The aircraft boneyard at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tuscon, Arizona.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
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 percent jump ($163.6 billion and 44 percent if you adjust for inflation). It's enough to make your head swim, and we've barely started.
2. $1.36 trillion: That's the total cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by this September 30th, the end of the current fiscal year, including all money spent for those wars by the Pentagon, the State Department, the US 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 US 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. 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.
All of this brings another simple question to mind: Are we safer?
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 Afghanistan 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?
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 United States 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 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.