What is "homeland security?"
Whatever it is, the federal government has spent on a fortune on it. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the beginning of the interminable War on Terror, the Bush administration founded the Department of Homeland Security to act as a central, coordinating office which could respond to the new threats of the modern era. But in addition to the funds pouring into that department, Congress has allocated vast sums for "homeland security" expenditures in other departments, most notably at the Pentagon.
In fact, according to a new investigation from the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch, $791 billion dollars in federal funding have gone to homeland security, both within and without the department.
"To give you a sense of just how big that is," write analysts Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer, "Washington spent an inflation-adjusted $500 billion on the entire New Deal."
It is perhaps easy to understand why Congress would be willing to shovel so much money into homeland security. After all, nobody wants to be seen to vote against keeping America safe—particularly given that the Department of Homeland Security was founded in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in American history. For that reason, homeland security will likely emerge from the American austerity wars relatively intact.
Whether homeland security spending should remain intact is another question entirely. For one thing, it's unclear exactly where all of that money is going, or whether it is really doing much to keep the homeland safe.
"Homeland security" encompasses a swatch of disparate policy goals being pursued by numerous departments with little in the way of actual coordination. This is the state of affairs which led the Washington Post's Dana Priest and William A. Arkin, in their landmark investigative report on "Top Secret America," to write that "the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine."
The other reason why this spending deserves more scrutiny is that, as Hellman and Kramer write, "there is no agreed-upon definition for just what homeland security is." There's obvious political advantage in labeling an initiative as crucial homeland security, but there's no guarantee the programs being awarded that gold star won't be motivated by narrow bureaucratic interests or ideological obsessions.
In his book The Reactionary Mind, the political theorist Corey Robin (who I interviewed for msnbc) writes, "Under the banner of a seemingly neutral, universal value, political elites are allowed, indeed encouraged, to pursue partisan and ideological courses of action they would ordinarily find hard to justify."
His primary example is the Lavender Scare: that strange moment in the 1950's when members of the United States government decided they needed to track down and fire all of the homosexuals in the State Department (among other departments) before they could be blackmailed by the Soviets.
Thus the vague, malleable concept of national security justified a witch hunt which had very little to do with security and everything to do with the prejudices of that era. One doesn't need to go very far to find similar examples from our own time: for example, the mass deportations conducted by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Case studies like this demonstrate why the incentives surrounding homeland security spending are more than a little perverse: They're able to get by with far less scrutiny than other federal spending programs, even though, if anything, they should receive far more.