Congratulations are due to the Washington Post. “Top Secret America,” its in-depth, multi-part, two-year investigation into the vast network of government security agencies and private contractors is an eye-opener — obvious Pulitzer bait. Reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin have revealed a “hidden world, growing beyond control.” Within this “alternate geography” of the United States, they found 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies at work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. Over 850,000 Americans have top-secret security clearances. They spend “a gusher of money” that has flowed since 9/11.
And — this will blow your socks off — the Post
found that there is tremendous waste, duplication, and lack of accountability. Really? In a government program? “Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.”
Not only that, but they aren’t careful about the way they spend taxpayer dollars. “With so much money to spend, managers do not always worry about whether they are spending it effectively. ‘Someone says, let’s do another study, and because no one shares information, everyone does their own study,’ said Elena Mastors. . . . Everybody’s just on a spending spree. We don’t need all these people doing all this stuff.’”
The growth of counterterrorism spending since 9/11 has been sharp and dramatic. “With the quick infusion of money,” write Priest and Arkin, “military and intelligence agencies multiplied. Twenty-four organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Task Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations; and 26 after that; and 31 more; and 32 more; and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008 and 2009.” These analysts and agents produce an estimated 50,000 reports per year — most of which are never read.
So yes, bravo to the Post. Truly. But why do they tend to notice government waste only when it applies to national security? The Post and other liberal organs have been quick to record how much the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (particularly Iraq) have cost taxpayers. But they seem much less curious about waste, duplication, and even fraud in other areas of government spending.
If they need ideas about where else to look, they can consult Martin Gross, author of a series of books about the “government racket” (that’s one of his titles actually). It may interest the Post to learn that there are 70 different programs in 13 different federal agencies addressing the problem of teen drug abuse. There are 160 different job-training programs, 50 homeless-assistance programs, 27 programs to avert teen pregnancy, and 90 programs on early-childhood development. According to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “at least 12 federal departments and agencies were responsible for hundreds of community development programs that assist distressed urban communities and their residents. Historically, there is but little coordination among the agencies, posing an unnecessary burden on communities seeking assistance.” That is to say nothing of the taxpayers.
Nor do federal departments and agencies even know where all of the money goes. In National Suicide, Gross recounts, “In one recent year, the federal government could not account for $24.5 billion it spent. Buried in the Treasury Department’s ‘Unreconciled Transactions Affecting the Change in Net Position,’ is the fact that the enormous sum is unreconciled — that is, it is missing.”
This is rich: The GAO also found that “the IRS could not verify $3 billion of its expenses” as the agency “had not kept its own books and records with the same degree of accuracy it expects from taxpayers.”
Medicare fraud alone accounts for an estimated $60 billion annually according to the Wall Street Journal. A Philadelphia cardiologist, convicted of defrauding the program to the tune of half a million dollars, explained to a Senate committee, “The problem is that no one is watching. The system is extremely easy to evade. The forms I sent in were absolutely outrageous.”
It doesn’t surprise conservatives to find waste, duplication, and gross overspending in the military and security agencies of government. We know that this is inevitable in government programs. As Milton Friedman said, “No one washes a rented car.” It’s not at all clear that the Post understands the larger lesson.
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2010 Creators Syndicate, Inc.