US Foreign Policy

Counterterrorism Spending: Protecting America while Promoting Efficiencies and Accountability


The United States currently lacks an accurate accounting of how much it has spent on the fight against terrorism. Without accurate data, policymakers will have difficulty evaluating whether the nation spends too much or too little on the counterterrorism (CT) mission, and whether current spending is doing its job effectively or efficiently.

In the summer of 2017, the Stimson Center convened a nonpartisan study group to provide an initial tally of total CT spending since 9/11, to examine gaps in the understanding of CT spending, and to offer recommendations for improving U.S. government efforts to account for these expenditures. Stimson’s research suggests that total spending that has been characterized as CT-related – including expenditures for governmentwide homeland security efforts, international programs, and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria – totaled $2.8 trillion during fiscal years 2002 through 2017. According to the group’s research, annual CT spending peaked at $260 billion in 2008 at the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This represents a 16-fold increase over the 2001 total. In 2017, as war funding declined, total CT spending amounted to $175 billion, nearly an 11-fold increase from the 2001 level.

With this growth, CT spending has become a substantial component of total discretionary spending for programs across a wide range of areas, including defense, education, and medical research. Of $18 trillion in discretionary spending between fiscal years 2002-2017, CT spending made up nearly 16 percent of the whole.[i] At its peak in 2008, CT spending amounted to 22 percent of total discretionary spending. By 2017, CT spending had fallen to 14 percent of the total. Despite this drop, the study group found no indication that CT spending is likely to continue to decline.

At the same time, budgetary caps enacted in 2011 in the Budget Control Act (BCA) have created an attractive fiscal loophole by placing new pressures on spending while exempting spending characterized as emergency or war spending, also known as overseas contingency operations (OCO). In recent years, billions of dollars in spending unrelated to the wars has been characterized as OCO in order to exempt it from the BCA caps. This practice makes it more difficult to identify spending that is truly dedicated to CT and to evaluate potential trade-offs.

The Stimson study group found a variety of weaknesses in definitions, tracking, and consistencies that limit accuracy and contribute to a lack of transparency regarding the current data on CT spending. These weaknesses make it difficult to evaluate whether CT spending has been effective at enhancing security at home or overseas. The study group’s recommendations are designed to improve the accuracy of tracking CT spending and to provide greater clarity for budget planning for future CT programs.

The study group concluded that a broader set of parameters is urgently needed in order to make the full federal investment in CT more transparent, to identify gaps and trade-offs, and to permit more useful evaluations of the effectiveness and efficiency of that spending.

1. Create a clear and transparent counterterrorism funding report. Congress should reinstate and expand the statutory requirement that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) compile data and analyze governmentwide U.S. homeland security spending in its annual budget request. OMB should provide metrics that show Congress and the public the scope of counterterrorism spending relative to total discretionary spending and total spending, including mandatory spending.

2. Adopt a detailed agencywide definition for counterterrorism spending. OMB and Congress should develop, adopt, and enforce a clear, usable set of criteria to define counterterrorism spending, including programs with the primary purpose of preventing, mitigating, or responding to terrorist attacks in the United States or overseas. This definition may be tailored to individual agency missions as long as agencies show how any counterterrorism spending addresses a credible threat to the United States.

3. Build on current accounting structures to anticipate future budget pressures. OMB should work with agencies to build on the current accounting structure to distinguish counterterrorism spending at the program, activity, and project levels, identifying ongoing vs. incremental emergency needs.

4. Tie the definition of war spending to specific activities. OMB and Congress should develop and implement clear criteria for terrorism-related spending through overseas contingency operations and other emergency authorities. This should include the cost of deploying U.S. troops to conflict zones; countering terrorist groups through military, diplomatic, or other operations; training foreign militaries; and conducting emergency military response activities within the United States that have a counterterrorism focus. Overseas contingency operations should be limited to such spending.

5. Require Congress to separately approve emergency or wartime spending. Congress should pass new legislation that requires it to vote separately to approve spending that is designated as war-related emergency or wartime overseas contingency operations spending before those funds can be obligated.



[i] Discretionary spending is defined as funding that is appropriated annually.

Protecting America While Promoting Efficiencies and Accountability

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