community employs 107,035 people. I am assuming that contractors are not included in the number of employees. The Post article is chock full of information about the intelligence budget and priorities. The Post numbers are based on the documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

If you are reading carefully, you noticed that the CNN link has the total at $75 Billion and the Washington Post has $52.6 Billion. There is no way to understand this difference. If I had the time to go digging through the Snowden documents I’d probably come up with a third estimate.

The New York Times uses the numbers from the Post:

Are the intelligence agencies really worried about the security ramifications of releasing budget details? Or could it be that they’re more worried about the accountability that comes with disclosure? Once taxpayers know how much money they are giving to the C.I.A., will they get more upset at how little the agency knows about what really goes on inside Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea?

A Brief History of Calls for Transparency:

The Church Committee named after its chairman, Sen Frank Church produced a series of reports in 1975 and 1976 to reign in what was perceived as an out-of-control intelligence community in the wake of the Vietnam war and Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

In 1976, the U.S. Senate Church Committee advocated publication of the total intelligence budget and recommended that “any successor committees study the effects of publishing more detailed information on the budgets of the intelligence agencies.”
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In a 1996 hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, then-Chair Sen. Arlen Specter badgered DCI John Deutch about the need for intelligence budget secrecy.

“I think that you and the Intelligence Community and this committee have got to do a much better job in coming to grips with the hard reasons for this [budget secrecy], if they exist. And if they exist, I’m prepared to help you defend them. But I don’t see that they exist. I don’t think that they have been articulated or explained,” the late Sen. Specter said then.
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In 2004, the 9/11 Commission itself recommended disclosure of intelligence agency budgets: “Finally, to combat the secrecy and complexity we have described, the overall amounts of money being appropriated for national intelligence and to its component agencies should no longer be kept secret.”

Summary:

Most of the discussion and debate around the NSA centers around two themes. One theme is privacy, the collection of metadata and who will store the metadata. I have not addressed this issue at all. The second theme is Edward Snowden and whether he is a traitor or a hero. I have not addressed that at all either.

I believe that transparency breeds accountability. I also believe that Congress and the citizenry have a right to know how much we are spending on intelligence and what we are getting for it. If the entire intelligence budget is a ‘black budget’ we will be unable to ask questions. Now would be the time to require that at least the overall budgets be made public. To keep them black will only encourage another Snowden at some future date.