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17 Years After 9/11, the US Is Still Flying Blind

Words: Laicie Heeley
Pictures: US Department of Defense

My husband is allergic to bills. It’s not his fault; call it an aversion to adulting… most of the time he won’t even pick up the mail. Which is to say, I usually handle the budget.

And, I don’t blame him for pretending to suck at the job. It’s not any fun. But, it’s also not the worst. We have about ten or twelve recurring expenses. Sometimes, if we want to eat out more or watch fancy tv (I see you, HBO), we cut back on one of the pots in order to bump up another. The give and take is pretty straightforward and, in the end, what we get is the best quality of life we can manage on a limited budget.

I’m going to go ahead and assume that if you, also, are a living, breathing human this sounds familiar.

Now, imagine your bank ledger was wiped, expenses scrambled. (Or, maybe your usually budget-conscious partner fell down on the job.) You know you’ve been getting by, living a relatively successful life – and hey, you know how about much of that expensive coffee you drink — but you’re not really sure of the rest.

How do you make future decisions about your life? Can you afford to take a taxi? What about a new car? And, if you do buy that new car, will you dig yourself into a hole that could ultimately impact not just your finances, but your health and safety, as well?

… hell, can you even afford the latest rate increase on your health insurance?

Often, when we talk about government spending, efficiency is front and center. But anyone with a household budget in hand knows budgets are strategy.

Since the twin towers fell, spending for the “Global War on Terror,” has spread to almost every federal agency on the books, with increases not just at the Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security, but also at the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce.

Anyone with a small household budget in hand knows they’re life.

And, let’s be clear, it’s not a small budget — but right now US counterterrorism spending is flying blind. The US understands the broad contours of what it’s spent since 9/11, but it has little idea of what’s inside.

Since the twin towers fell, spending for the “Global War on Terror,” has spread to almost every federal agency on the books, with increases not just at the Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security, but also at the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce. By the count of a nonpartisan group of budget and counterterrorism experts, which I led, this spending comes to a grand total of $2.8 trillion.

But, we don’t really know much beyond that total, which is clouded, first and foremost, by the fact that the US does not have one consistent definition for what constitutes counterterrorism. While a broad definition is handed down to agencies by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), those agencies are free to interpret the definition on their own. Over the years, our study group found that this method left a lot of room for inconsistencies, including internal overlap of issues, and even innate bias in the way programs are prioritized government-wide.

And these issues are made worse by budgetary constraints, which have incentivized the classification of existing programs as counterterrorism. (CT is a priority, and priorities are funded first… you can see how this gets messy.)

But this is not exactly a surprise. We find ourselves in an environment today where a lot of the government’s money, taxpayers’ money, is sitting in the wrong place – a whole lot of regular Pentagon spending, for example, now sits in the war fund purely because the war fund isn’t subject to the budget caps. So, while the Pentagon’s regular spending is constrained, and has been since 2011, its war fund is not. It’s like that line of credit you have for “emergencies” that your bank keeps upping every year. And, the Pentagon has taken full advantage.

This messy movement of funds has further clouded the picture of what is and is not counterterrorism spending.

And these issues aren’t just important for the budget nerds. A clear understanding of what we’ve spent and are currently spending is crucial to ensuring that we spent our money wisely. We have to be able to look beyond the surface in order to plan for the future.

But hey, I don’t know, maybe you’re not the budgeting type. Maybe you spend until they cut up your cards… and that’s fine. You do you. Let’s just agree that we probably don’t want the government doing the same.

Laicie Heeley

Editor in Chief

Laicie Heeley is the founding CEO of Inkstick Media, where she serves as Editor in Chief of the foreign policy magazine Inkstick and Executive Producer and Host of the PRX- and Inkstick-produced podcast, Things That Go Boom. Heeley’s reporting has appeared on public radio stations across America and the BBC, where she’s explored global security issues including domestic terrorism, disinformation, nuclear weapons, and climate change. Prior to launching Inkstick, Heeley was a Fellow with the Stimson Center’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program and Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Her publications include work on sanctions, diplomacy, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, along with the first full accounting of US counterterrorism spending after 9/11.


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