The VICE Channels

    One-Fifth of the US's $52 Billion "Black Budget" Is Dedicated to Code Breaking

    Written by

    Grace Wyler


    Image: NSA, public domain

    Top-secret details about the government's $52.6 billion "black budget" for intelligence were revealed yesterday in the latest bombshell leak from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The budget maps out the surprising spending priorities and intelligence lapses of the US spy network and even hints at a "groundbreaking" code-cracking initiative to break encrypted Internet traffic. 

    The 174-page budget request document, obtained by the Washington Post, is an unprecedented look at the objectives, failures, and technologies of the sprawling U.S. intelligence labyrinth that has evolved since September 11, 2001. Although the Post only published 43 pages of the document—consisting mostly of summary charts, tables, and a five-page introductory statement from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper—their report reveals some fascinating information about the nation's secret spying programs. 

    Among the surprises revealed in the Post report is that CIA spending has far surpassed other spy agencies, and requested $14.7 billion in funding for 2013. That figure is nearly 50 percent more than the $10.8 billion requested by the National Security Agency, which turns the tables on long-held assumptions among outside analysts that the NSA was the queen bee of the intelligence community. The report also reveals "blind spots" in intelligence gathering, confirming that US agencies know next nothing about North Korea, are not sure what China's next-generation fighter jets are capable of, and still have virtually no idea how to identify homegrown "lone-wolf" terrorists like the Boston bombers or Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan. 

    But the most interesting detail from the Post report concerns what the intelligence community is doing "right": Crypto-cracking. In his introduction, Clapper writes that even as spending on other intelligence programs has been pared back, the US has been pouring money into SIGINT, or signals intercepts. 

    "Investing in clandestine SIGINT capabilities to collect against high priority targets including foreign leadership targets," Clapper writes. "Also, we are investing in groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities to defeat adversarial cryptography and exploit Internet traffic." 

    A breakdown of the U.S. government's cryptology spending, courtesy of the Washington Post. 

    As the Post notes, the resources devoted to SIGINT are mind-boggling. About $10.5 billion, or 21 percent, of the entire intelligence budget is devoted to the Consolidated Cryptologic Program, which is staffed by 35,000 employees from both the NSA and the armed services' code-breaking teams. Even the CIA invests $1.7 billion, or 12 percent of its budget, to technical collection efforts through its CLANSIG program, the agency's "more targeted version" of the NSA's mass surveillance programs. 

    Beyond these numbers, the report doesn't offer many details about the intelligence community's cryptanalytic capabilities. But while Snowden's previous leaks revealed the extent of the US government's data collection, the latest information is the first to hint at just how focused the intelligence community is on breaking down the encrypted portions of that data—and to circle around the question of whether its still possible to have a private conversation on the Internet.