Today’s high school seniors have lived almost their entire lives in a country at war, their childhoods marked by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the beginning of the “Global War on Terror.” After graduation, some will enter the workforce, where they will feel the full weight of the national debt of the United States. It’s set to approach $29 trillion by the end of the next decade and has ballooned, in part, because of almost 17 years of the fight against terrorism. The national debt will impact graduates’ ability to attend and pay for college, gain and keep employment, marry, raise a family, and retire. Today’s high school seniors will pay for this war—which began when they could barely walk—for years to come.
And we’re not even sure what we’ve spent on it.
In the years since 9/11, the U.S. has waged a fight against terrorism that spans nearly every government agency. Counterterrorism spending has increased not just at the departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security, but also at Agriculture and Commerce. By one count of a nonpartisan group of experts I surveyed, this spending totals $2.8 trillion. Which means that the U.S. spent an average of $4.8 million per day last year on counterterrorism activities.
But this only an estimate. At the same time that government spending has increased, transparency with regard to that spending has decreased.
For example, the Department of Defense has funded its war efforts largely through a separate designation referred to as Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO. This spending is not subject to budget caps and has grown even under the constraints of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which put upper spending limits in place. Using this loophole, an increasing amount of funds unrelated to the wars have been designated OCO in recent years, allowing the Pentagon’s overall budget to grow freely and impeding attempts to gain an accurate picture of its spending on counterterrorism. How bad of a problem is this? In 2016, the Pentagon acknowledged that $30 billion—half its war-fighting funds—were used to pay for day-to-day operations.
Other issues of transparency remain. The very definition of what activities constitute counterterrorism is elusive, making it difficult to quantify spending. While the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) provides guidance for this, interpretation is left to individual agencies. The result leaves much to be desired: In our research, we found a number of inconsistencies that limit accuracy and contribute to an overall lack of transparency on counterterrorism spending. These include the internal overlap, in some cases, of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism—two very different activities that are often conflated in DoD strategy and analysis.
These issues of transparency aren’t just important for accountants. A clear understanding of what we, the American people, have spent and are currently spending is crucial to ensuring that we spent our money wisely.
The fight against terror represents an important chapter in our nation’s history, and its legacy will leave an impact on our country’s health, financial and otherwise, for years to come. What kind of impact? We can’t really know for sure. And that’s simply not a scenario we should be willing to accept.
We can and should do better. The OMB should tighten its guidance and procedures to ensure accountability, and lead a government-wide effort to ensure better tracking of future funds. Further, Congress must reinstate and expand the annual OMB report, discontinued in 2018, which tracked government-wide homeland security spending. These are not complicated measures, but they are important first steps.
We’ve saddled our children with debt. The least we can do is give them the right tools to manage it.
Laicie Heeley is the editor of the foreign policy magazine Inkstick and a partner at the Truman National Security Project, a national security leadership institute in Washington, D.C.