Counterterrorism’s Big Business


In a video released by Osama bin Laden in 2004, the orchestrator of the 9/11 terrorist attacks claimed that “al Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event [9/11]…while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost–according to the lowest estimate–more than $500 billion” (see the transcript here). $500,000–the price of a particularly nice house (or a couple of smaller ones), the price of sending two students to WashU for four years, or 500 Macbooks–brought down the World Trade Centers. And in response to the most devastating and unprecedented terrorist attack on US soil, a “national security complex” has emerged. Counterterrorism has become big business–one that is becoming increasingly privatized. It even has trade magazines.

Some 1200 government organizations and nearly 2000 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence throughout 10,000 locations across the United States. According to the Washington Post’s project, Top Secret America, “many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.” Over 854,000 people hold top-secret security clearances–including peripheral staff, such as maintenance workers. Furthermore, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized to better counter terror in direct response to 9/11. The creation of these new organizations has also initiated the training of a new generation of terror experts and bureaucrats who will have a vested interest in maintaining the terror narrative. The mass secrecy involved in counterterrorist operations coupled with the increase in size of the counterterrorist apparatus threatens to undermine changes made to counteract the problems of stovepiping and lack of interagency communication–problems which were both blamed for the failure to anticipate or prevent 9/11 in the first place. According to Top Secret America, this ubiquitous secrecy is allegedly used to protect ineffective projects in order to continue their support and funding. Furthermore, it perpetuates stovepiping, leading to the overwhelming amounts of information produced have numerous redundancies between agencies.

How much do these myriad organizations, personnel, and equipment cost the American public? It’s hard to tell. Secret budgets make it impossible to quantify the complete cost to the taxpayer. The publically-announced budget for intelligence programs in 2009 was $75 billion–two and half times larger than it was pre-9/11. The estimated, though incomplete budget for CIA covert operations is roughly $50 billion, though this number does not include numerous military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs. When hiring 60,000 airport screeners after 9/11, the Transportation Security Agency budgeted $104 million, but ended up spending $867 million. Newsweek estimates the cost of body scanners (which are questionably effective) and staffing over eight years at $3 billion, Federal intelligence expenditures since 9/11 at $110 billion, and Federal homeland-security expenditures since 9/11 at $360 billion. That’s excluding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, billed at around $1.3 trillion.

One of the most discomforting aspects of the government spending for counterterrorism is that it, like all government spending, is subject to being stuffed with pork. Bloomberg states that the most “egregious” instance of such spending appeared when the Kentucky Charitable Gaming Department received $36,000 to prevent terrorists from raising money at bingo halls. Counterterrorist organizations also end up with status accoutrements and high tech security equipment, such as SCIFs (sensitive compartmented information facility), internal television networks, video walls, armored SUVs and personal security outfits.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of this national security complex is that it seems like a series of poorly constructed, vaguely connected semi-autonomous agencies, hidden in secrecy and clearances, that public and private institutions continue to throw money at in the hopes of preventing other terrorist attacks. Based off a literature review published in 2008, counter-terrorism policy in the U.S. appears to not be based off empirical evidence. Instead of a careful examination of other underlying systemic problems which provided exploitable weaknesses in airport security and prevented effective inter-agency cooperation, counterterrorism policy is essentially summed up as “do more stuff.” Not only is  “overreaction is the hallmark of the US War on Terror,” but overreaction in every direction seems to be the hallmark of the US War on Terror. In attempting to do more in so many areas, this response has resulted in massive, unknown redundancies, colossal costs, and a national security complex which, built in every direction without unifying goals or organization, threatens to crush those it would protect under its overwhelming, formless mass.

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