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 United States 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 percent 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 percent goes to real homeland security and a modest 8 percent to what might, even generously speaking, be termed nonmilitary 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.
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.
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 Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, 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?
Chris Hellman, a TomDispatch.com regular, is a Senior Research Analyst at the National Priorities Project. He is a member of the Unified Security Budget Task Force and the Sustainable Defense Task Force. Prior to joining NPP, he worked on military budget and policy issues for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and the Center for Defense Information. He is also a ten-year veteran of Capitol Hill, where as a congressional staffer he worked on defense and foreign policy issues. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.
Note on further reading: Check out the latest National Priorities Project report, "US Security Spending Since 9/11." For full details of the 2012 homeland security request, see the "Homeland Security Mission Funding by Agency and Budget Account" appendix to the FY2012 budget (PDF); for the Government Accountability Office's "High Risk" series, click here; and to read the Institute of Policy Studies' "A Unified Security Budget (USB) for the United States," click here (PDF).