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Various news media have been bandying around the figure $25 billion to characterize the size of the U.S. intelligence budget while reporting on the tempest in a teacup concerning the reorganizing the upper hierarchy of control over that vast spy apparatus.
In fact, the amount of tax dollars being sucked up by the wholly secret intelligence system is much more than that. No one knows exactly what the figure is because the intelligence agencies have successfully argued that nobody, including Congress, should know how much they get, for fear that the mere size of the budget would provide useful information to America’s enemies.
Never mind that in 1997 and 1998, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, the intelligence budget’s size was released (it was $26.6 billion and $26.7 billion respectively), and no intelligence disasters ensued.
In fact, there is absolutely no reason for Americans not to know the precise amount of money that gets poured into intelligence, except that it would probably lead to calls for something to be done about this incredible waste of money.
Secrecy has no place in a democracy, which is why the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands have all decided to make their intelligence budgets public (they are, of course, miniscule compared to the U.S. spying budget).
In fact, according to an organization called the Intelligence Resource Program, which monitors such things, the U.S. in 2004 is spending in excess of $40 billion on intelligence. That represents a 50 percent increase over 1998, just six years earlier. It is far mor—in fact about double in constant dollars, what was being spent on intelligence by the U.S. at the height of the Cold War.
It also represents over $150 per year from every man, woman and child in America, or if you prefer, about $600 per family.
Anyone who thinks that the country is 50 percent safer for all this money, please raise your hand.
Just to put this into some kind of perspective (something that is sorely lacking where intelligence is concerned, thanks to today’s toady Congress and even toadier media), $40 billion is an amount much bigger than the budgets of nearly all the states in the U.S., and most of the countries of the world. It’s bigger than the entire gross domestic product of many of the world’s nations, and more than the U.S. government itself spends on justice ($24 billion), Interior ($9 billion), energy ($23 billion), housing and urban development ($39 billion), NASA ($16 billion) or even Homeland Security ($31 billion)! It’s about two-thirds of what the federal government spends annually on education ($65 billion).
Of course, these other categories of spending get reviewed with a fine-toothed comb each year and are subject to all kinds of criticism in Congress in terms of effectiveness, efficiency and utility. Nothing like this happens with the intelligence budget, which is reviewed in secret…if it is reviewed at all.
The real question is why does the U.S. need such a humongous intelligence budget. Advocates, of course, will say it’s to keep us safe from terrorism. But this budget has been gargantuan long before anyone in Washington was paying any attention to terrorism as an issue. Indeed, it was gargantuan even as it entirely failed to warn the country of the impending attack by Al Qaeda on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In fact, very little of that $40 billion going to intelligence spending this year is aimed at terrorism and terrorists. Much of it goes to operating spy satellites that monitor most of the nations of the globe. Much of it goes to interfering with and spying on the governments, both enemy and friend, around the world (as when the U.S. spied on and tapped the phones of the diplomatic offices of the other members of the UN Security Council during the 2003 vote threatening Iraq with “serious consequences”.
And a decent part of it is used to spy on and monitor us.
No other nation in the world has an intelligence budget or apparatus remotely approaching what we have in the U.S., but then that is the price of empire. If you want to try to make every place in the world do your bidding, you need this kind of spy system to make it happen, and to try to find out if someone plans to start kicking back.
Arguably, no democratic society should have such a huge spy apparatus at its very core.
Arguably, in fact, the very existence of such a massive secret government agency or collection of agencies, undermines the very foundation of democracy, and is more characteristic of a police state.
A first step back to sanity and democratic rule would be for the media to at least try and get the numbers right, and then to start asking what all those tens of billions of dollars are being spent for.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” to be published this fall by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org