It’s time to admit that creating it was a mistake.
In 2002 the George W. Bush administration presented a budget request for massively increased spending on homeland security, at that point coordinated out of the Office of Homeland Security. “A new wave of terrorism, involving new weapons, looms in America’s future,” the White House said. “It is a challenge unlike any ever faced by our nation.” In proposing a new cabinet-level agency, Bush said, “The changing nature of the threats facing America requires a new government structure to protect against invisible enemies that can strike with a wide variety of weapons....”
More than a decade later, it’s increasingly clear that the danger to Americans posed by terrorism remains smaller than that of myriad other threats, from infectious disease to gun violence to drunk driving. Even in 2001, considerably more Americans died of drowning than from terror attacks.
Since then, the odds of an American being killed in a terrorist attack in the U.S. or abroad have been about one in 20 million. The Boston marathon bombing was evil and tragic, but it’s worth comparing the three deaths in that attack to a list of the number of people in the U.S. killed by guns since the December 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn., which stood at 6,078 as of June.
This low risk isn’t evidence that homeland security spending has worked: It’s evidence that the terror threat was never as great as we thought. A rather pathetic Heritage Foundation list of 50 terrorist plots against the U.S. foiled since Sept. 11 includes such incidents as a plan to use a blowtorch to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge and “allegedly lying about attending a terrorist training center”—but nothing involving weapons of mass destruction. Further, these are alleged plots. The list of plausible plots, let alone actual crimes, is considerably smaller. From 2005 to 2010, federal attorneys declined (PDF) to bring any charges against 67 percent of alleged terrorism-related cases referred to them from law enforcement agencies.
That hasn’t stopped a bonanza of spending. Homeland security agencies got about $20 billion in the 2002 budget. That rose to about $60 billion (PDF) this year...The problem with DHS is bigger than a bloated budget misspent. An overweight DHS gets a free pass to infringe civil liberties without a shred of economic justification...
The U.S. government clearly has a responsibility to control who and what comes in and out of the country as well as to ensure travel is safe from violent attack. But all of the bureaucratic consolidation, additional regulation, and unchecked spending of the past 12 years have served to make trade and travel harder, with little benefit. And DHS has helped create institutional inertia: Its very existence suggests the domestic response to the threat of terror is of equal weight with defense, transport, health, labor, or foreign affairs. It heaps largesse on a range of contractors, all of whom have an interest in hyping the threat of terror to ensure the money keeps flowing.
That’s unfortunate. Beyond the waste of money and the overregulation, the expansion of the homeland security state has created unnecessary fear among a population that should be able to trust its government to send accurate signals about risk. So let’s start sending the right signals. Shut down the DHS, and redistribute the agencies under its umbrella back to other departments, including the justice, transportation, and energy departments. Then start bringing their budgets into some sort of alignment with the benefit they provide.
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