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
Let's start with the three basic post-9/11 numbers that Washington's addicts
need to know:
1. US$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
2. $1.36 trillion: That's the total cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars by this
September 30, the end of the current fiscal year, including all moneys 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 11 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 (DHS). A mere $16 billion was requested for homeland security
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
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
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
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 US 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 US
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
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
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?
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 (NPP). 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
10-year veteran of Capitol Hill, where as a congressional staffer he worked on
defense and foreign policy issues.