The High Price of Security Theater
The $4 trillion war on terror: Where did the money go?
That 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  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 Todayexplained, “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.