Profiting Off the Terror Threat

Since the 9/11 attacks, few politicians and pundits have had the courage to question the endless demands for more money to “protect the American people.” But hyping the terror threat has been a way for some financial and ideological interests to fleece the public, as the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland explains.

By Ivan Eland

More than 11 years after the 9/11 attacks, the American public is still barraged with sensational media coverage of the occasional uncovering of a terrorist plot. Many of these are so-called sting operations, which, rather than saving America from significant destruction from terror attacks, have the primary effect of showing off to the public how the security agencies are providing protection in the wake of 9/11, thus justifying larger budgets for those organizations.

The security agencies typically find a lone young person of radical Islamist views and essentially turn him into an active terrorist so they can stage a very public arrest. They often use undercover government operatives to suggest targets to plot against and even offer what the duped militant thinks are real weapons to carry out the plan. Security agencies are essentially helping along people who might not otherwise commit crimes. Prohibitions exist on entrapment of citizens by law enforcement, but the courts usually side with the authorities against a designation of entrapment.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Because the 9/11 attacks had a rare high casualty rate and because these spectacular high-profile sting cases appear every so often in the media, the American people have a much exaggerated view of terrorism as a lethal problem. John Mueller, a professor at Ohio State University, has calculated that the average person worldwide has a one in 80,000 chance of ever being killed by an international terrorist in his or her lifetime. These odds are about the same as those of being hit by an asteroid or comet.

In fact, governments in the United States have spent almost $700 billion over the last decade on a problem that has seen only 14 people killed by al-Qaeda sympathizers (that is, terrorists not even necessarily affiliated with al-Qaeda’s core group). That is an astounding waste of public resources on a problem that is not very deadly.

However, the security agencies and their supporters would claim that the death toll has been so low because of such official efforts. First, they cite the arrests of people trying unsuccessfully to commit terrorist acts, but as we have seen, many of these alleged threats were either essentially manufactured by the authorities or were attempted attacks by hapless “lone wolf” attackers who were merely inspired by al-Qaeda.

Also leading to suspicion that the terrorist threat has been hyped is the record of terrorism in North America prior to 9/11. According to annual State Department reports on terrorism of that era, North America regularly had a negligible number of attacks and the fewest incidents of any continent.

For the most part, North America has been far away from the world’s centers of conflict that breed terrorism, and those distances also make it hard for terrorists to operate with such long supply lines from their countries of origin. The 9/11 attacks were not only jolting for Americans because of their abnormally high casualty rate, but also because terrorism in the United States had theretofore been a minor problem.

Of course, instead of continuing to waste all of this money on government security efforts, America could be made even safer by simply meddling far less in Islamic countries. No one has ever paid much attention to this primary reason that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have given for attacking U.S. targets, because it wasn’t in the interest of politicians and security agencies to lessen the fear of voters and taxpayers, who would reward them with additional votes and dollars, respectively.

In fact, then-President George W. Bush preposterously told us that al-Qaeda was attacking us for our freedoms. This enraged bin Laden, who put out a lengthy rebuttal and tried to refocus the world on U.S. interventions in the Islamic world. But of course, at that point no one was interested in paying attention to an evil mass murderer, even though it might have been astute to ascertain what motivates an enemy to attack.

But the heyday of U.S. counterterrorism is probably now over. Bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda central in demise, and manufacturing lone-wolf threats to replace them hasn’t created the same urgency. Even if the fiscal cliff, promising to cut more than $100 billion per year from security budgets, is avoided, security spending is bound to decline, given political pressure to cut the deficit and public fatigue from overseas wars justified in the name of fighting terrorism.

Although Mitt Romney has pledged large increases in security spending, his resistance to raising taxes, even in the face of large budget deficits, limits the amounts that can be spent for defense, regardless of what he says. Increasing security spending without revenue increases (or even tax decreases) would necessitate unlikely drastic reductions in entitlement programs, which have more potent lobbies than even the Pentagon does.

Some money should be spent on counterterrorism, but no one should lament the budget pressure that will likely restrain the extravagant and unnecessary spending that has been based on government fearmongering.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

6 comments for “Profiting Off the Terror Threat

  1. Hillary
    January 9, 2013 at 10:28

    This post may not be published
    Shame on Robert Parry and Consortium News.
    It has just removed 2 excellent posts from this forum.
    One was mine thanking rpdiplock for his/her excellent post .
    We can now understand that although Consortium new’s Mr.Robert Parry can insult those that question 9/11 anyone that queries his support of the 9/11 Official Report is immediately banned.
    Once again shame on Consortium News.

  2. Hillary
    January 9, 2013 at 09:55

    I write to complain about 2 posts that have just been removed from this forum.
    One was mine thanking another poster for their comments on 9/11.
    This post may never be publishes but shame on Consortium News.

    • Paul G.
      January 11, 2013 at 05:12

      Hmmmm! I missed something, would love to see those posts.

  3. Hillary
    January 9, 2013 at 08:31

    “So the “War on Terror” becomes a self full filling prophecy, ”
    Paul G.–Wow- thanks for just great post-short,hit the nail on the head.
    American’s Holy man in the “White House” President G.W.Bush actually told Argentina’s President Kirchner that war was good for the American economy.
    ” All of the economic growth of the United States has been encouraged by wars.’ America’s President G.W. Bush said very clearly.
    Maybe America’s current war on terror is keeping America’s economy afloat ?

  4. Paul G.
    January 9, 2013 at 05:40

    Al Quaeda Arabian Peninsula has doubled in size since Obomber ramped up his drone campaign there. “We are creating more terrorists than we can kill”. So the “War on Terror” becomes a self full filling prophecy, especially with the sting operations that, as the article cites, turn some idiots with a big mouths into “terrorists”. What is it about the term “blowback” that these fools don’t understand.

    The US, since the end of WWII when our leaders were afraid the economy would tank again if we didn’t keep the defense industry humming, has always looked to some sort of “war” as a rational to keep the economy going. It was widely viewed that WWII was what ended the depression. Since Republicans had forced FDR to scale back his New Deal, it took a war to do the trick. You can see this ideology as one reason the US has been more concerned about defense spending than its own domestic infrastructure, human and material. Of course there is another handy bi-product; keeping the world “safe for democracy” keeps it safe for access to cheap labor and resources- a win-win for the corporatocracy.

    It’s always easier to scare people with an outside threat than convince them to spend on real needs, Goebbels and Goring were quite candid about this. Secretary of the Navy Forrestal once stated that “We have to scare the hell out of the American public”. He later became secretary of Defense under Truman, and committed suicide after being fired.

    First it was the “cold war” and the “iron curtain”, then when the Soviet Union dissolved and China went capitalist, they came up with the “war on drugs”. Now, of course we have the “war on terror” which evidently is perpetual since conveniently there is no way of declaring victory-especially if the government keeps generating terrorists. So the beat goes on.

  5. charles sereno
    January 9, 2013 at 01:46

    Entitlement programs certainly have more public support than the Pentagon budget but I question whether they have the same lobby power. We’ll soon see the results. Maybe this a minor point, but I was put off by your example of death by comet or meteor. Your fine report is meticulous and accurate with statistics. However, using such a far-fetched example at the top of the piece, I’m afraid, only lessens your credibility with some readers. I hope I’m wrong.

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