Skip to main content

Intelligence budget should not be secret

By Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
John Walker ran a father and son spy ring, passing classified material to the Soviet Union from 1967 to 1985. Walker was a Navy communication specialist with financial difficulties when he walked into the Soviet Embassy and sold a piece of cyphering equipment. Navy and Defense officials said that Walker enabled the Soviet Union to unscramble military communications and pinpoint the location of U.S. submarines at all times. As part of his plea deal, prosecutors promised leniency for Walker's son Michael Walker, a former Navy seaman. Click through the gallery to see other high-profile leak scandals the United States has seen over the years. John Walker ran a father and son spy ring, passing classified material to the Soviet Union from 1967 to 1985. Walker was a Navy communication specialist with financial difficulties when he walked into the Soviet Embassy and sold a piece of cyphering equipment. Navy and Defense officials said that Walker enabled the Soviet Union to unscramble military communications and pinpoint the location of U.S. submarines at all times. As part of his plea deal, prosecutors promised leniency for Walker's son Michael Walker, a former Navy seaman. Click through the gallery to see other high-profile leak scandals the United States has seen over the years.
HIDE CAPTION
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: 16 federal agencies responsible for U.S. intelligence, with unchecked budgets
  • They say intelligence spending is top secret; oversight is done behind closed doors
  • Writers: "Black budget" will be buried, unavailable to public scrutiny unless Congress acts
  • Intelligence Budget Transparency Act will require budget to be disclosed, they say

Editor's note: U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R.-Wyoming, is serving her third term as Wyoming's sole representative in the House. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, is serving his fourth term as Vermont's sole representative.

(CNN) -- Imagine for a moment that instead of just the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 16 federal agencies were responsible for administering the federal food stamp program. Also imagine that each of these agencies had unchecked taxpayer resources and no public oversight. Neither the taxpayer nor anyone in Congress would stand for it. But that is exactly what is happening with America's intelligence programs.

In August of last year, Edward Snowden leaked documents that gave taxpayers and most legislators a first-ever glimpse at the amount of money spent on intelligence activities by 16 federal agencies. What did the documents reveal? Among other things, we learned that, over the past 10 years, the budget for the Central Intelligence Agency ballooned by 56% and the National Security Agency budget jumped by 54%.

Peter Welch
Peter Welch
Cynthia Lummis
Cynthia Lummis

And what do we know about where that taxpayer money went? Virtually nothing, because intelligence spending is considered top secret and legislative oversight is done behind closed doors. The reality is that most lawmakers -- and, therefore, the taxpayers we represent -- don't gain access to intelligence spending information. Those who do are sworn to secrecy.

With the exception of the budget snapshot revealed by Edward Snowden, this top-line agency information remains buried in the so-called "black budget" that makes up the National Intelligence Program. And unless Congress acts, it will remain buried and unavailable to public scrutiny.

The biggest threat to successfully implementing any federal program is the combination of unchecked funding and limited oversight, which is precisely the situation with America's intelligence programs. Revelations about the NSA's intelligence-gathering programs have Americans on edge and justifiably demanding transparency and oversight. But this oversight is not possible without knowing how much money each of these agencies is spending.

Intelligence-gathering plays a vital role in the safety and freedom of all Americans. The importance of intelligence activities should not, however, exclude them from budget accountability. To the contrary, the critical nature of these programs is exactly why intelligence agencies should meet basic budget accountability requirements.

Obama: Intelligence has helped us
Intel director admits spying on leaders

We are joined by 60 of our colleagues -- from liberal to conservative -- in sponsoring legislation that will take a simple first step toward long-overdue oversight of intelligence programs. Our bill, the Intelligence Budget Transparency Act, will require the President to disclose in his annual budget the top-line intelligence budgets of 16 intelligence agencies.

To be clear, we do not propose exposing intelligence program details, or sources and methods. Doing so could compromise operations and the safety of intelligence personnel. We are simply insisting that the total amount spent on intelligence at each agency be made public.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, informally known as the 9/11 Commission, recommended the disclosure of this basic information. Lee Hamilton, the commission's widely respected vice chairman and former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has endorsed our legislation.

"America needs competent and effective intelligence-gathering agencies," Hamilton said. "And Congress must exercise prudent and diligent oversight to assure the American taxpayer is getting what it's paying for. The first step toward accountability and oversight is public disclosure of the top-line budget numbers of all our intelligence-gathering agencies."

Simply put, the taxpayer has a right to know the price tag for intelligence spending by agency. Disclosing this basic information will help Congress and the public compare spending trends over time and measure intelligence needs against other budget priorities.

The debate over secrecy in the name of national security is more relevant now than ever before. Shining a light on the intelligence budget is an important and practical step in ensuring an accountable and effective intelligence program and restoring the confidence of the American people in their government's intelligence activities.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT