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The Boom and Bust Cycle in Counterterrorism Spending

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By Fred Burton

In the more than 5 1⁄2 years since the 9/11 attacks stunned the American people and the world, the stream of warnings, some dire, about follow-on attacks on U.S. soil has been fairly steady. Even today, the Department of Homeland Security assesses the national threat level as "elevated," meaning there is a "significant risk of terrorist attack." In all this time, however, no such attack has occurred — though not for lack of trying on the part of the jihadists. The current lull, however, is affecting policymakers' decisions on counterterrorism spending.

Situations such as this, a profound shock followed by an extended lull, tend to create a pendulum effect in public perception, and thus public opinion — which ultimately is translated into public policy. In other words, the shock creates a crisis environment in which the public demands action from the government and Washington responds by earmarking vast amounts of funds to address the problem. Then the lull sets in, and some of the programs created during the crisis are scrapped entirely or are killed by a series of budget cuts as the public's perception of the threat changes and its demands for government action focus elsewhere. This also can happen when the long-term fiscal consequences of the decisions made during the crisis become evident. The lull eventually is shattered by another attack — and another infusion of money goes to address the now-neglected problem.

This cycle of fiscal booms and busts, a reality for U.S. government counterterrorism and security efforts for decades, is now becoming evident in relation to the "global war on terrorism" that was launched following the 9/11 attacks. The amount of money involved in this war is larger than in relation to past cycles because of the scope of the attacks and the enormous public outcry over it, but the underlying principle is the same.

So, although Americans felt profound shock and outrage on 9/11, it has been a long time since the attacks — and the lull is setting in. Meanwhile, other more urgent problems are competing for the money being spent on security and counterterrorism programs. Thus, as time passes, more cuts will be made. For example, as a result of congressional spending cuts for state and local first-responder assistance programs, those budgets have fallen by about $1 billion to $2.7 billion since fiscal year 2005. In fact, because the lull first set in at the local and state levels, these security agencies, as well as corporate security departments, are feeling the budget pinch harder than are federal agencies at the moment.

However, although the jihadist movement has changed or devolved as a consequence of U.S. efforts against it, it has not disappeared entirely, and the threat to the United States remains. Moreover, the jihadist movement is not the only entity that poses a terrorist threat. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before another successful attack occurs in the United States — and the cycle will begin anew.

Historical Precedent

Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this cycle of funding booms and busts is the U.S. State Department's security spending. Prior to the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Beirut and Kuwait, and the second Beirut bombing in 1984, security at embassies was taken rather lightly — and this attitude was clearly reflected in the department's security budgets.

Following the string of bombings, however, a commission was created to examine embassy security. The panel, chaired by Adm. Bobby Inman, recommended sweeping changes in the security standards for embassy buildings and in the way the State Department administered its security programs. The panel's findings were incorporated into the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Anti-terrorism Act of 1986, which provided a large initial sum of money for improving embassy security and resulted in the creation of the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) and the hiring of hundreds of new special agents.

A repeat of the Beirut bombings never occurred, however, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the lull had set in. As a result, the newly formed DSS saw its budgets steadily decline, making it impossible for it even to replace agents who left or retired. Moreover, funds were never provided to fully implement the Inman recommendations. Instead, State Department security budgets were cut drastically.

Perhaps the attitude of complacency during this lull was best summed up by Ambassador Anthony Quainton, a career foreign service officer who was appointed assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security in September 1992. Shortly after his appointment, Quainton confidently proclaimed that, with the fall of the Soviet Union, "Terrorism is dead," and proceeded to make cuts in security programs. Quainton, however, had narrowly escaped assassination in February 1992, when Shining Path guerrillas detonated a car bomb outside his home in Lima, Peru.

As the lull progressed into the 1990s, State Department security budgets continued to be cut, even after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 attack in Oklahoma City. These budget cuts were identified as a contributing factor in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam by the Crowe Commission, which was established to investigate the attacks. The commission's final report notes that its accountability review boards "were especially disturbed by the collective failure of the U.S. government over the past decade to provide adequate resources to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. diplomatic missions to terrorist attacks in most countries around the world."

The report also says that the U.S. ambassador in Nairobi, citing the embassy's vulnerability to attack by car bomb, had asked the State Department in December 1997 to authorize a relocation of the embassy to a safer place. The department, in its January 1998 denial of the request, said the post's "medium" terrorism threat level did not warrant the expenditure.

The Price of Success

One of the ironies of the security business is that a successful program breeds a false sense of security. Though it is possible to quantify an attack against a target, or even an unsuccessful attempt, it is almost impossible to determine how many attacks were never even attempted because security at the potential target was too tight. The rare examples of such security successes, however, serve to illustrate the point. Following his 1999 attack against the North Valley Jewish Community Center, lone-wolf gunman Buford Furrow admitted to having conducted surveillance on four Jewish institutions in the Los Angeles area before settling on his target. He told authorities he did not attack the first three venues because he thought security at them was too tight.

Because of this difficulty in quantifying attacks that did not occur as a result of good security, a sense of security sets in and citizens begin to doubt the need for spending vast amounts of money on protection programs. This is when the cuts begin.

Feast or Famine

One problem created by the feast-or-famine cycle of security funding is that during the boom times, when there is a sudden (and often huge) influx of cash, agencies sometimes have difficulty spending all the money allotted to them in a logical and productive manner. Congress, acting on strong public opinion, often will give an agency even more than it requested for a particular program — and then expect an immediate solution to the problem. Rather than risk losing these funds, the agencies scramble to find ways to spend them. Then, quite often, by the time the agency is able to get its act together and develop a system to effectively utilize the funds, the lull has set in and its funding is cut. These cuts frequently are accompanied by criticism of how the agency spent the initial influx of funding.

Though there undoubtedly is a lot of waste and mismanagement during the feast, during the time of famine there often are a lot of cuts made to useful, productive and sometimes critical programs. (In fairness, this cycle often applies also to other areas of the government, as well as private organizations that rely on donor funding).

The Lull

Though al Qaeda and other jihadists have not carried out a spectacular attack inside the United States since 9/11, it is not for lack of trying. In fact, there have been far more thwarted attacks in the United States in the past five years than there were in the years between the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 9/11 attacks. While many can and do debate the tactics used by the U.S. government in the war on terrorism, it is hard to argue that the U.S. government and its allies have done a poor job at disrupting terrorist plots and plans.

However, as noted above, those disruptions do not impact the public as deeply as a successful attack, and are quickly forgotten. Because of this, they also have far less impact on Congress and the amount of money allocated for counterterrorism programs. Therefore, in spite of the many failed plots, the lull is beginning to set in and, as the memories of 9/11 fade, budgets will wane even if the threat does not.

Some of the cuts that might otherwise affect security and counterterrorism programs will be mitigated by other factors. For example, because of public opinion regarding the hot-button issues of illegal immigration and border security, increased funding to border security initiatives will help the overall nondefense Homeland Security budget reflect an increase in fiscal year 2008 as compared with 2007, in spite of cuts to other programs such as the State Homeland Security Grant Program.

The trail of disrupted plots has been steady in the wake of 9/11, and it speaks to the ongoing jihadist desire to strike at the United States. Though not all of the disrupted plots made public by the U.S. government necessarily should be viewed as ominous — the Miami Seven case is one example — there is a clear record of plans to strike on U.S. soil since 9/11. Ironically, the government's success in preventing a follow-on attack is helping the lull to set in, despite the many failed plots.

Eventually, the next attack will occur. The government quite simply cannot protect every potential target, no matter how much money is applied to the problem. It can, however, reduce the threat by taking a long-term view and focusing on developing successful programs, rather than basing decisions on the ebb and flow of public perception and popular opinion.

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