The CIA isn’t reporting any data to federal transparency site

August 6, 2014

The lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Among the revelations in a new Government Accountability Office report on the completeness, or lack thereof, of the federal transparency site USASpending.gov is that the CIA not only doesn't disclose contracting data on its classified programs, which isn't so surprising. But the agency also doesn't share data with the site on its unclassified programs, despite the fact that, as GAO notes, "[the White House Office of Management and Budget] does not have guidance that clearly exempts agencies from doing that."

The CIA argues that because its unclassified programs are in support of its classified work, reporting on the former inexorably leads to insights about the latter. As the GAO reports in its assessment of the transparency site's 2012 data, a CIA "official added that the agency also does not report unclassified contract information because of the risk that an individual could use it, along with other publicly available information to develop a picture of Central Intelligence Agency requirements."

That's exactly right, says CIA spokesperson Preston Golson. The policy wasn't merely in effect in 2012, the time scale of the report, he confirms -- it's in effect now, too. Of course, the CIA's budget, as well as the budget of the intelligence community writ large, has been the subject of debate, with the Obama administration opting to release a top-line number on total intelligence spending, only. What we know about the CIA budget comes in the form of leaked documents first reported by The Washington Post. In 2013, the CIA's budget, we're now aware as a result, was a requested $14.7 billion.

And as much as the CIA might not like that sum total being out there, it is perhaps even more loathe to allow that data to be loose in the world in granular form. That multibillion-dollar figure is one thing, but it's another thing entirely to have that budget broken down into specific programs that might, taken together, form an exercise in pointillism that reveals whom the CIA might be working with and what its agents might be up to all over the world. In the data world, they call that the 'mosaic effect.' Indeed, the Obama White House warned about it as it pushed ahead with its open government initiative: "The mosaic effect occurs when the information in an individual dataset, in isolation, may not pose a risk of identifying an individual...but when combined with other available information, could pose such risk."

That is, in fact, how much intelligence gathering works, which is one reason why, perhaps, the CIA is able to argue from a place of experience against having their programmatic data posted for all the world to see on USASpending.gov so as to, as Golson puts it, "protect intelligence sources and methods." But it also means that what was meant to be a window onto the world of federal spending is a partially blocked one at best.

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.
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