Congress secretly boosted U.S. spy agency funding last year, pushing the government's intelligence "black budget" to its highest publicly known level, and raising questions about the reason for the surge.

Funding for the CIA, National Security Agency, and 14 other civilian intelligence agencies soared nearly 9 percent to $59.4 billion in fiscal 2018, and military intelligence funding grew more than 20 percent to $22.1 billion.

Overall intelligence spending increased more than 10 percent to $81.5 billion, according to figures released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Defense Department on Tuesday, a month after the fiscal year ended.

Individual agency budgets aren't disclosed in the new figures. In a statement, the ODNI said "such disclosures could harm national security," which transparency advocates dispute.

"It is a significant jump. It is a bigger incremental increase than we've seen for quite a few years," said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

"What exactly that signifies, it's hard to say. Are there new program leads? Are there new acquisitions? ... It could be new operations or collection programs," he said. "We don't know, and we're not supposed to know."

The first full fiscal year of President Trump’s administration coincided with significant attention on Russia's role in the 2016 election, but also aggressive Trump push-back on the use of intelligence collected on his campaign advisers.

Congress typically budgets less than the executive branch requests for spy agencies. But last year, lawmakers appropriated more than was sought.

Civilian spy budgets
Washington Examiner

Intelligence budget requests are debated behind closed doors by a select group of lawmakers on relevant Senate and House committees and are passed as a classified legislative "annex" not broadcast to the public or lawmakers who don’t put effort into learning the amounts.

Under then-President Barack Obama in 2014, 62 lawmakers asked the administration to voluntarily disclose individual agency requests in a push backed by legislation, but momentum dissipated before Trump took office.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., a leader of the bipartisan transparency push, said secrecy over budget basics has "led to dubious policies, wasted money, and questionable effectiveness."

"The biggest threat to the success of any federal program is a combination of unlimited money and non-existent oversight," Welch said in a statement to the Washington Examiner. "That's the situation Congress has allowed to develop in the critical work of intelligence gathering. The top-line intelligence budgets for America's 16 intelligence agencies are unknown to the American taxpayer and largely unknown to the members of Congress who represent them."

The most recent individual spy-agency figures were revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who provided the Washington Post with records on the fiscal 2013 budget that showed $14.7 billion in CIA funding and $10.8 billion for the NSA that year.

Information on specific agency programs largely comes through leaks to the media, such as reporting on covert CIA operations in Syria under Obama -- once budgeted a reported $1 billion a year -- or the NSA's failed post-9/11 Trailblazer electronic surveillance program, which cost a reported $3.8 billion.

Aftergood, an advocate of greater transparency, said "there is a shortage of leadership in this area within government and lots of questions are going unanswered."

Washington Examiner