The Unknown Cost of America’s Counterterrorism Efforts

A Stimson Center working group released a study last week on the costs of America’s counterterrorism efforts, and it found about what you’d expect: nearly 17 years after 9/11, we still don’t know exactly how much we have spent, but it’s a ton. Over $2.8 trillion, at least. The staggering numbers grabbed headlines on Wednesday, as they should. With this struggle closing in on the two-decade mark, we need to have a frank accounting of the threats we face and how much spending is enough to keep Americans safe. But beyond the matter of raw dollars spent, the report raises deeper questions about what counts as counterterrorism and whether our funding matches our strategy. I was a member of the working group, and after months of labor, we found that the U.S. government has no clear, government-wide definition of counterterrorism or the activities that might be legitimately funded as counterterrorism.

How do we determine whether activities to secure our border or to maintain military readiness count as counterterrorism or just the core costs of keeping our nation safe? Is the Special Operations Command a counterterrorism investment or something else? What activities truly count as temporary costs, appropriately funded by the supplemental Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget we rely on to fund the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and how do we prevent OCO from becoming a slush fund for a wide range of expenditures only loosely qualifying as counterterrorism?

Solving these questions about the how, not just the how much, of our struggle against terrorist groups will be critical if we want to prevail, and do so in a fiscally sustainable way.

What at first glance might appear to be a bean counting exercise is anything but. At a deeper level, this is about our strategy and priorities in what we once aptly called the long war. For example, my working group colleague John Mueller sees the terrorist threat as dramatically less severe than I do, but he nonetheless makes strong points, grounded in economic analysis, to argue that we are overspending compared to the threat. In Mueller’s estimation, our counterterrorism efforts would need to have saved at least 250,000 lives to justify the expenditures we have made. These are direct costs only. Mueller goes further in arguing that the indirect economic costs of, for example, longer lines at airports and border crossings and increased security at high profile venues have cost us many billions more dollars. Of course, it is nearly impossible for an economic analysis to be able to model and measure the fear that terrorism inspires or the political imperatives to seemingly spend whatever it takes to keep the nation safe. And many experts have noted that terrorism works precisely because it encourages such expensive reactions from the attacked. But when we’re talking about a budget that consumed a full 15 percent of discretionary spending from 2002-2017, it’s important to ask how much is enough and what we’re sacrificing as a consequence. Could some of this money have been better spent fixing our broken infrastructure or saving some of the 42,249 people who died in opioid overdoses in 2016? These are some of the questions we hope policymakers will struggle with.

This report also illuminates how much our spending diverges from our stated strategy. Since the early days after 9/11, U.S. policymakers have consistently argued that we are not going to kill our way out of this fight. Successive Bush, Obama, and Trump administration counterterrorism strategies have advocated for a multi-pronged approach that prioritizes building our partners’ security capacity and countering terrorist recruitment and radicalization efforts right alongside homeland security, use of force against terrorist groups abroad, and improved intelligence efforts.

The Stimson report shows how dramatically we have diverged from these stated goals. Overseas capacity building and countering violent extremism efforts are typically executed by the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and funded by foreign aid accounts. Yet counterterrorism-related foreign aid makes up only 0.4% of the $2.8 trillion. Adding in all State and and USAID activities in support of counterterrorism, which includes the massive costs of deploying diplomats to war zones, brings the total to 5.3%, still a paltry number compared to what we have spent on military operations. Things are no better at home, where federal counter-radicalization efforts are coordinated by a 12-person office at the Department of Homeland Security with a $3 million budget. The late Harvard professor and former Deputy Secretary of Defense John White used to tell his students, “Don’t listen to my speeches, read my budget, because that’s where I have to make real decisions.” Our decisions have most assuredly not met our rhetoric.

There are many reasons for this mismatch of strategy and resources, only some of which the report covers. Perhaps the biggest reason is “color of money” issues. That’s to say that the administration and the Congress do not treat a dollar spent on foreign aid the same as a dollar spent on military operations. The former is subjected to substantial scrutiny by budgeteers in the government, as well as appropriators on the Hill, the latter is not. A military commander can drop millions of dollars of ordnance on a terrorist target but his civilian counterpart may have to spend months developing proposals and fighting the bureaucracy to secure a fraction of that sum to support vocational programs for youth at risk of radicalization. When President Obama proposed the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund in 2014 that was to be shared jointly by the Defense Department and State Department, appropriators funded a large portion of the DOD request but zeroed out the State Department request. Our overly militarized response to the terrorist threat is a direct reflection and result of the way we oversee our funds.

Yet as underfunded as civilian counterterrorism efforts may be, it is still often easier to secure funding for counterterrorism than other foreign assistance priorities. In our analysis, we often found the State Department and others shoehorning a wide range of programs into the counterterrorism bucket simply in order to see them funded. This is the logical behavior of the bureaucracy in response to an incentive, but it’s not good national security policy. When counterterrorism is the driving national security priority for any foreign policy challenge short of great power conflict, we run the risk of focusing on the wrong solutions. Consider the challenge of fragile states, for example. A dispassionate assessment of our national security interests would find many reasons to provide a wide range of support to pivotal but fragile states in key regions, places like Kenya, Nigeria, and Tunisia. Helping these countries address their challenges requires a well-balanced package of political, economic, humanitarian, and security support, sustained over several years. When the surest bet to securing resources is focusing on a counterterrorism nexus, we cloud our strategic thinking about what countries we should support and in what ways and that may ultimately make us less safe.

We’re likely to keep spending large amounts on counterterrorism for the foreseeable future. But with a jarring number like $2.8 trillion, just maybe we can begin to have a dialogue on how much is enough and whether we’re being strategic in ensuring our national security.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images 

About the Author(s)

Luke Hartig

Executive Director of National Journal's Network Science Initiative and Fellow, International Security Program at New America. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow him on Twitter (@LukeHartig).