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9/11’s Secret Cost

The goal of terrorism is to exploit emotion and fear and to cause overreaction. So we don’t do emotional response to terrorism around here. Indeed, some of what we’ve seen in 9/11 commemorations is not just emotional, but excessively maudlin. Instead of indulging emotion, let’s examine a way that the 9/11 attacks have effected our nation’s public policies.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1892, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012. The page for that bill reports that its passage would cost the average U.S. family about $5.50. Not too much expense for the security that our intelligence agencies probably provide, right? Hang on.

The Congressional Budget Office analysis we used for this cost information (click on “Read an Analysis of the Bill” in the “Learn More” box) says the following:

Since CBO does not provide estimates for classified programs, this estimate addresses only the unclassified portions of the bill. In addition, CBO cannot provide estimates for certain provisions in the unclassified portion of the bill because they concern classified intelligence programs.

The $5.50 cost figure refers only to the “Intelligence Community Management Account,” which funds the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and resources for coordinating programs, overseeing budgets, and managing the intelligence agencies, and the Central Intelligence Agency Retirement and Disability System.

Spending on the rest of the nation’s intelligence work is not reported and it’s much, much larger, but the government doesn’t tell us how much it is. Senate bills S. 1458 and S. 719, which cost about the same amount, have similarly confined estimates.

In short, we don’t know—so you don’t know—how much of our money is being spent on intelligence. That makes it tough to oversee the government, which makes it likely that there is a good deal of waste.

Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin have a new book out entitled Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. It’s an expansion of their “Top Secret America” report with for the Post. NPR had a recent story on the book.

They look at the huge intelligence and national security apparatus and how it has grown since 9/11. But we don’t have very good information because it’s all classified. We can’t look at it. We can’t debate it. Congress can’t do any of these things for us because it’s woefully under-staffed for overseeing our security agencies.

Should the total amount of money spent on intelligence—just the total—be secret? It does not “tip off” our nation’s opponents to know that lots of money goes to watching and disrupting them. They already know it. The rationale for keeping total spending secret is weak. There may be arguments against revealing the size of specific programs, but some breakdown of where the money goes would probably not compromise the nation’s security.

We are not better off if money spent on security is disproportionate to the value it brings. Until some transparency comes to the intelligence area, chances are that we are paying too high a cost for intelligence. The ball got rolling as an emotional response to the terror attacks 10 years ago. It’s 9/11’s secret cost.

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