The intelligence community still spends more money fighting WMDs than on cybersecurity

August 29, 2013

(Larry Downing / Reuters)

In an exclusive report for The Washington Post, Barton Gellman, Greg Miller and Julie Tate dig into the intelligence community's $52 billion "black budget," or the U.S. government's secret pocketbook funding the CIA, NSA and other national security services.

Among the revelations is this chart showing the intelligence community's spending priorities.

(U.S. Government)
(U.S. Government)

You'll see that out of the entire budget, 8 percent is devoted to a category called "cybersecurity." Meanwhile, 13 percent — or 6.76 billion — is spent on counterproliferation.

Making sure WMDs are secured and well-maintained is an important priority. A cyber Pearl Harbor would likely be less psychologically hurtful than a dirty bomb going off in a major U.S. city. Yet since 9/11 we've also learned a lot about the level of danger posed by loose WMDs. Chemical and biological weapons are hard for terrorists to store and use. Nuclear weapons pose a greater risk, but as the Canadian researcher Robin Frost writes, even if terrorists got their hands on loose fissile material from the former Soviet Union, the technology might be literally inoperable:

Igor Valynkin, the chief of the 12th GUMO, the Main Department of the Russian Ministry of Defence tasked with handling all nuclear weapons, [said] that the devices. would have had very short maintenance schedules, possibly as little as six months. If certain crucial components, such as tritium boosters, were not replaced at regular intervals the bombs would go ‘‘stale’’ and their nuclear yield could drop to close to zero. Since the window of greatest opportunity for theft occurred in the early 1990s, if any weapons were diverted at this point they would by now have missed 20 or more services and would be at or near the end of their useful lives.

The point isn't to turn this into an academic debate over which is worse, nuclear terrorism or a cyberattack. (And in fact, perhaps it's notable that the budget chart breaks cybersecurity out as a separate item.) Yet it's interesting to see how the intelligence community has spread its resources 10 years after the invasion of Iraq.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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