The NSA’s ‘Black Budget’ and Why We Should Be Worried About What Snowden Nabbed

They’re still trying to find something rotten inside Edward Snowden’s bottomless cup of NSA documents, and yet they’re coming up short every time. The Glenn Greenwald modus of hyping previously-known information or documents that aren’t nearly as outrageous as they’re made to appear has spread to other publications and other reporters. And as each Snowden bombshell fizzles under scrutiny, the reporters covering the beat seem to be getting more and more desperate.

While there still doesn’t appear to be anything rotten, there are definitely some dangerous items in Snowden’s thumbdrive goodie bag that have thankfully remained undisclosed. More on this presently.

The latest episode in this saga involved a single-day troika of articles from The Washington Post. Evidently, Snowden was able to get his hands on a document called the Black Budget, which sounds like something Tyrion Lannister might draw up for the Westeros treasury. In reality, it’s the entire budget for the intelligence community, which is classified top secret. The reason for the secrecy is obvious since very specific and detailed intelligence operations are listed, along with the cost of each, totaling $52.6 billion for fiscal year 2013.

The first article that appeared on Thursday, by Barton Gellman and Greg Miller, was a general overview of the budget. Broadstroke takeaways include the fact that CIA, not NSA, has the largest budget within the intelligence community. We also learned that in 2012, NSA planned to launch a massive investigation to weed out any possible leakers. But the program wasn’t launched because the agency redirected its resources to investigating Wikileaks. In a way, Wikileaks created an opening for Snowden to exploit. Without Wikileaks, it’s possible he might’ve been swept up. (Speaking of Snowden and Wikileaks, I urge you to check out Joshua Foust’s article about the Wikileaks/Snowden/Russia connection.)

This Black Budget article raises some questions, naturally.

1) How did Snowden, a systems administrator, get his hands on this document, which is clearly way above his clearance level? The answer might be found within an NBC News report from which we learned that Snowden might’ve engaged in identity theft: stealing the log-in credentials for higher-ups inside NSA in order to worm his way into a cache of documents that he didn’t have security clearance to access. This Black Budget article confirms months-long speculation that Snowden hacked into the system in order to get his hands on documents that would’ve otherwise existed beyond his grasp.

2) How is this budget at all related to trespasses against the Fourth Amendment and civil liberties? The upshot is basically this: the intelligence community spends money, and here’s how. I have no idea how this propels us closer to a better place. It’s radical transparency for the sake of itself. But practically and realistically speaking, some things ought to remain secret. Clearly, Gellman agrees with that assessment because he, in consultation with U.S. government officials, decided not to post sections of the document that they collectively agreed would seriously damage national security (Gellman ought to be commended for having the professional discretion to withhold those details). I shudder to think how Julian Assange might’ve handled the Black Budget. To be sure, Assange would’ve leaked the whole thing. Given Snowden’s relationship with Wikileaks, it’s not out of the question, by the way, that Assange has access to the Black Budget (say nothing of Russia’s FSB having access, too). There also remains the threat of Snowden’s “dead man switch,” which Greenwald said involves the release of seriously harmful information if anything happens to Snowden.

It’s worth noting that Gellman included the following bit of color on the final page of the article: “The resources devoted to signals stealing are staggering.” Thanks, Gellman, for telling me what to think. This is a small chunk of evidence that Greenwald’s penchant for exclamatory remarks inside hard news articles has infected the newsroom at The Washington Post. Curiously, later in the day, the line was changed to: “The resources devoted to signals intercepts are extraordinary.” Odd. I suppose I wasn’t the only one to notice that the word “stealing” was over-the-top. Nevertheless, it’s unnecessary color and doesn’t belong in a serious news piece.

The second article published on Thursday, by Craig Whitlock and Barton Gellman, elaborated upon a section of the Black Budget pertaining to SEAL Team Six’s raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Again, the refrain: what value did Snowden foresee in stealing this document and giving it to Gellman to publish? It’s interesting news, and I’m not surprised it was published, but if Snowden’s Cause is to prevent the United States and, ostensibly, the U.K. from watching his every move, I’m not sure how these details about the Bin Laden raid contribute to The Cause.

The third and final article to drop on Thursday, by Craig Timberg and Barton Gellman, was hyped on Twitter as being the second coming of PRISM. It wasn’t.

Gellman and Timberg reported that NSA has been paying the telecoms for “clandestine access to their communications networks” in order to intercept emails and phone calls made by “foreign targets.” And, as we’ve learned in previous bombshell duds, random U.S. Person communications are inadvertently swept up… and immediately anonymized via strict minimization protocols. The broad-stroke point of singling out this section of the Black Budget appears to be that it’s wrong for private companies to profit from gathering signals intelligence (SIGINT).

Gellman and Timberg described it as “a secret surveillance economy.” Again, how Greenwaldian.

“It turns surveillance into a revenue stream, and that’s not the way it’s supposed to work,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

Companies and private individuals have profited from spying for centuries. I think Rotenberg needs to spend some time googling search terms like “Pinkertons” and “Booz Allen Hamilton.” Yes, of course the government pays contractors to provide SIGINT. But now The Washington Post has re-branded something that’s otherwise commonplace with scare-words like “secret surveillance economy.”

Gellman and Timberg wrote that the program is “peering into the lives of almost anyone who uses a phone, computer or other device connected to the Internet.” I’m not sure how accidentally scooping up my metadata, then immediately minimizing and destroying it is tantamount to “peering” into my life.

Additionally, the article notes that the existence of government payments to AT&T and other telecoms were disclosed last month.

The article concludes with the following:

Some privacy advocates favor payments to companies when they comply with surveillance efforts because the costs can be a brake on overly broad requests by government officials. Invoices also can provide a paper trail to help expose the extent of spying.

So this might actually be a positive thing for privacy rights? Interesting thing to note at the very end of an article meant to shock and dismay readers.

The biggest question that hasn’t been answered is this: why should the leak of this document be considered “whistleblowing?” What wrongdoing has been exposed? What violations of the law, or the Constitution for that matter, are evident in the Black Budget? Furthermore, this story serves as confirmation that Snowden handed over everything regardless of whether the information was potentially damaging. Who else has the encryption keys for the full, unedited documents? And let’s hope The Washington Post‘s copies are heavily encrypted, especially given how The New York Times was hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army this week.

The very fact that Snowden stole NSA files that could do serious harm to the United States spikes the odds of those files being disclosed beyond Snowden’s control, including the materials that Gellman rightfully excluded. Yes, much of what’s been reported was already out there in one form or another. But if Gellman is right, we should be gravely concerned about the stuff that deliberately hasn’t been published, but which Snowden was foolish enough to hack, steal and distribute before absconding to Russia.

Sleep tight.

[Photo: TANYA LOKSHINA. Edward Snowden with Wikileaks’ Sarah Harrison (L) at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.]

Bob Cesca is the managing editor for The Daily Banter, the editor of, the host of the Bubble Genius Bob & Chez Show podcast and a Huffington Post contributor.

Bob Cesca is the host of the Bob Cesca Show podcast, a twice weekly political talk show. He’s also a contributor to Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.