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8 Trillion on Our Military Addiction? Why the Price Tag of the National Security Complex Should Scare the Hell Out of You

How much safety bang for its buck is the U.S. getting from those trillions?

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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."

 
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