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Editorial: Billions spent on spying come into focus

A file photo of a man crossing the

A file photo of a man crossing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo in the lobby of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on Aug. 14, 2008. Photo Credit: Getty Images

For decades, how much the nation spent on spying was a deep, dark secret. The conventional wisdom was that making the "black budget" public would compromise national security. It was always an unconvincing assertion and Edward Snowden has now put it to the test.

The former intelligence contractor leaked the intelligence community's top-secret $52.6-billion budget request for the current fiscal year, and a part was published by The Washington Post. Since 2007 the overall dollar amount of intelligence spending has been public, but details remained off limits. So for the first time in history the public is now privy to the dollars sought for each of the 16 intelligence agencies, and for specific purposes such as covert operations. The refreshing daylight revealed that these were secrets that didn't need to be kept.

The Post withheld sensitive descriptions and details of programs. But any nation or organization in the crosshairs of U.S. intelligence has to know there's no shortage of resources. It's not likely they gained any advantage by knowing that the CIA sought $14.7 billion, the National Security Agency $10.8 billion and the National Reconnaissance Office $10.3 billion. Or by finding out that the CIA spends $2.5 billion a year on covert operations, that the intelligence budget included about $4.3 billion for cyberoperations, and that the 16 agencies employ 107,000 people, including about 21,800 contractors like Snowden.

Fueled by a flood of money and the need to ramp up intelligence activity quickly after 9/11, the reliance on private contractors and companies has grown dramatically. In recent years, about 70 percent of the secret intelligence spending has gone to private firms, according to informed estimates. So a guy like Snowden, a computer specialist for Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., had extraordinary access to top-secret information.

That raises important questions about whether privatizing intelligence work poses a systemic threat to national security, and whether relying on for-profit companies has unnecessarily inflated the cost of spying.