What does America do with its $70 billion intelligence budget?

Professor at MIT

Americans have gotten so used to being surveilled by the intelligence community that they barely register it as an invasion of privacy, says MIT professor Barry Posen. He goes further to say that the kind of data collection used by the government could very easily be used in nefarious ways (should someone nefarious get their hands on it). Another big issue he suggests is the price tag that this surveillance costs American taxpayers. At $70,000,000,000... that so-called "security" might be priced way too high. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the Foundation is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.

  • Transcript


Brian Posen: It is an unclassified number—and has been for several years—what the United States spends on intelligence every year. It’s an unclassified number. They don’t really break out what they’re spending it on, they break it out only in terms of two categories: general intelligence and military intelligence. And the totals for many years now have been around $70 billion. Seven-zero billion dollars. $70 billion. About 20 billion for military, which helps you fight, about 50 billion, “just because”, to surveil the world.

Now I have to say, I’m skeptical that we need to spend $70 billion on intelligence. I’m skeptical about what some of this intelligence is buying and doing. I’m skeptical.

Intelligence in general is what you need for defense or offense; you need it for restraint, you need it for hegemony. Intelligence you need to run a great power strategy. But I’d like to unpack what it is that we’re doing a little bit better, and look at some of these activities and ask, “Is this really necessary?”

Because my impression is we pretty much spy on everything given the chance: friends, enemies, whomever. During the peak of our 9/11 anger and hurt we spied on ourselves. And we spied on ourselves without really sorting out the legal ramifications of it. We collected vast amounts of metadata, stored it. This is spying on Americans! We’re doing a little bit less of it now, but it’s not very hard for an American who has friends abroad to get caught up in surveillance. There’s just a lot of collection, a lot of collection.

And a lot of this information is stored so that if something happens, the IC, using fancy algorithms, can backtrack communications among individuals to figure out who was implicated and who knew who. If you have the big library and you have the guilty party, you can then reverse engineer to try to figure out who else was implicated. It doesn’t prevent the terrorist attack, but it does allow you to prosecute the group.

But all the rest of us end up compromising our privacy for this purpose, and this is another thing where we should have a conversation. And it’s not an easy and straightforward conversation, because some people would privilege safety and say, “Fine, they can have that metadata on me, the traffic, the numbers I called. As long as they’re not collecting the text of my phone calls they can collect the origins of my phone calls and emails, keep them in a library, anonymized until they need to de-anonymize them.”

Some people say, fine, if that’s what we need to be able to backtrack a terrorist event and break up a network, they’re fine with that. I’m a little uncomfortable with it, I have to say. But I don’t think it’s an open and shut, straightforward matter, I think these things about the magnitude of the American intelligence effort worldwide, what that effort is focusing on, how much information it ends up collecting at home—this is something that really needs to be discussed, because I think it has something to do with American liberties.

And this is not particularly what I spend my days doing, but I do feel uneasy about it, and I do tend to believe that the more active we are in international politics, the more this machine grinds on, the more we collect abroad, the more we’re going to collect at home, and the bigger the kind of amorphous mass of information waiting to be misused by someone is, and that’s the thing that kind of concerns me.