The Case for Cutting Black Budget Appropriations

By Jared Kelly 

The United States can improve budget transparency and reduce interstate inventions by declassifying the Department of Defense (DOD) “black budget” in times of peace. In May 2009 at a Five Guys burger Franchise in Washington President Barack Obama had an encounter with a contractor for the National Geospatial intelligence Agency (NGA). In this encounter the President was perplexed as he did not know what the agency was or what it did despite receiving a significant portion of the federal budget (estimated $4.9 Billion USD in 2013 a figure larger than the budget of the Food and Drug Administration approximately $4.36 billion USD in 2012). The black budget is clandestine to a point where a former Commander in Chief did not know about a significant agency early in his presidency. The black budget supports both the Military Intelligence Program (MIP) and National Intelligence Program (NIP). Agencies which receive funding from the black budget lack transparency and engage in practices Mark Mazzetti and Tim Weiner of the New York Times consider unlawful both domestically and internationally.  According to the Washington Post the budget is explicitly linked to US interventionism abroad — as in 2013 $2.5 billion USD was earmarked to increase the paramilitary role of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for armed drone operations, sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program, and payments to militias in Afghanistan and Africa. The use of the budget for clandestine foreign intervention serves as a direct contradiction to role the United States should played internationally as defined by John Quincy Adams who under his tenure as Sectary of State stated “she [America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. In this article I will demonstrate why a declassification of the black budget will serve to reduce U.S. interventionism abroad.

The primary benefit to the exposure of black budget funding to the public is makes the government more accountable to the people. The United States maintains a military that is under civilian control. However, despite a civilian Commander in Chief this looks to be less and less of the case as the president has nearly unilateral authority to act as judge, jury, and executioner and engage in whatever conflicts abroad they see as appropriate. The exposure of projects financed by the black budget to the public serves numerous benefits. First programs that are perceived as executive overreach can be challenged. This was the case following the 1971 exposure of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s COINTELPRO operations. In COINTELPRO the Bureau targeted domestic political organizations it believed were subversive notably leftist and communist groups in the United States. When this information was exposed to the public there was a significant backlash and ultimately a cessation of the program. This backlash occurred when anti-communist sentiment was strong the United States was engaged in military conflict in Southeast Asia to contain the spread of communism, and nuclear war with the Soviet Union was a feasible scenario. The exposure of such information which may be disagreeable to the public often leads to recourse for action as Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”. Publically available data on where such funds are devoted can allow for an informed public to pressure elected representatives to allocate funds which would have gone to black budget projects elsewhere. With the release of such information to the public domain, citizens of the United States could act as a check against the military and against agencies with para-military capabilities such as the CIA.

The exposure of classified government projects to the public has three primary benefits. First, the United States will likely exercise more caution before embarking on the creation of weapons with severe negative externalities it does not want other states to obtain. When a war is declared the United States can engage in covert operations and maintain highly classified projects; however if a war is not declared by Congress such action prevents militarization in times of peace. Second, an expansion of U.S. hard power occurs when states realize what tools the United States has at its disposal, which may prevent instances of aggression. The U.S. exposure of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) despite being unsuccessful lead to the belief that nuclear warfare may be rendered ineffective against United States in the future. The program forced significant spending from the Soviet Union to match U.S. projects which lead Soviet Scholars – Roald Sagdeyev, Yevgeni Velikhov, and Andrei Kokoshin to contend in the Notre Dame Journal of Legislation that Soviet attempts to outmaneuver the U.S. SDI led to the end of the Cold War and precipitated the collapse of the USSR. Third, the continuation of NIP and MIP projects after public exposure will likely lead to an alteration in the behavior of non-state actors. International conflicts waged in the past 30 years apart from Operation Just Cause, Operation Desert Storm, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq have been primarily waged against non-state actors. If recipients of black box funding continue status quo practices in an era of exposure, a significant expansion in US disciplinary power will occur. Agents who conspire against the United States will know that their actions are being surveilled. Such individuals may cease operations due to fear of retaliation from the United States, and furthermore may face social sanctions from his/ her own family, community, adversaries, and government.

The public pressure to reduce militaristic engagements overseas has additional benefits for the long-term success of U.S. military action. A greater degree of pressure applied on DOD departments will force a greater amount of selectivity in determinations of geopolitical military intervention. Less U.S. forces stationed in foreign countries in times of peace prevents troop actions from leading to a fall out among local populations. US troops lack infallibility, and missteps made by members of the armed forces have increased hostilities toward Americans in areas such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Okinawa. Such actions harm the reputation of the United States internationally, making future military operations a more difficult endeavor as it becomes an uphill battle to secure the hearts and minds of the local population. Under the status quo of current conflict, the United States engages in internationally unpopular forms of warfare notably that of Special Forces operations and drone warfare. Such warfare often results in executions without due process to address concerns that do not necessarily represent imminent threats to the United States. Such attacks are often viewed as illegitimate and forward an unfavorable view of the United States, harming the soft power of the country. Under the status quo, U.S. military involvement is heavily unilateral and viewed skeptically as a neo-colonial endeavor, with the number of military bases abroad the sun never sets on the ‘American Empire. Among countries where U.S. military intervention has been common, unfavorable views toward the US are often the norm. Internationally, it is less common that foreign nationals see the United States as a benevolent country that serving as the world’s shining city on the hill. Rather more individuals have come to see the United States representative as an Orwellian force: spying on the world, carrying out extraordinary renditions, pursuing militaristic operations in countries often without status of forces agreements in place, and carrying out extrajudicial executions which are sanctioned by the “leader of the free world”.

The public availability of such information would prevent the United States from acting independently and pursuing covert operations in countries where SOFA agreements are not in place. Such action would force U.S. cooperation with states if the U.S. achieve country specific outcomes. Cooperation from such operations would be considered more legitimate in the region of conflict and from the international community at large. An improvement of legitimacy among local populaces increases the likelihood of winning their hearts and minds which aids future conflict and post-conflict state building practices in the unfortunate event they are necessary.

The declassification of the black budget would restore more sovereignty to citizens providing a needed check on government foreign intervention. Such a system fits the Madisonian ideal of our republic where the people, not the government, possess the absolute sovereignty.” Furthermore, increased accountability in this area has the potential to improve the reputation of the United States abroad as it provides transparency of the international actions of the Executive Branch. The U.S. should declassify the DOD to reduce military international engagement. Such action would provide an avenue for the American public to apply pressure against international interventionism, alter the international opinion that American actions are not in fact tyrannous, and a more selective choice for international military engagements makes it easier to secure the hearts and minds of citizens in the unfortunate case an overseas intervention is necessary in the future.

Jared studies Human Geography and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley with an emphasis on International relations. In his free time, he enjoys surfing, reading, free running, and game theory.