Christopher Hellman
Tom Dispatch / Op-Ed
Published: Wednesday 17 August 2011
“It’s possible that all that funding, especially the moneys that have gone into our various wars and conflicts in other places may actually have made us less safe.”

How Safe Are You?

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The killing of Osama Bin Laden did not put cuts in na­tional se­cu­rity spend­ing on the table, but the debt-ceil­ing de­bate fi­nally did.  And mild as those pro­jected cuts might have been, last week newly minted Sec­re­tary of De­fense Leon Panetta was al­ready dig­ging in his heels and de­cry­ing the mod­est po­ten­tial cost-cut­ting plans as a "dooms­day mech­a­nism” for the mil­i­tary. Pen­ta­gon al­lies on Capi­tol Hill were sim­i­larly rais­ing the alarm as they moved for­ward with this year’s even larger mil­i­tary bud­get.
None of this should sur­prise you.  As with all ad­dic­tions, once you’re hooked on mas­sive mil­i­tary spend­ing, it’s hard to think re­al­is­ti­cally or ask the ob­vi­ous ques­tions.  So, at a mo­ment when dis­cus­sion about cut­ting mil­i­tary spend­ing is ac­tu­ally on the rise for the first time in years, let me offer some lit­tle known ba­sics about the spend­ing spree this coun­try has been on since Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, and raise just a few sim­ple ques­tions about what all that money has ac­tu­ally bought Amer­i­cans.
Con­sider this my con­tri­bu­tion to a fu­ture 12-step pro­gram for na­tional se­cu­rity so­bri­ety.
Let’s start with the three basic post-9/11 num­bers that Wash­ing­ton's ad­dicts need to know:
1. $5.9 tril­lion: That’s the sum of tax­payer dol­lars that’s gone into the Pen­ta­gon’s an­nual “base bud­get,” from 2000 to today.  Note that the base bud­get in­cludes nu­clear weapons ac­tiv­i­ties, even though they are over­seen by the De­part­ment of En­ergy, but -- and this is cru­cial -- not the cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Nonethe­less, even with­out those war costs, the Pen­ta­gon bud­get man­aged to grow from $302.9 bil­lion in 2000, to $545.1 bil­lion in 2011. That’s a dol­lar in­crease of $242.2 bil­lion or an 80% jump ($163.6 bil­lion and 44% if you ad­just for in­fla­tion).  It’s enough to make your head swim, and we’re barely started.
2.  $1.36 tril­lion: That’s the total cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars by this Sep­tem­ber 30th, the end of the cur­rent fis­cal year, in­clud­ing all mon­eys spent for those wars by the Pen­ta­gon, the State De­part­ment, the U.S. Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment, and other fed­eral agen­cies. Of this, $869 bil­lion will have been for Iraq, $487.6 bil­lion for Afghanistan.
Add up our first two key na­tional se­cu­rity spend­ing num­bers and you’re al­ready at $7.2 tril­lion since the Sep­tem­ber 11th at­tacks. And even that stag­ger­ing fig­ure doesn’t catch the full ex­tent of Wash­ing­ton spend­ing in these years. So on­ward to our third num­ber:
3. $636 bil­lion: Most peo­ple usu­ally ig­nore this part of the na­tional se­cu­rity bud­get and we sel­dom see any fig­ures for it, but it’s the amount, ad­justed for in­fla­tion, that the U.S. gov­ern­ment has spent so far on “home­land se­cu­rity.”  This isn’t an easy fig­ure to ar­rive at be­cause home­land-se­cu­rity fund­ing flows through lit­er­ally dozens of fed­eral agen­cies and not just the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity (DHS). A mere $16 bil­lion was re­quested for home­land se­cu­rity in 2001.  For 2012, the fig­ure is $71.6 bil­lion, only $37 bil­lion of which will go through DHS. A sub­stan­tial part, $18.1 bil­lion, will be fun­neled through -- don’t be sur­prised -- the De­part­ment of De­fense, while other agen­cies like the De­part­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices ($4.6 bil­lion) and the De­part­ment of Jus­tice ($4.1 bil­lion) pick up the slack.
Add those three fig­ures to­gether and you’re at the edge of $8 tril­lion in na­tional se­cu­rity spend­ing for the last decade-plus and per­haps won­der­ing where the near­est group for com­pul­sive-spend­ing ad­dic­tion meets.
Now, for a few of those ques­tions I men­tioned, just to bring re­al­ity fur­ther into focus:
How does that nearly $8 tril­lion com­pare with past spend­ing?
In the decade be­fore the 9/11 at­tacks, the Pen­ta­gon base bud­get added up to an im­pres­sive $4.2 tril­lion, only one-third less than for the past decade. But add in the cost of the Afghan and Iraq wars and total Pen­ta­gon spend­ing post-9/11 is ac­tu­ally two-thirds greater than in the pre­vi­ous decade.  That’s quite a jump.  As for home­land-se­cu­rity fund­ing, spend­ing fig­ures for the years prior to 2000 are hard to iden­tify be­cause the cat­e­gory didn’t exist (nor did any­one who mat­tered in Wash­ing­ton even think to use that word “home­land”). But there can be no ques­tion that what­ever it was, it would pale next to pre­sent spend­ing.
Is that nearly $8 tril­lion the real total for these years, or could it be even higher?
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The war-cost cal­cu­la­tions I’ve used above, which come from my own or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Na­tional Pri­or­i­ties Pro­ject, only take into ac­count funds that have been re­quested by the Pres­i­dent and ap­pro­pri­ated by Con­gress. This, how­ever, is just one way of con­sid­er­ing the prob­lem of war and na­tional se­cu­rity spend­ing. A re­cent study pub­lished by the Wat­son In­sti­tute of Brown Uni­ver­sity took a much broader ap­proach. In the sum­mary of their work, the Wat­son In­sti­tute an­a­lysts wrote, "There are at least three ways to think about the eco­nomic costs of these wars: what has been spent al­ready, what could or must be spent in the fu­ture, and the com­par­a­tive eco­nomic ef­fects of spend­ing money on war in­stead of some­thing else."
By in­clud­ing fund­ing for such things as vet­er­ans ben­e­fits, fu­ture costs for treat­ing the war-wounded, and in­ter­est pay­ments on war-re­lated bor­row­ing, they came up with $3.2 tril­lion to $4 tril­lion in war costs, which would put those over­all na­tional se­cu­rity fig­ures since 2001 at around $11 tril­lion.
I took a sim­i­lar ap­proach in an ear­lier TomDis­patch piece in which I cal­cu­lated the true costs of na­tional se­cu­rity at $1.2 tril­lion an­nu­ally.
All of this brings an­other sim­ple, but sel­dom-asked ques­tion to mind:
Are we safer?
Re­gard­less of what fig­ures you choose to use, one thing is cer­tain: we're talk­ing about tril­lions and tril­lions of dol­lars. And given the de­bate rag­ing in Wash­ing­ton this sum­mer about how to rein in tril­lion-dol­lar deficits and a spi­ral­ing debt, it’s sur­pris­ing that no one thinks to ask just how much safety bang for its buck the U.S. is get­ting from those tril­lions.
Of course, it’s not an easy ques­tion to an­swer, but there are some trou­bling facts out there that should give one pause.  Let’s start with gov­ern­ment ac­count­ing, which, like mil­i­tary music, is some­thing of an oxy­moron.  De­spite decades of com­plaints from Capi­tol Hill and var­i­ous con­gres­sional at­tempts to force changes via leg­is­la­tion, the De­part­ment of De­fense still can­not pass an audit. Be­lieve it or not, it never has.
Mem­bers of Con­gress have be­come so ex­as­per­ated that sev­eral have tried (al­beit un­suc­cess­fully) to cap or cut mil­i­tary spend­ing until the Pen­ta­gon is ca­pa­ble of pass­ing an an­nual audit as re­quired by the Chief Fi­nan­cial Of­fi­cers Act of 1990. So even as they fight to pre­serve record lev­els of mil­i­tary spend­ing, Pen­ta­gon of­fi­cials re­ally have no way of telling Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers how their money is being spent, or what kind of se­cu­rity it ac­tu­ally buys.
And this par­tic­u­lar dis­ease seems to be catch­ing.  The De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity has been part of the “high risk” se­ries of the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice (GAO) since 2003. In case being “high risk” in GAO terms isn’t part of your din­ner-table chitchat, here’s the de­f­i­n­i­tion: "agen­cies and pro­gram areas that are high risk due to their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties to fraud, waste, abuse, and mis­man­age­ment, or are most in need of broad re­form."
Put in lay­man’s terms: no or­ga­ni­za­tion cru­cial to na­tional se­cu­rity spend­ing re­ally has much of an idea of how well or badly it is spend­ing vast sums of tax­payer money -- and worse yet, Con­gress knows even less.
Which leads us to a broader issue and an­other ques­tion:
Are we spend­ing money on the right types of se­cu­rity?
This June, the In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Stud­ies re­leased the lat­est ver­sion of what it calls “a Uni­fied Se­cu­rity Bud­get for the United States” that could make the coun­try safer for far less than the cur­rent mil­i­tary bud­get. Known more fa­mil­iarly as the USB, it has been pro­duced an­nu­ally since 2004 by the web­site For­eign Pol­icy in Focus and draws on a task force of ex­perts.
As in pre­vi­ous years, the re­port found -- again in lay­man’s terms -- that the U.S. in­vests its se­cu­rity dol­lars mainly in mak­ing war, slight­ing both real home­land se­cu­rity and any­thing that might pass for pre­ven­tive diplo­macy. In the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion's pro­posed 2012 bud­get, for ex­am­ple, 85% of se­cu­rity spend­ing goes to the mil­i­tary (and if you in­cluded the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that per­cent­age would only rise); just 7% goes to real home­land se­cu­rity and a mod­est 8% to what might, even gen­er­ously speak­ing, be termed non-mil­i­tary in­ter­na­tional en­gage­ment.
Sig­nif­i­cant parts of the for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment have come to ac­cept this cri­tique -- at least they some­times sound like they do. As Robert Gates put the mat­ter while still Sec­re­tary of De­fense, “Fund­ing for non-mil­i­tary for­eign af­fairs pro­grams... re­mains dis­pro­por­tion­ately small rel­a­tive to what we spend on the mil­i­tary... [T]here is a need for a dra­matic in­crease in spend­ing on the civil­ian in­stru­ments of na­tional se­cu­rity.” But if they talk the talk, when an­nual bud­get­ing time comes around, few of them yet walk the walk.
So let’s ask an­other basic ques­tion:
Has your money, fun­neled into the vast and shad­owy world of mil­i­tary and na­tional se­cu­rity spend­ing, made you safer?
Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and coun­tert­er­ror­ism ex­perts fre­quently claim that the pub­lic is un­aware of their many “vic­to­ries” in the "war on ter­ror." These, they in­sist, re­main hid­den for rea­sons that in­volve pro­tect­ing in­tel­li­gence sources and law en­force­ment tech­niques. They also main­tain that the United States and its al­lies have dis­rupted any num­ber of ter­ror plots since 9/11 and that this jus­ti­fies the pre­sent stag­ger­ing lev­els of na­tional se­cu­rity spend­ing.
Un­doubt­edly ex­am­ples of foiled ter­ror­ist acts, un­pub­li­cized for rea­sons of se­cu­rity, do exist (al­though the urge to boast shouldn’t be un­der­es­ti­mated, as in the case of the covert op­er­a­tion to kill Osama bin Laden).  Think of this as the "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you" ap­proach to sup­posed na­tional se­cu­rity suc­cesses.  It’s reg­u­larly used to jus­tify higher spend­ing re­quests for home­land se­cu­rity. There are, how­ever, two ob­vi­ous and im­me­di­ate prob­lems with tak­ing it se­ri­ously.
First, lack­ing any trans­parency, there’s next to no way to as­sess its mer­its. How se­ri­ous were these threats? A hap­less un­der­wear bomber or a weapon of mass de­struc­tion that didn’t make it to an Amer­i­can city?  Who knows?  The only thing that’s clear is that this is a loop­hole through which you can drive your basic mine-re­sis­tant, am­bush-pro­tected ar­mored ve­hi­cle.
Sec­ond, how ex­actly were these at­tempts foiled? Were they thwarted by pro­grams funded as part of the $7.2 tril­lion in mil­i­tary spend­ing, or even the $636 bil­lion in home­land se­cu­rity spend­ing?
An April 2010 Her­itage Foun­da­tion re­port, “30 Ter­ror­ist Plots Foiled: How the Sys­tem Worked,” looked at known in­ci­dents where ter­ror­ist at­tacks were ac­tu­ally thwarted and so pro­vides some guid­ance.  The Her­itage ex­perts wrote, "Since Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, at least 30 planned ter­ror­ist at­tacks have been foiled, all but two of them pre­vented by law en­force­ment. The two no­table ex­cep­tions are the pas­sen­gers and flight at­ten­dants who sub­dued the ‘shoe bomber’ in 2001 and the ‘un­der­wear bomber’ on Christ­mas Day in 2009."
In other words, in the vast ma­jor­ity of cases, the plots we know about were bro­ken up by "law en­force­ment" or civil­ians, in no way aided by the $7.2 tril­lion that was in­vested in the mil­i­tary -- or in many cases even the $636 bil­lion that went into home­land se­cu­rity. And while most of those cases in­volved fed­eral au­thor­i­ties, at least three were stopped by local law en­force­ment ac­tion.
In truth, given the cur­rent lack of as­sess­ment tools, it’s vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble for out­siders -- and prob­a­bly in­sid­ers as well -- to eval­u­ate the ef­fec­tive­ness of this coun­try’s many se­cu­rity-re­lated pro­grams. And this stymies our abil­ity to prop­erly de­ter­mine the al­lo­ca­tion of fed­eral re­sources on the basis of pro­gram ef­fi­ciency and the rel­a­tive lev­els of the threats ad­dressed.
So here’s one final ques­tion that just about no one asks:
Could we be less safe?
It’s pos­si­ble that all that fund­ing, es­pe­cially the mon­eys that have gone into our var­i­ous wars and con­flicts, our se­cret drone cam­paigns and “black sites,” our var­i­ous for­ays into Pak­istan, Libya, Yemen, So­ma­lia, and other places may ac­tu­ally have made us less safe. Cer­tainly, they have ex­ac­er­bated ex­ist­ing ten­sions and cre­ated new ones, eroded our stand­ing in some of the most volatile re­gions of the world, re­sulted in the deaths of hun­dreds of thou­sands and the mis­ery of many more, and made Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, po­ten­tial re­cruit­ing and train­ing grounds for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of in­sur­gents and ter­ror­ists.  Does any­thing re­main of the in­ter­na­tional good­will to­ward our coun­try that was the one pos­i­tive legacy of the in­fa­mous at­tacks of Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001?  Un­likely.
Now, isn’t it time for those 12 steps?
Click here for Tom En­gle­hardt's re­ponse: Chris Hell­man, The Pen­ta­gon's Spend­ing Spree