WASHINGTON — As Congress is poised to pass an omnibus spending bill this week, several lawmakers are pushing the White House to release a different budget: the top line numbers to the secret intelligence budget.
Decisions made about how many federal dollars will go to intelligence activities are made in deep secrecy, and as the debate over the National Security Agency's domestic spying program continues, lawmakers in both parties want the administration to be more transparent about how much is being spent. Sixteen agencies currently receive secret intelligence funds, known as the "black budget."
Democratic Reps. Peter Welch, Luis Gutierrez, and David Price are joined by Republicans Jim Sensenbrenner (the original author of the PATRIOT act), Jim Jordan, and Cynthia Lummis in calling on the administration to release the numbers in a letter to the President. They are also introducing legislation to require the President to do so.
"As you develop your fiscal year 2015 budget, we strongly urge you to take a simple step toward much needed transparency by including the total amount requested for each of the sixteen intelligence agencies," Welch and the lawmakers write. "We believe the top line number for each agency should be made public, with no risk to national security, for comparative purposes across all federal government agencies. Congress and the American people will be better served by knowing this basic information."
The letter was first reported by Politico. President Obama is set to address NSA reforms on Friday.
""The top-line intelligence budgets for America's 16 intelligence agencies are unknown to the American taxpayer and largely unknown to the Members of Congress who represent them," Welch said in a statement. "It's led to dubious policies, wasted money and questionable effectiveness. Requiring the public disclosure of top-line intelligence spending is an essential first step in assuring that our taxpayers and our national security interests are well served."
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, a former chairman of the intelligence committee and the vice-chairman of the 9/11 commission, is supporting the bill. Reining in the NSA's spying programs has become a top priority for liberal and conservative lawmakers alike.
Hamilton said the bill is an important first step in getting the intelligence communities to respond to congressional oversight.
"The intelligence community will respond to congressional oversight when the budget is involved and not until the budget is involved," he told BuzzFeed. "You have to bring pressure to beat on the intelligence community to respond to oversight and the way to do that is through the budget."
Hamilton argued the expansion of the domestic surveillance programs took place in large part because there was no public debate or disclosure of what exactly they wanted to do.
"I think they have not had [oversight] in the past, for the past decade or more. There's a very considerable expansion government power, as great an expansion as I've seen in my lifetime with respect to privacy and rights. That took place all in secret," he said.
UPDATE: This post has been updated to include a statement from Rep. Peter Welch.