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.
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.
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.
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).