TH Mag: The Costs of Counterterrorism

Posted: Aug 27, 2013 6:29 PM

Americans have paid a high price to increase their sense of security in the post 9/11 era. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross reports for Townhall Magazine.


Two major events that captured the nation’s attention, separated by less than two months, highlighted questions about the costs of the U.S.’s post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts. On April 15, twin bomb blasts near the Boston Marathon’s finish line killed three people and wounded more than 250. The attack succeeded even though Russian authorities had alerted the FBI that one of the perpetrators, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had been radicalized and intended to liaise with Islamic militants in Dagestan. Then, in early June, Britain’s Guardian newspaper published a series of revelations about the scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance, both domestically and abroad.

These events raised two sets of questions about U.S. counterterrorism efforts. One set was economic: the array of counterterrorism programs that sprung up after 9/11 has been extraordinarily expensive, and if it couldn’t prevent the Boston attack, how much security was it really providing? The other set of questions related to the civil liberties and privacy costs of counterterrorism. The Guardian’s most significant revelation was that the U.S.’s foreign intelligence surveillance court had ordered Verizon Communications to provide the agency with the entirety of its call records for all 98.9 million wireless customers for a three-month period. Are counterterrorism efforts eroding the cherished rights of Americans?

The costs of defending the U.S. against terrorism have in fact been considerable. Two overarching points are worth making in assessing them. First, the enemy gets a vote as to how long these programs are maintained, and how vigorously. The 9/11 attacks took the U.S. by surprise: the Bush administration had no plans to significantly expand its counterterrorism apparatus before Sept. 11 transformed its priorities. And while some pundits on the fringe of contemporary discourse now argue that we should consider scaling back our counterterrorism efforts altogether, that simply isn’t realistic when the country continues to face an enemy that possesses the desire and capacity to kill large numbers of Americans.

The second point is that the U.S. has been most ineffective over the past dozen years when confronting problems that did not fit its existing paradigms. Back in 2001, the U.S.’s strategic orientation was simply ill-suited to the challenge of transnational jihadist terrorism. Then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was famously scheduled to deliver a major address on Sept. 11, 2001, designed to examine “the threats and problems of today and the day after, not the world of yesterday.” Its focus? Missile defense.

Just as the Bush administration’s pre-9/11 thinking was ill-suited to confronting violent non-state actors, the NSA’s surveillance programs are an example of available tools rapidly surpassing existing paradigms and laws. Looking back a dozen years, our lives rapidly migrated online at the same time that analytic tools available to the government drastically improved. Suddenly much more information about each and every person, and their habits and social networks, were widely available not only to governments but also commercial entities. Our thinking about privacy lagged behind these social and technological leaps.

The Economic Costs: Playing into al Qaeda’s Hands

Upon being sworn in as the Department of Homeland Security’s first inspector general in 2003, Clark Kent Ervin declared that in carrying out its mission, “the department cannot afford to waste one minute or one dollar.” DHS fell far short of Ervin’s expressed vision (despite his best efforts). The department expanded in a bloated, inefficient, expensive manner, as did many other new or expanding agencies doing national-security work. Other ways the U.S. pursued its “war on terror” further increased the costs of fighting al Qaeda, the Iraq War foremost among them. Many criticisms can be directed at the human and economic costs of the U.S.’s early blunders, but one of the most basic is the way in which the cost, inefficiency and frequent overreach of these efforts played into al Qaeda’s strategy.

As a relatively small and weak actor—certainly small and weak compared to its opponent—al Qaeda saw eroding the U.S. economy as the one path to victory. Osama bin Laden, the jihadist group’s late leader, affirmed the centrality of economics to al Qaeda’s strategy on multiple occasions. He allowed Al Jazeera journalist Taysir Allouni to interview him in October 2001. When Allouni asked how al Qaeda could hope to defeat an opponent that “dominates the world militarily, politically, and technologically,” bin Laden said that just as the Soviet Union had been destroyed by stateless mujahedeen (a debatable claim), America could be defeated in a similar manner. He emphasized the economic damage that 9/11 wrought. “According to their own admissions,” bin Laden said, referring to the Americans, “the share of the losses on the Wall Street market reached 16 percent. They said that this number is a record.” He then provided an extended exposition of associated costs—structural damage, lost productivity, lost jobs—that showed how much thought he had given to the economic implications of 9/11.

Osama bin Laden would frequently weigh in on the success of al Qaeda’s economic strategy thereafter. In a video he released in October 2004, just before the U.S. elections, he explained the great disparity between the cost of executing a terrorist attack and the damage the attack can inflict. “Al Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event [9/11],” he said, “while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost—according to the lowest estimate—more than $500 billion, meaning that every dollar of al Qaeda defeated a million dollars.”

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