The Insider

Think tank team says U.S. has spent $2.8T on counterterrorism responding to Sept. 11

By Tony Bertuca  
May 16, 2018 at 10:17 AM

The United States spent $2.8 trillion on counterterrorism between 2002 and 2017, according to a new report authored by former Pentagon comptrollers, Washington think tankers and government analysts.

Counterterrorism spending peaked in 2008 at $260 billion, according to the report released by the Stimson Center.

"For over 17 years, policymakers and the public have been unable to determine how much we spend on counterterrorism," said Laicie Heeley, a Stimson Center analyst who directed the study group.

"Now for the first time, we can point to a figure and say, 'We think we have spent this much on counterterrorism since Sept. 11,'" she said. "With the important first steps taken by this study group, and as the Pentagon shifts its strategic objectives, we can begin to have an honest conversation about how to protect America while upholding our values and being mindful of taxpayer dollars."

Along with Heeley, the report was authored by former Pentagon comptrollers Mike McCord and Tina Jonas; Amy Belasco, formerly with the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Government Accountability Office; Mackenzie Eaglen of American Enterprise Institute; Luke Hartig, executive director of the Network Science Initiative and former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council; and John Mueller, an analyst at the Cato Institute.

The report points out that terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists or jihadis have killed 100 people in the United States, or about six per year, since Sept. 11.

"In comparison, the opioid fentanyl was responsible for more than 20,000 deaths in the United States during 2016 alone," the report states. "Some analysts conclude that spending $2.8 trillion to counter a terrorism threat that has resulted in comparatively few fatalities is a waste of increasingly scarce government resources that are better spent elsewhere. Others may contend that terrorism’s impact is more psychological than physical, or that the low fatality count from terrorism and the lack of another 9/11-scale attack are indicators of successful preventive campaigns thanks to ample government funding."

The authors write that while they do not take a position in the debate, they do conclude that "arguing either case successfully -- that is, determining whether CT expenditures have generated enough benefit to justify their cost -- is difficult without accurate information about CT spending."

The report makes five recommendations for OMB and Congress to make counterterrorism funding more transparent: Create a clear and transparent counterterrorism funding report; adopt a detailed agency-wide definition for counterterrorism spending; build on current accounting structures to anticipate future budget pressures; tie the definition of war spending to specific activities; and require Congress to separately approve emergency or wartime spending.

"Accountability and transparency are critical elements of our democracy. They are fundamental to maintaining trust between the government and the public," said Jonas, who was Pentagon comptroller during President George W. Bush's administration.

McCord, who served as Pentagon comptroller under President Obama, said the government needs clearer definitions and reporting standards for counterterrorism spending.

"Neither our leaders nor our citizens can properly assess the cost of our counterterrorism efforts if we don’t measure and present those costs clearly," he said. "Doing so is a necessary first step toward judging the efficiency or effectiveness of these efforts."