The High Cost of a ‘War on Terror’

Despite the declining threat that international terrorism poses to the U.S. homeland, the U.S. government continues to pour countless billions of dollars into counter-terrorism while impinging on constitutional liberties and misleading the public, as the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland notes.

By Ivan Eland

Retired Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper, Jr., the Director of National Intelligence, recently gave testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on his annual assessment of the threats facing the United States. What little attention was paid by the media, always seeking drama and conflict to get more viewers and readers in order to increase advertising revenues, to the annual ritual focused on Clapper’s vitriolic attack on Edward J. Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor.

Seal of the National Security Agency

Seal of the National Security Agency

Snowden believed NSA’s electronic snooping programs went too far and therefore gave a treasure trove of documents to media outlets about the snooping. Clapper accused him of doing grave damage to the nation’s security through such disclosures, because terrorist groups have allegedly changed their behavior to avoid U.S. spying.

The media also focused on the tension at the congressional hearing between Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Clapper over Clapper’s statement last year, under questioning by Wyden, that intelligence agencies weren’t collecting bulk information about Americans. In the carefully scripted kabuki dance that passes for intelligence oversight by Congress, Wyden had even told Clapper he was going to ask that question in open committee session, so Clapper’s resulting lie was not because he was caught off guard, as he later implied.

This year, Wyden euphemistically termed Clapper’s prior dissembling to congressional overseers, doing at least something to uphold the Constitution’s system of checks and balances, as a crippling “culture of misinformation.”

In fact, Clapper’s seething anger at Snowden is probably the result of Snowden’s disclosures, which made a monkey out of Clapper’s prior claim to the contrary by revealing NSA’s bulk unconstitutional collection of all Americans’ phone records. Of course, the arrogant intelligence chief has stated that he resented talking about classified issues in public, which matches the mentality of an intelligence community that regularly chafes under even the poorly enforced constitutional limits of the republic it is supposed to serve.

So even though some of Clapper’s comments about Snowden’s giving too much away to foreign countries and terrorists might have some merit, the retired general’s own transgressions are far worse for a republic: lying to a congressional oversight panel in violation the Constitution’s system of checks and balances and his intelligence community’s blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment’s implied prohibition against general searches and its stated requirement that to spy on Americans, a judicially approved search warrant, based on probable cause that a crime has been committed, is needed.

In this year’s testimony, however, the real news was that Clapper undermined his own argument that Snowden’s alleged help to terrorist organizations was so horrific for the country; he did this by saying that international terrorism was only the fourth worst threat to the nation. That’s right, Clapper claimed that the threat from whistle-blowing insiders such as Snowden and foreign intelligence services were bigger threats to the nation than terrorists.

And for the second year in a row, he cited cyber-attacks by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea on U.S. defense contractors, financial institutions, water utilities and electrical grids as the number one threat. So after all the hysteria after the 9/11 attacks, drone wars in several developing countries, and two overseas quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, which allegedly attempted to “drain the swamp” of terrorists, the terrorist threat has been downgraded.

One could make the argument, and U.S. security agencies do, that all of their martial efforts overseas have made Americans safer. In at least Iraq and Yemen (a major venue for the U.S. drone war), hard data indicate that U.S military action has actually increased the numbers of Islamist terrorists. Data don’t lie, because what drives radical Islamists to attack the United States is unnecessary U.S. meddling in Muslim countries, just look at the late Osama bin Laden’s writings.

And since the chance that international terrorists will kill any American is about the same as an asteroid killing him or her (and the chance of succumbing to such a terrorist is less than being struck by lightning), the U.S. government has long over-invested in the military means to fight terrorists.

Yet despite that over-investment, terrorism as a threat does not justify the mammoth defense expenditures the U.S. makes without a great power enemy to fight (the United States currently expends on defense what the next 11 countries similarly spend combined).

So a cynic, that is, a person thoroughly familiar with how defense programs are created and sustained but with no vested interest in them, might say that countering the cyber-warfare threat from great powers would bring defense contractors more profits than systems to counter rag-tag, and often incompetent, terrorist groups. Just a thought.

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 The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy. [This article previously appeared at HuffingtonPost.]

5 comments for “The High Cost of a ‘War on Terror’

  1. bobzz
    February 13, 2014 at 19:10

    To state the obvious, the right wing vociferously denounces spending, which increases the debt, then OKs any and all expenditures for the military to fight enemies of our own making. Amazing—and they just can’t see it.

  2. February 11, 2014 at 17:14

    I write extensively about the so-called “War on Terror” inside my latest nonfiction book, THE CLAPPER MEMO. Hope you’ll check it out. Details at

  3. Daniel Pfeiffer
    February 11, 2014 at 15:19

    Yes. This is THE argument, isn’t it, and the one that Clapper and the rest of our government don’t want to engage in. For to answer the charges of why terrorists have come to be, and why leaders of western nations feel the need to bankrupt their peoples’ moralities and treasuries to indulge in perpetual warfare, is to expose themselves as the fearful bullies they are, acting violently to cover the tracks of their decades-long crime sprees against sovereign peoples the world over.

    I do hope this country wakes up to a healthy dose of self-reflection. We’re not the benevolent actors on the world stage we are told we are. This must become obvious to the nation in order for us to change course.

    • John
      February 12, 2014 at 21:14

      Very well put article and comment. Actually “countering the cyber-warfare threat from great powers” is a very simple thing, speaking from experience as a computer system designer. Don’t connect critical systems to the internet. It’s that simple, and it will never be done, because even the military and industry must have their dancing displays and faraway links to mundane control systems at utilities, etc. Of course commercial servers, etc. must be protected otherwise. But no connection, no hacking problem for critical installations.

  4. Claire
    February 11, 2014 at 14:00

    Unfortunately, as Americans contemplate the liberty-for-security bargain the government is offering them, their brains are wired to wildly miscalculate.
    –>”This is Your Brain on Terrorism”

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