Free Minds & Free Markets

The High Price of Security Theater

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

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TSA Time Wasting: $8 Billion
More than 600 million passengers travel through U.S. airports each year. Assuming each one shows up just 30 minutes before he would have in the pre–9/11 era, people are collectively spending 300 million extra hours per year at airports. If we conservatively assume that a person's time is worth $15 an hour, that amounts to an extra $4.5 billion in hidden costs from TSA-imposed delays. Reason Foundation transportation analyst Robert Poole has estimated that the real number is more than $8 billion a year.

The U.S. Travel Association believes the TSA has also cost the U.S. economy almost 1 million jobs between 2001 and 2010 by pushing people to avoid flying. "Reducing hassle without compromising security will encourage more Americans to fly—as many as two to three additional trips a year—leading to an additional $85 billion in spending that would support 900,000 American jobs," said Roger Dow, the association's president in a press release.

But there's at least one profession that has benefitted from TSA interference: morticians. A Cornell University study estimated that the agency's invasive search procedures cost not just time and money but actual human lives. By swaying people to drive instead of fly—and make no mistake about it, the latter is a far safer means of transport—we're boosting traffic fatalities by more than 500 a year. As a Bloomberg Business analysis noted, "To make flying as dangerous as using a car, a four-plane disaster on the scale of 9/11 would have to occur every month, according to an analysis published in the American Scientist.…People switching from air to road transportation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks led to an increase of 242 driving fatalities per month—which means that a lot more people died on the roads as an indirect result of 9/11 than died from being on the planes that terrible day." Yet somehow the federal government's elaborate analyses never seem to account for these risks.

Department of Homeland Security: $200+ Billion
One year after the 9/11 attacks, with the American public still reeling, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), bringing together several of the most notoriously inept agencies in the federal government, including the Secret Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In theory, centralizing them under the watch of a single Cabinet secretary was supposed to enhance efficiency and competence. In practice, the DHS has been blundering ever since.

Homeland Security's budget has swollen over the past 13 years to its current annual level of $41 billion. Its 240,000 employees consistently report the lowest morale of any agency, according to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey conducted by the federal Office of Personnel Management, with the disgruntlement stemming in part from the lack of a "sense of purpose." DHS programs have shoveled out more than $50 billion to local and state governments in the name of anti-terrorism, and much of the money has gone toward purchases that could most charitably be described as tangentially related to stated goals.

Louisiana grant recipients spent $2,400 for a lapel microphone and $2,700 for a teleprompter. Fort Worth, Texas, spent $24,000 on a latrine-on-wheels. A Michigan police department spent $6,200 on 13 sno-cone machines. A subsequent Senate report noted that local officials "defended the sno-cone purchases saying the machines were needed to treat heat-related emergencies." DHS asserted that they were "dual purpose" because they "could be used to fill ice packs in an emergency."

The Jacksonville Urban Area Security Initiative used a DHS grant to produce an 8-minute film entitled "Domestic Terrorism: The First Line of Defense." Its purpose: to urge viewers to report any suspicious activity and to be especially wary of people who are "alone or nervous," or people "of average or above average intelligence" (unlike, apparently, the ones who made the film).

Many DHS grant recipients paid to send their employees to a conference at the lavish Paradise Point Resort on San Diego's Mission Bay, where a tactical training firm put on a "zombie apocalypse" show featuring "40 actors dressed as zombies getting gunned down by a military tactical unit," a Senate investigation found. "Conference attendees were invited to watch the shows as part of their education in emergency response training."

DHS handouts don't just run up spending unnecessarily; they result in state and local law enforcement agencies that are more intrusive and punitive than they otherwise would be. One California urban area spent $6 million on radar devices to detect vehicles with "excessive traffic violations," though what that has to do with terrorism went unexplained. Grants have also been used to purchase license plate readers for police patrol cars, and two years ago, the DHS solicited proposals for private companies to create a national database of license plate information that could be used to track exactly when and where individual citizens drive. The subsequent firestorm caused the agency to temporarily back off from the idea, but it rolled out the proposal again last year.

After the heavy-handed local police response to protests over the law enforcement killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, President Obama publicly fretted about whether America's police forces had—just maybe—become a bit too militarized. But many of the worst abuses by over-armed local cops have been enabled by the DHS, a department the White House oversees.

Grants allow departments to purchase things like drones and military-style armored personnel carriers. The most popular model is the BearCat—an acronym for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck. The Keene, New Hampshire, police justified using federal funds to purchase one of these beasts because of rowdiness at a local pumpkin festival. A Washington state police department has deployed its BearCat to pull over drunk drivers, while authorities in Clovis, California, displayed theirs at a local Easter egg hunt. A Senate report noted, "Police departments rave about the vehicles' 'shock and awe' effect saying the vehicles' menacing presence can be enough of a deterrent for would-be criminals."

Some DHS grants spawn nothing but harassment. The Washington, D.C., subway system has recently been plagued by a few high-profile violent attacks (alongside service that itself occasionally kills passengers). The feds' solution? Grants of $10 million per year to bankroll Metro police accosting travelers to search their purses, briefcases, and backpacks. Officials insist the searches are no big deal because they don't take long—unless, of course, the cops find a reason to arrest or detain you for questioning. Search teams are not deployed in response to any credible threat; instead, they're sent out merely to establish a police presence. But news that authorities are conducting warrantless searches of passengers spreads quickly on social media. If someone wants to avoid the hassle, they need only go to a different station a mile or two away.

DHS Fusion Centers: $1 Billion
When it comes to mindless excess in the war on terror, it's difficult to compete with the more than 70 "fusion centers" that the DHS began setting up shortly after 9/11 to be hubs for federal-state-local cooperation in tracking threats.

A key element of the fusion center strategy is to populate shared databases with Suspicious Activity Reports. But what exactly rises to the level of suspicious activity? The Los Angeles Police Department encourages citizens to snitch on "individuals who stay at bus or train stops for extended periods while buses and trains come and go," "individuals who carry on long conversations on pay or cellular telephones," and "joggers who stand and stretch for an inordinate amount of time." The Kentucky Office of Homeland Security recommends the reporting of "people avoiding eye contact," "people in places they don't belong," or homes or apartments that have numerous visitors "arriving and leaving at unusual hours," PBS' Frontline reported.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Colorado's fusion center "produced a fear-mongering public service announcement asking the public to report innocuous behaviors such as photography, note-taking, drawing and collecting money for charity as 'warning signs' of terrorism." Various other fusion centers have attached warning labels to gun-rights activists, anti-immigration zealots, and individuals and groups "rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority"—a creed, one might point out, shared by many of the country's Founding Fathers. A 2012 DHS report stated that being "reverent of individual liberty" is one of the traits of a potential right-wing extremist. Such absurd standards help explain why the federal terrorist watch list now contains more than 1 million names.

Not even the feds know how much they're spending for fusion centers; a 2012 Senate report on "Federal Support for and Involvement in State and Local Fusion Centers" found that outlay estimates varied by more than 400 percent, ranging from $289 million to $1.4 billion. A 2010 DHS internal report found that four of the centers did not actually exist.

The Washington Post summarized some of the centers' wayward spending thusly: "More than $2 million was spent on a center for Philadelphia that never opened. In Ohio, officials used the money to buy rugged laptop computers and then gave them to a local morgue. San Diego officials bought 55 flat-screen televisions to help them collect 'open-source intelligence'—better known as cable television news."

How long does it take to become a fusion center intelligence analyst? According to the DHS, five days' training is sufficient. But a 2012 Senate investigation found no evidence the centers had provided any assistance in detecting or disrupting any terrorist plots, in part because the centers' reports were "oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens' civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism."

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."

  • 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||

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