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The Post-9/11 Feeding Frenzy


Militarism is the one great glamorous public-works project upon which a variety of elements in the community can be brought into agreement.

— John T. Flynn, As We Go Marching (1944)

Those who understand the exploitative nature of big government realized that the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks had little to do with the security of the American people and much to do with power and money. Still, the magnitude of the scam, as revealed in July by the Washington Post series “Top Secret America,” is truly astonishing.

Naturally, the politicians justify the massive growth in intelligence operations — that is, spying — on national-security grounds. To make sure such attacks never happen again, they said, new powers, agencies, personnel, and facilities are imperative. But now the truth is known: the post–9/11 activity has been an obscene feeding frenzy at the public trough. Any resemblance to efforts at keeping Americans safe is strictly coincidental. Any lingering doubts that America has a productive class and a parasitic class are now dispelled.

“The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work,” the Post’s Dana Priest and William Arkin wrote after a two-year investigation. “After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.”

It would be a mistake to chalk that up to bureaucratic bumbling. It is not bumbling (though of course there is some of that). It is highway robbery. Everyone who was well connected, either in government or the “private” sector, wanted a piece of the action, and the chances are he — and many others — got it.

It doesn’t matter that multiple agencies do the same work and keep their findings secret from one another. It doesn’t matter that the volume of paperwork is beyond anyone’s capacity to absorb it. It doesn’t matter that nothing of value is produced even by the reckoning of insiders. What matters is money, power, and prestige. That is the mother of all boondoggles.

Chew on some of the numbers from the Post investigation and see whether it sounds as though protection of our society was a national-intelligence priority:

  • “Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.”
  • “An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.”
  • “In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings — about 17 million square feet of space.”

Moreover, the Post writes, “51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks”; and, “Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year — a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.” [Emphasis added.] Since 9/11 no fewer than 263 intelligence and counterterrorism organizations have been “created or reorganized.” And what about cost?

“The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, 2½ times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001. But the figure doesn’t include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs.” No one knows how much the whole thieving operation costs.

And no one seems to care. Money is like water. For example, “[The] chief of analysis discovered 60 classified analytic Web sites still in operation that were supposed to have been closed down for lack of usefulness,” Priest and Arkin wrote.

According the authors, “[Many] officials who work in the intelligence agencies say they remain unclear about what the [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] is in charge of.”

Let’s recall that recent terrorist attempts — the Times Square incident and the underwear bomber over Detroit — were thwarted by private citizens. The magnificent intelligence apparatus was clueless even when alerted to possible danger.

It is no surprise, then, that the mega-bureaucracy isn’t even much help fighting current wars (which shouldn’t be fought): “When Maj. Gen. John M. Custer was the director of intelligence at U.S. Central Command, he grew angry at how little helpful information came out of the [National Counterterrorism Center]. In 2007, he visited its director at the time, retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, to tell him so. ‘I told him that after 4½ years, this organization had never produced one shred of information that helped me prosecute three wars!’ he said loudly, leaning over the table during an interview.” [Emphasis added.]

Of course, secrecy is the imperative. No one knows what anyone else is doing — letting another agency know might result in someone’s turf being compromised — and the extent of the spying is kept from the American people, which surely violates the theory of constitutional government those same officials undoubtedly pay tearful lip service to on the appropriate occasions. Consent of the governed under a government of secrecy is a contradiction in terms. Secrecy will be defended as key to security, but as Priest and Arkin noted, “Another senior intelligence official with wide access to many programs said that secrecy is sometimes used to protect ineffective projects.” No one wants to see his budget cut or his security detail reduced.

The people involved understand they have a multibillion white elephant on their hands as far as the taxpayers are concerned, but no one would dare suggest reducing its size. “‘More’ is often the solution proposed by the leaders of the 9/11 enterprise,” Priest and Arkin wrote.

“Private” contractors


  • The Postseries devoted one article to the elaborate government contracting with private firms for products and services. Again, the extent of the operation is astounding. What Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls the “gusher” of money since 9/11 has attracted thousands of companies and hundreds of thousands of personnel. Here we get a sense of how much government spending distorts the private economy and consumes scarce resources, producing little of value in return. People and companies that would be making products for consumers instead are looking for ways to sell things — computer software, computer hardware, surveillance devices — to the state for its spy operations. Super-secret trade shows are regularly put on at which vendors hawk their wares to government buyers. These are glitzy bazaars where no one spends his own money and the taxpayers are left in the dark. “Everybody’s just on a spending spree,” the reporters write.Obviously, this relationship between government and “defense” contractors has nothing to do with the free market. It is the corporate state writ large, with all its ruling-class privileges and protections. Priest and Arkin write, “Such coziness worries other officials who believe the post–9/11 defense-intelligence-corporate relationship has become, as one senior military intelligence officer described it, a ‘self-licking ice cream cone.’”According to Post estimates, 265,000 out of 854,000 people with top-secret clearances are contractors. But Gates confesses, “I can’t get a number on how many contractors work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.” Nearly 2,000 companies are involved in post–9/11 intelligence operations. “Hiring contractors was supposed to save the government money. But that has not turned out to be the case,” Priest and Arkin wrote.

    The government’s reliance on private contractors is often subject to illegitimate criticism. The Bush administration was chided for “privatizing” military operations through Blackwater and other firms. But that was not privatization. It was merely the government buying services from nongovernmental contractors instead of employing them directly. The claim that government employees are less self-interested, or profit-oriented, than contractors doesn’t withstand scrutiny when we bear in mind the public-choice analysis of government personnel. The Priest-Arkin revelations make that clear.

    Using private contractors to spy on American and foreign citizens — and even to torture and kill so-called insurgents and terrorists — is damnable not because they are private contractors but rather because the conduct is immoral per se. In The Nation Jeremy Scahill criticized the Post for withholding specifics on which contractors did what for the U.S. government abroad. “[What] about the contractors who have tortured prisoners, flown rendition flights, and participated in lethal ‘direct actions,’ i.e. assassination operations?” Scahill asks. The perpetrators, of course, should be tried for war crimes, but would Scahill feel better had bona fide government employees who had taken a loyalty oath done those things? But he is right in suggesting that use of contractors should not insulate government officials from responsibility for “private” crimes.

    As Glenn Greenwald has noted, the reaction to the Post series has been nearly nonexistent, even from supposed opponents of big government and deficit spending. How can that be?

    John T. Flynn provided the answer in his 1944 classic analysis of fascism and corporatism, As We Go Marching (online here: http://mises.org/books/aswegomarching.pdf). Flynn noted that those who favor big-government spending have a problem: the conservative elements of society are averse to deficit spending and debt. Fortunately for the big spenders, they have a solution: militarism.

    “It is a fact that military outlays, at least within limits, generally can be counted on to command the support of those elements which are generally most vigorous in the opposition to public spending,” Flynn wrote. “Thus militarism is the one great glamorous public-works project upon which a variety of elements in the community can be brought into agreement.

    “This economic phase of the institution, however, is not always stressed, being smothered under the patriotic gases pumped out in its defense. Nevertheless, this economic aspect is never absent from the consciousness of most people who champion militarism.”

    Maybe that is why we’ve heard no outcry from conservatives against the government’s absurdly extravagant and useless post–9/11 intelligence boondoggle. They should be cheering the Post for exposing the government’s profligacy, but so far their silence has been deafening.


This article originally appeared in the October 2010 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.