Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who was a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and co-chairman of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, said that access to budget figures has the potential to enable an informed public debate on intelligence spending for the first time, much as Snowden's disclosures of NSA surveillance programs brought attention to operations that had assembled data on nearly every U.S. citizen.
"Much of the work that the intelligence community does has a profound impact on the life of ordinary Americans, and they ought not to be excluded from the process," he said.
"Nobody is arguing that we should be so transparent as to create dangers for the country," he said. But, he said, "there is a mindset in the national security community — leave it to us, we can handle it, the American people have to trust us. They carry it to quite an extraordinary length so that they have resisted over a period of decades transparency. . . . The burden of persuasion as to keeping something secret should be on the intelligence community, the burden should not be on the American public."
Experts said that access to such details on U.S. spy programs is without precedent.
"It was a titanic struggle just to get the top-line budget number disclosed, and that has only been done consistently since 2007," said Steven Aftergood, an expert at the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington organization that provides analyses of national security issues. "But a real grasp of the structure and operations of the intelligence bureaucracy has been totally beyond public reach. This kind of material, even on a historical basis, has simply not been available."
The only meaningful frame of reference came in 1994, when a congressional subcommittee inadvertently published a partial breakdown of the National Intelligence Program. At the time, the CIA accounted for just $4.8 billion of a budget that totaled $43.4 billion in 2012 dollars. The NSA and the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates satellites and other sensors, commanded far larger shares of U.S. intelligence budgets until years after the end of the Cold War.