The average response to the Washington Post's expose on the intelligence community's (IC) vast spending on counter-terrorism seems to be a shrug -- if the Washington Beltway responded to 9/11 with a gluttonous frenzy of contractor-hiring and office construction, why should anyone be surprised? I join those who have found the series a little over-hyped and underwhelming.
Some have become cynical about Washington's ways. But we should consider whether there might be deeper causes that mere bureaucratic competition and empire-building behind the vast expansion in the IC. Rather than being only a self-interested grab by agencies and contractors for money and power, the great expansion of the IC also reflects the preferences of the broader American society. We could save money by making significant cuts in the IC's counter-terrorism activities. But that would mean taking risks with casualties, civil liberties, or responsibilities that many Americans would find uncomfortable. So, perhaps not yet having thought through the financial tradeoffs, the public, at least for now, is happy to "spend whatever it takes." In other words, if we are outraged by the size, expense, and waste of "Top Secret America," we all share the blame.
For example, the minimum acceptable standard for counter-terror success is presumably zero attacks within the United States homeland. An Islamist maniac shooting up a reception center at Fort Hood with two pistols or a crude attempted car bomb in Times Square are deemed to be unacceptable failures, requiring investigations and bureaucratic shakeups. An alternative and thriftier approach for the federal intelligence community would have it focus on only truly mass casualty scenarios such as nuclear, chemical, biological, maritime, and commercial aviation threats. Preventing relatively low casualty threats such as car bombs, suicide bombers, and gunmen would fall on states, cities, and the citizens themselves.
But don't expect anyone to propose cutting $100 billion over ten years from the IC's budget in exchange for a, say, 25% increase in the chance of 200 terror murders in the U.S. over the same ten years. One reason the IC may be so costly and complex is because of the urge to spend extra money in an attempt to save that extra life from a terror attack. American society seems —to make that marginal payment. In this sense, society's preferences for the IC's spending on counter-terrorism matches the society's preferences for health care spending -- every extra year of life is worth it, whatever the price. Not surprisingly, the budgets for the IC and health care are following the same exponential trajectory.
Counter-terrorism might be cheaper if American society didn't rightfully place such a high value on civil liberties, social equality, and the rule of law. Racial profiling, police state surveillance, preventive detention (Gitmo aside), even quarantining travel and contact with countries known to be terror harbors are all measures deemed beyond the pale. Maintaining safety without these measures requires a larger and more expensive IC, an expense U.S. society is —to pay in order to avoid corrupting its values.
Americans seem to have opted for professionalization of their security. "Let the experts handle it," is now the way things work. Never mind that it was common citizens who foiled the Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, the Times Square Bomber, the Fort Dix plot, and others. If they knew they alone were responsible for their security, 300 million pairs of motivated eyes could probably outperform the 854,000 experts with top-secret clearances discussed in the Washington Post story. But we will never hear a Secretary of Homeland Security or U.S. president say, "Citizens, you are responsible for stopping terrorism." Most citizens likely believe they have such a responsibility. But it is not clear how vague or concrete that responsibility is, where it stops and where the experts' responsibility begins. Or vice versa.
Within the looming need for general budget-cutting in Washington, the IC will no doubt find some redundant programs to cull. But the standard of zero attacks on the homeland means that it will be impossible to discuss the tradeoff between extra security spending versus extra risk taken. As important is the discussion of how much the responsibility for security should be in the hands of the federal government's security elite versus in the hands of the citizens themselves. Just as with health care spending, there will be no upper bound to the IC's budget until society talks through these issues.