The Hidden Costs of “National Security”: 10 Ways Your Tax Dollars Are Paying for War

In government terms, make no mistake about it, the Pentagon & Co. are the 1%.

William D. Hartung July 25, 2017

In addition to the budget set for the Department of Defense, there are countless other costs that go into spending on national security. (DoD photo by Airman 1st Class Damon Kasberg, U.S. Air Force)

This piece first appeared at Tomdis­patch.

Most taxpayers have no idea that more than a trillion dollars a year is going to what’s still called “defense,” but these days might equally be called national insecurity.

You wouldn’t know it, based on the end­less cries for more mon­ey com­ing from the mil­i­tary, politi­cians, and the pres­i­dent, but these are the best of times for the Pen­ta­gon. Spend­ing on the Depart­ment of Defense alone is already well in excess of half a tril­lion dol­lars a year and count­ing. Adjust­ed for infla­tion, that means it’s high­er than at the height of Pres­i­dent Ronald Reagan’s mas­sive buildup of the 1980s and is now near­ing the post-World War II fund­ing peak. And yet that’s bare­ly half the sto­ry. There are hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars in defense” spend­ing that aren’t even count­ed in the Pen­ta­gon budget.

Under the cir­cum­stances, lay­ing all this out in gris­ly detail — and believe me, when you dive into the fig­ures, they couldn’t be gris­li­er — is the only way to offer a bet­ter sense of the true costs of our wars past, present, and future, and of the fund­ing that is the lifeblood of the nation­al secu­ri­ty state. When you do that, you end up with no less than 10 cat­e­gories of nation­al secu­ri­ty spend­ing (only one of which is the Pen­ta­gon bud­get). So steel your­self for a tour of our nation’s tril­lion-dol­lar-plus nation­al secu­ri­ty” bud­get. Giv­en the Pentagon’s pen­chant for wast­ing mon­ey and our government’s record of engag­ing in dan­ger­ous­ly mis­guid­ed wars with­out end, it’s clear that a large por­tion of this mas­sive invest­ment of tax­pay­er dol­lars isn’t mak­ing any­one any safer.

1) The Pen­ta­gon Bud­get: The Pentagon’s base” or reg­u­lar bud­get con­tains the costs of the peace­time train­ing, arm­ing, and oper­a­tion of the U.S. mil­i­tary and of the mas­sive civil­ian work­force that sup­ports it — and if waste is your Eden, then you’re in paradise.

The department’s bud­get is awash in waste, as you might expect from the only major fed­er­al agency that has nev­er passed an audit. For exam­ple, last year a report by the Defense Busi­ness Board, a Pen­ta­gon advi­so­ry pan­el, found that the Depart­ment of Defense could save $125 bil­lion over five years just by trim­ming excess bureau­cra­cy. And a new study by the Pentagon’s Inspec­tor Gen­er­al indi­cates that the depart­ment has ignored hun­dreds of rec­om­men­da­tions that could have saved it more than $33.6 billion.

The Pen­ta­gon can’t even get an accu­rate count of the num­ber of pri­vate con­trac­tors it employs, but the fig­ure is cer­tain­ly in the range of 600,000 or high­er, and many of them car­ry out tasks that might far bet­ter be han­dled by gov­ern­ment employ­ees. Cut­ting that enor­mous con­trac­tor work force by just 15%, only a start when it comes to elim­i­nat­ing the unnec­es­sary dupli­ca­tion involved in hir­ing gov­ern­ment employ­ees and pri­vate con­trac­tors to do the same work, would save an easy $20 bil­lion annually.

And the items men­tioned so far are only the most obvi­ous exam­ples of mis­guid­ed expen­di­tures at the Depart­ment of Defense. Even larg­er sav­ings could be real­ized by scal­ing back the Pentagon’s glob­al ambi­tions, which have caused noth­ing but trou­ble in the last decade and a half as the U.S. mil­i­tary has waged dev­as­tat­ing and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syr­ia, and else­where across the Greater Mid­dle East and Africa. An analy­sis by Ben Fried­man of the con­ser­v­a­tive Cato Insti­tute esti­mates that the Pen­ta­gon could reduce its pro­ject­ed spend­ing by one tril­lion dol­lars over the next decade if Wash­ing­ton reined in its inter­ven­tionary instincts and focused only on America’s core interests.

Don­ald Trump, of course, ran for pres­i­dent as a busi­ness­man who would clean house and insti­tute unprece­dent­ed effi­cien­cies in gov­ern­ment. Instead, on enter­ing the Oval Office, he’s done a superb job of ignor­ing chron­ic prob­lems at the Pen­ta­gon, propos­ing instead to give that depart­ment a hefty raise: $575 bil­lion next year. And yet his expan­sive mil­i­tary fund­ing plans look rel­a­tive­ly mild com­pared to the desires of the gung-ho mem­bers of the armed ser­vices com­mit­tees in the House and Sen­ate. Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans alike want to hike the Pen­ta­gon bud­get to at least $600 bil­lion or more. The leg­isla­tive fight over a final num­ber will play out over the rest of this year. For now, let’s just use Trump’s num­ber as a placeholder. 

Pen­ta­gon Bud­get: $575 billion

2) The War Bud­get: The wars of this cen­tu­ry, from Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond, have large­ly been paid for through a spe­cial account that lies out­side the reg­u­lar Pen­ta­gon bud­get. This war bud­get — known in the anti­sep­tic lan­guage of the Pen­ta­gon as the Over­seas Con­tin­gency Oper­a­tions” account, or OCO—peaked at more than $180 bil­lion at the height of the Bush administration’s inter­ven­tion in Iraq.

As troop num­bers in that coun­try and Afghanistan have plum­met­ed from hun­dreds of thou­sands to about 15,000, the war bud­get, mirac­u­lous­ly enough, hasn’t fall­en at any­where near the same pace. That’s because it’s not even sub­ject to the mod­est caps on the Pentagon’s reg­u­lar bud­get imposed by Con­gress back in 2011, as part of a deal to keep the gov­ern­ment open. 

In real­i­ty, over the past five years, the war bud­get has become a slush fund that pays for tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in Pen­ta­gon expens­es that have noth­ing to do with fight­ing wars. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion wants $64.6 bil­lion for that boon­dog­gle bud­get in fis­cal year 2018. Some in Con­gress would like to hike it anoth­er $10 bil­lion. For con­sis­ten­cy, we’ll again use the Trump num­ber as a baseline.

War Bud­get: $64.6 Billion

Run­ning Total: $639.6 Billion

3) Nuclear War­heads (and more): You might think that the most pow­er­ful weapons in the U.S. arse­nal — nuclear war­heads — would be paid for out of the Pen­ta­gon bud­get. And you would, of course, be wrong. The cost of research­ing, devel­op­ing, main­tain­ing, and mod­ern­iz­ing” the Amer­i­can arse­nal of 6,800 nuclear war­heads falls to an obscure agency locat­ed inside the Depart­ment of Ener­gy, the Nation­al Nuclear Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion, or NNSA. It also works on naval nuclear reac­tors, pays for the envi­ron­men­tal cleanup of nuclear weapons facil­i­ties, and funds the nation’s three nuclear weapons lab­o­ra­to­ries, at a total annu­al cost of more than $20 bil­lion per year.

Depart­ment of Ener­gy (nuclear): $20 Billion

Run­ning total: $659.6 billion

4) Oth­er Defense”: This catchall cat­e­go­ry encom­pass­es a num­ber of flows of defense-relat­ed fund­ing that go to agen­cies oth­er than the Pen­ta­gon. It totals about $8 bil­lion per year. In recent years, about two-thirds of this mon­ey has gone to pay for the home­land secu­ri­ty activ­i­ties of the FBI, account­ing for more than half of that agency’s annu­al budget.

Oth­er Defense”: $8 Billion

Run­ning Total: $677.6 billion

The four cat­e­gories above make up what the White House bud­get office con­sid­ers total spend­ing on nation­al defense.” But I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that their cumu­la­tive $677.6 bil­lion rep­re­sents far from the full sto­ry. So let’s keep right on going.

5) Home­land Secu­ri­ty: After the 911 attacks, Con­gress cre­at­ed a mega-agency, the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty (DHS). It absorbed 22 then-exist­ing enti­ties, all involved in inter­nal secu­ri­ty and bor­der pro­tec­tion, cre­at­ing the sprawl­ing cab­i­net depart­ment that now has 240,000 employ­ees. For those of you keep­ing score at home, the agen­cies and oth­er enti­ties cur­rent­ly under the umbrel­la of DHS include the Coast Guard, the Fed­er­al Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency, the Fed­er­al Law Enforce­ment Train­ing Cen­ter, the Domes­tic Nuclear Detec­tion Office, Unit­ed States Cit­i­zen­ship and Immi­gra­tion Ser­vices, the U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion Agency, the Trans­porta­tion Secu­ri­ty Agency, the U.S. Secret Ser­vice, the Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment Agency (ICE), and the Office of Intel­li­gence Analy­sis (the only one of America’s 17 intel­li­gence agen­cies to fit under the department’s rubric). 

How many of these agen­cies actu­al­ly make us safer? That would be a debat­able top­ic, if any­one were actu­al­ly inter­est­ed in such a debate. ICE — America’s depor­ta­tion force — has, for instance, done far more to cause suf­fer­ing than to pro­tect us from crim­i­nals or ter­ror­ists. On the oth­er hand, it’s reas­sur­ing to know that there is an office charged with deter­min­ing whether there is a nuclear weapon or radioac­tive dirty bomb” in our midst. 

While it’s hard to out­do the Pen­ta­gon, DHS has its own record of dubi­ous expen­di­tures on items large and small. They range from $1,000 fees for employ­ees to attend con­fer­ences at spas to the pur­chase of bag­pipes for bor­der pro­tec­tion per­son­nel to the pay­ment of scores of remark­ably fat salaries to agency bureau­crats. On the occa­sion of its 10th anniver­sary in 2013, Con­gress­man Jeff Dun­can (R‑SC) exco­ri­at­ed the depart­ment as rife with waste,” among oth­er things, point­ing to a report by the DHS inspec­tor gen­er­al that it had mis­spent over $1 billion.

DHS was sup­posed to pro­vide a bet­ter focus for efforts to pro­tect the Unit­ed States from inter­nal threats. Its biggest prob­lem, though, may be that it has become a mag­net for increased fund­ing for hap­haz­ard, mis­placed, and often sim­ply dan­ger­ous ini­tia­tives. These would, for instance, include its pro­gram to sup­ply grants to local law enforce­ment agen­cies to help them buy mil­i­tary-grade equip­ment to be deployed not against ter­ror­ists, but against cit­i­zens protest­ing the injus­tices per­pe­trat­ed by the very same agen­cies being armed by DHS. 

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has pro­posed spend­ing $50 bil­lion on DHS in FY 2018.

Home­land Secu­ri­ty: $50 Billion

Run­ning Total: $717.6 Billion

6) Mil­i­tary Aid: U.S. gov­ern­ment-run mil­i­tary aid pro­grams have pro­lif­er­at­ed rapid­ly in this cen­tu­ry. The Unit­ed States now has scores of arms and train­ing pro­grams serv­ing more than 140 coun­tries. They cost more than $18 bil­lion per year, with about 40% of that total locat­ed in the State Department’s bud­get. While the Pen­tagon’s share has already been account­ed for, the $7 bil­lion at State — which can ill afford to pay for such pro­grams with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion seek­ing to gut the rest of its bud­get — has not.

Mil­i­tary Aid at the State Depart­ment: $7 Billion

Run­ning Total: $724.6 Billion

7) Intel­li­gence: The Unit­ed States gov­ern­ment has 16 sep­a­rate intel­li­gence agen­cies: the Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency (CIA); the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency (NSA); the Defense Intel­li­gence Agency; the FBI; the State Depart­ment Bureau of Intel­li­gence and Research; the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty Office of Intel­li­gence Analy­sis; the Drug Enforce­ment Admin­is­tra­tion Office of Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Intel­li­gence; the Trea­sury Depart­ment Office of Intel­li­gence and Analy­sis; the Depart­ment of Ener­gy Office of Intel­li­gence and Coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence; the Nation­al Recon­nais­sance Office; the Nation­al Geospa­tial Intel­li­gence Agency; Air Force Intel­li­gence, Sur­veil­lance, and Recon­nais­sance; Army Mil­i­tary Intel­li­gence; the Office of Naval Intel­li­gence; Marine Corps Intel­li­gence; and Coast Guard Intel­li­gence. Add to these the Office of the Direc­tor of Nation­al Intel­li­gence (ODNI), which is sup­posed to coor­di­nate this far-flung intel­li­gence net­work, and you have a grand total of 17 agencies. 

The U.S. will spend more than $70 bil­lion on intel­li­gence this year, spread across all these agen­cies. The bulk of this fund­ing is con­tained in the Pen­ta­gon bud­get — includ­ing the bud­gets of the CIA and the NSA (believed to be hid­den under obscure line items there). At most, a few bil­lion dol­lars in addi­tion­al expen­di­tures on intel­li­gence fall out­side the Pen­ta­gon bud­get and since, giv­en the secre­cy involved, that fig­ure can’t be deter­mined, let’s not add any­thing fur­ther to our run­ning tally. 

Intel­li­gence: $70 Bil­lion (most­ly con­tained inside the Pen­ta­gon budget)

Run­ning Total: $724.6 Billion

8) Sup­port­ing Vet­er­ans: A steady uptick of vet­er­ans gen­er­at­ed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has dra­mat­i­cal­ly increased the costs of sup­port­ing such vets once they come home, includ­ing the war wound­ed, some of whom will need med­ical care for life. For 2018, the Vet­er­ans Admin­is­tra­tion has request­ed over $186 bil­lion for its bud­get, more than three times what it was before the 2001 inter­ven­tion in Afghanistan.

Vet­er­ans: $186 billion

Run­ning Total: $910.6 Billion

9) Mil­i­tary Retire­ment: The trust fund set up to cov­er pen­sions for mil­i­tary retirees and their sur­vivors doesn’t have enough mon­ey to pay out all the ben­e­fits promised to these indi­vid­u­als. As a result, it is sup­ple­ment­ed annu­al­ly by an appro­pri­a­tion from the gen­er­al rev­enues of the gov­ern­ment. That sup­ple­ment has by now reached rough­ly $80 bil­lion per year.

Mil­i­tary Retire­ment: $80 Billion

Run­ning Total: $990.6 Billion 

10) Defense Share of Inter­est on the Debt: It’s no secret that the U.S. gov­ern­ment reg­u­lar­ly runs at a deficit and that the total nation­al debt is grow­ing. It may be more sur­pris­ing to learn that the inter­est on that debt runs at rough­ly $500 bil­lion per year. The Project on Gov­ern­ment Over­sight cal­cu­lates the share of the inter­est on that debt gen­er­at­ed by defense-relat­ed pro­grams at more than $100 bil­lion annually.

Defense Share of the Inter­est on the Debt: $100 billion

Grand Total: $1.09 Trillion

That final annu­al tal­ly of near­ly $1.1 tril­lion to pay for past wars, fund cur­rent wars, and pre­pare for pos­si­ble future con­flicts is rough­ly dou­ble the already stag­ger­ing $575 bil­lion the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has pro­posed as the Pentagon’s reg­u­lar bud­get for 2018. Most tax­pay­ers have no idea that more than a tril­lion dol­lars a year is going to what’s still called defense,” but these days might equal­ly be called nation­al insecu­ri­ty.

So the next time you hear the pres­i­dent, the sec­re­tary of defense, the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or a hawk­ish law­mak­er claim that the U.S. mil­i­tary is prac­ti­cal­ly col­laps­ing from a lack of fund­ing, don’t believe it for a sec­ond. Don­ald Trump may final­ly have put plu­toc­ra­cy in the Oval Office, but a mil­i­ta­rized ver­sion of it has long been ensconced in the Pen­ta­gon and the rest of the nation­al secu­ri­ty state. In gov­ern­ment terms, make no mis­take about it, the Pen­ta­gon & Co. are the 1%.

William D. Har­tung is a senior fel­low at the World Pol­i­cy Insti­tute and the direc­tor of the Arms Trade Resource Center.
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