Waste in the War on Terrorism

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Millions have been squandered on "homeland security" over the past decade. The costs to our liberty have also been too high.

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Earlier this year, a reporter at a small community newspaper got the answer to a question she'd been asking for months: "Are there really 33 terrorist organizations in St. Paul, Minnesota?" That's what her county sheriff claimed in the budget reports he submitted to his superiors. According to her investigation, however, his anti-terrorism unit had been squandering taxpayer money for months on end, and getting away with it by pretending to be guardians of homeland security.

Is this man villainized in the press for his behavior? The subject of a federal inquiry by hard charging investigators? Nope. In the War on Terrorism, wasting funds in the name of security is so commonplace that the allegation isn't even surprising.  

Two presidents, several congresses, and law enforcement officials at every level of government have told us that terrorism is a grave threat -- so much so that it's necessary to wage war in several countries, permit law enforcement to eavesdrop sans warrants, and otherwise undermine core civil liberties and checks on executive power. Question these policies and the refrain is always the same: "We're a nation at war!" As I survey efforts to secure the homeland, however, the inescapable conclusion is that many of the people empowered to protect us against Al Qaeda don't act like we're really threatened. They're either using terrorism fears as a cynical cover for their actions, or else stupidly squandering vital resources.

Worse is the lack of outrage this inspires. For all the talk of reducing government waste, Homeland Security spending is almost never discussed, as if the fact that everyone agrees it's an appropriate government function makes the agency responsible for it impervious to inefficiency or badly distributed resources.

This is especially galling given that waste already reported in the press -- almost certainly a small subset of actual waste -- is sufficient to conclude that many of our homeland security efforts are a joke.

Earlier this month, it was Ohio law enforcement officials who "mishandled nearly $5 million in federal anti-terrorism grants." Isn't it good to know that we sent several Ohioans to Turkey "to learn about terrorism"?

Or consider the state of New Jersey. A think tank there may have squandered as much as $3 million. Newspaper columnist Mike Kelly reports that elsewhere in the Garden State, Newark officials spent $300,000 on air-conditioning for garbage trucks "to protect drivers during a chemical bomb attack." And in Bergen County, the local prosecutor maintains an airplane as a "Homeland Security resource." Officials also spent $98,000 on stretchers "to carry victims of mass killings."

Since 2003, Idaho has gotten more than $100 million in terrorism funds, according to an article that also notes that a very small percentage has been wasted on outright fraud. But does it make sense to allocate any of that money to a rural state where the likelihood of any terrorist attack is minute?

The most frustrating thing about examples like these -- and there are many more spread across the nation -- is that they're still going on under the Obama administration, even though the folly of it all was pointed out time and again under the last administration (whose secretary of Homeland Security is now shilling for naked body scanners). Alas, we've continued to squander funds on questionable purchases and disperse money to various jurisdictions that don't need it.

And we're poised to do so again:

...the Obama Administration released its proposed 3.8 trillion FY 2011 budget of which roughly $4 billion is slated for state and local homeland security grants and programs. What is obvious from the start is how little the Administration proposes to cut from these state and local programs. Many expected deep cuts given the huge $1.6 trillion federal deficit projected for FY 2011.

The obvious remedy is to subject Homeland Security spending to extra scrutiny, rather than treating outlays rhetorically associated with the war on terrorism as if they're somehow beyond question. It's also vital that we develop a national strategy for allocating these funds in the most efficient way possible.

I submit that the American people ought to draw a larger conclusion too. The stories linked above and others like them prove that officials at every level of our government are willing to exploit the issue of terrorism to enhance their own budgets or reputations, even in cases when the extra spending has little to do with making us safer. Shouldn't that knowledge make us more skeptical when the people in charge insist that they need more power to tap our phones, monitor our Internet usage, or intrusively pat us down at airports? For too long in America, "it's necessary to prevail in the War on Terror" has been an explanation afforded deference. Given the many ways it has been abused, officials who offer that rationale and nothing more ought to be marginally less trusted.

Thanks to Sally Laukner for helping me to research this post.

Image credit: Jason Reid/Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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