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The High Price of Security Theater

The $4 trillion war on terror: Where did the money go?

Jason KeislingJason KeislingThat fact that the war on terror has been expensive will surprise no one. Since 2001, the U.S. government has laid out mind-boggling sums to keep the homeland safe from violent extremists.

There was the $30 billion raise for the FBI that didn't see 9/11 coming and $70 billion for the bureaucrats who have consistently failed to keep our airports safe. Add in more than $200 billion for a new Cabinet-level department to coordinate all of this activity and half a trillion for mass surveillance, plus the incredible costs of a decade and a half of military action abroad, and the total comes to a whopping $4 trillion. Where did all that money go?

FBI: $30+ Billion
Despite the FBI’s failure to predict what was coming on 9/11, that agency’s budget has more than tripled since 2001. Has all the extra spending at least reaped positive returns in the form of stopping future violent incidents? Much to the contrary, there is evidence that the bureau has manufactured more terrorists via its entrapment operations than any foreign entity could have hoped to recruit inside the United States.

The FBI, which pockets $5 billion a year for its counterterrorism programs, has profited mightily from ginning up bogus plots that generate lurid headlines. For instance, a September 28, 2011, FBI press release trumpeted the arrest of Rezwan Ferdaus, a U.S. citizen, on charges that he planned to use “large remote controlled aircraft filled with C-4 plastic explosives” to “destroy the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol.” The culprit, a 26-year-old Bangladeshi American suffering from seizures and being treated for severe depression, had been bankrolled and enticed to embrace a scheme he almost certainly wouldn’t have considered on his own.

As a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch and Columbia University Law School’s Human Rights Institute noted, “Multiple studies have found that nearly 50 percent of the federal counterterrorism convictions since September 11, 2001, resulted from informant-based cases.” That doesn’t sound so bad until you realize the informants’ job in many of these instances was to trick otherwise innocent people into signing on to illegal plots of the government’s own invention. In one case, a judge concluded that the government “came up with the crime, provided the means, and removed all relevant obstacles” in order to make a “terrorist” out of a man “whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.”

Trevor Aaronson, author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism, estimates that only about 1 percent of the 500 people charged with international terrorism offenses in the decade after 9/11 were bona fide threats. Thirty times as many were induced by the FBI to behave in ways that prompted their arrest. A 2011 report by the New York University School of Law Center for Human Rights and Global Justice examined several high-profile cases and found that “the government’s informants introduced and aggressively pushed ideas about violent jihad and, moreover, actually encouraged the defendants to believe it was their duty to take action against the United States.”

Ohio State University professor John Mueller, co-author of Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism, observes that no terrorist entity within the U.S. was able “to detonate even a simple bomb” in the decade after 9/11. Aspiring terrorists even “have difficulty putting together bombs,” he says. “At the [2013] Boston marathon, two bombs went off and killed three people in a crowded area. So they finally actually got a bomb to go off but it wasn’t exactly terribly lethal.” Almost all the bombs involved in terrorist plots in the U.S. have been FBI-built duds—like most of the prospective terrorists. Security expert Bruce Schneier captured that genre in his classic 2007 essay, “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot.”

The last 15 years have seen the U.S. pour more than $30 billion into the bureau’s anti-terrorism efforts even though there’s no evidence of widespread domestic terror threats not created by the FBI. As reason contributor Sheldon Richman pithily summed up: “Most would-be terrorists appear to be misfits who couldn’t bomb their way out of a paper bag and wouldn’t even try without goading by an FBI informant.”

Transportation Security Administration: $70 Billion
President Barack Obama in 2013 offered up the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as an example of a federal agency that posed no threat to Americans’ rights. “I don’t think anybody says we’re no longer free because we have checkpoints at airports,” he said.

But the most visible symbol of the domestic war on terrorism is the “whole body scanner” you have to pass through at more than 400 domestic airports. After spending more than $70 billion on the TSA and its army of 45,000 screeners, airport security continues to be a farce.

The TSA has hardly helped its own case. By boasting about its “see-all” scanners, the agency riled up those who, shockingly, objected to having photos of their birthday suits added to their federal dossiers. The machines were widely denounced as “virtual strip searches” that reveal in humiliatingly granular detail everything from whether a male is circumcised to whether a female wears nipple rings. Many travelers also expressed apprehension about the health implications of stepping into scanners that rely on radiation to penetrate people’s clothing—perhaps with good cause. An investigation by ProPublica and PBS NewsHour revealed that the machines could cause up to 100 cancer cases per year among travelers.

When people understandably began requesting to be screened instead by the magnetometers that the agency had relied on since 2002, the TSA began inflicting “enhanced patdowns” on anyone who “opted out.” As USA Today explained, “The new searches…require screeners to touch passengers’ breasts and genitals,” thus leading some travelers to quip that TSA actually stands for “Total Sexual Assault.”

Adding insult to injury, the agency failed to adequately test the whole body scanner machines to ensure they were effective before installing them throughout the country. Last June, a leaked secret report revealed that TSA agents failed to detect 96 percent of the weapons and mock bombs smuggled past them by inspector general testers.

Worse still, those scanners can do nothing to protect Americans from TSA employees themselves. Some 70,000 passengers have filed complaints against the agency regarding theft or destruction of their property, and more than 500 TSA agents have been fired for stealing travelers’ property, including one Orlando screener who confessed to taking 80 laptops. An agent at the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, airport filched $50,000 from travelers in a six-month span and was arrested only after he was caught with a passenger’s iPad in his pants.

TSA Behavior Detection Officers: $1 Billion
Besides subjecting passengers to invasive electronic searches, the TSA relies on a secret list of 94 “behavioral indicators” to suss out who it believes has treacherous intentions. Among the agency’s catalog of suspicious activities are giveaways like avoiding eye contact and appearing nervous while traveling. In 2011 CNN revealed that the TSA sees “very arrogant and expresses contempt against airport passenger procedures” as one telltale warning sign. It seems the TSA is the only security agency in the world to believe that would-be terrorists precede their attacks by taunting guards.

More than $1 billion has gone toward paying to have thousands of TSA “Behavior Detection Officers,” or BDOs, roam America’s airport terminals. They peer into travelers’ faces to detect “micro expressions” signaling trouble, do “chat downs,” and select lucky travelers to receive the “third degree.” More than 100,000 people have been referred for additional interrogation or arrest since Obama took office, and yet the program has not caught a single terrorist.

 In one of the least surprising developments of recent years, minority groups have received the brunt of BDO attention. More than 30 TSA agents complained in 2012 that the behavior detection program at Boston’s Logan Airport had become “a magnet for racial profiling.” Among the “terrorist” profiles that the officers used were “Hispanics traveling to Miami or blacks wearing baseball caps backward.” The Newark Star-Ledger reported in 2011 that Mexican and Dominican travelers were being scrutinized, searched, patted down, questioned, and often referred up the chain of command, “with bogus behaviors invented by the screeners to cover up the real reason the passengers were singled out”—namely, for being the wrong color.

TSA agents told The New York Times in 2012 that the profiling occurred “in response to pressure from managers to meet certain threshold numbers for referrals to the State Police” and other authorities. “The managers wanted to generate arrests so they could justify the program.…Officers who made arrests were more likely to be promoted,” they said. In June 2013, the DHS inspector general revealed that the TSA’s BDO training program was abysmal: Even though the program had been running for six years, the agency “had not developed performance measures,” could not “accurately assess” its effectiveness, could not “show that the program is cost-effective,” and could not provide any justification for expanding the corps of officers.

Photo Credit: Jason Keisling

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  • Libertarian||

    Post-war related costs are, indeed, astronomical. Last time I checked, there was still an adopted daughter of a CIVIL WAR VETERAN who was getting a monthly check.

  • SilentCal||

    This article is clearly just right wing horseshit. It's impossible for a government to "waste" money. All government spending goes into the pockets of those who are going to spend it, meaning that government spending is always stimulus, whether the money goes to building a road of blowing up some mud hut in Afghanistan. Government creates wealth simply by willing it into existence, as oppposed to those evil corporations who try to actually make useful things, who if left to their own devices would simply destroy all the capital in the world and kill everyone because that is how you make profits.

    Also, since libertarians are referred to as right wing, and George W Bush is also considered right wing, libertarians are literally the same as George Bush ergo they have no reason to complain about wars.

  • SilentCal||

    "This is why we must elect strong leaders to government - so they can enact the 'common sense' regulations to make sure corporations do the right thing with the money government pours into them."

    So... fascism?

  • DblEagle||

    No, progressivism. "Fascism" is soooooo mid-20th century and we must "progress" into the liebensraum of correct thought that our enlightened leaders have for us. "Progressives" would never set up classes of people as the "other" and never use private companies and individuals to report to the government "incorrect thought" for civil or criminal prosecution. And perish the thought that a "progressive" would ever espouse the use of extra-judicial means to punish the "other" or strip rights from a class of people. Climate change is settled science and the responses must have the imprint of our best governmental minds. Climate Change Deniers are a danger to the volk, oops society, and the strictest measures are called for.

  • Dogs_stole_things||

    You misunderstand what wealth is. You misunderstand what stimulus is. Gov does not create wealth. Gov spends/wastes money to keep the debt money scam going. If they stopped borrowing it would all collapse but by no means is that creating wealth or stimulus.

  • SilentCal||

    Sorry that was meant to be blatant sarcasm, but I guess you really can't tell these days.

  • dantheserene||

    Personally, I thought your sarcasm was obvious, but I just got my sarcmeter back from the shop.

  • Bgoptmst||

    I am sad the author didn't mention that with all this spending the government has also given us John. Who daily takes time off his busy schedule of protecting us to lecture us. Surely that value should be subtracted out of the total cost. I mean he could potentially be touching (snicker) thousand in a meaningful way!

    I think John should count against the net waste of the war on terror ... Sort of like carbon credits work.

  • Jefferson's Ghost||

    The TSA needs to go, now.

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  • Michael Price||

    "Since 2001, the U.S. government has laid out mind-boggling sums to look like they're keeping the homeland safe from violent extremists."
    FTFY

  • Michael Price||

    "thus leading some travelers to quip that TSA actually stands for "Total Sexual Assault." "
    Also "Touching Strangers Always", "They Steal Anything" and so many other things.

  • fatihin al farizmi||

    terlebih dahulu dengan pakarnya Produk jasa konstruksi gudang jasa konstruksi gedung

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