Dead, bin Laden still costs U.S. billions

WASHINGTON — Even in death, Osama bin Laden will be taking revenge on American taxpayers for years to come.

The U.S. government spent $2 trillion combating bin Laden over the past decade, more than 20 percent of the nation's $9.68 trillion public debt. That money paid for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as additional military, intelligence and homeland security spending above pre-Sept. 11 trends, according to a Bloomberg analysis.

This year alone, taxpayers are spending more than $45 billion in interest on the money borrowed to battle al-Qaida, the analysis shows.

The financial bleeding won't stop with bin Laden's demise. One of every four dollars in red ink the U.S. expects to incur in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 will result from $285 billion in annual spending triggered by the terrorist leader.

Without bin Laden, "we would have accumulated less debt, be spending less on interest and we would be on a lower spending path going forward," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a research organization in Washington.

Along with the dollars-and-cents toll, bin Laden has left behind a less quantifiable imprint on American life. Thousands of families have suffered grievous loss from the Sept. 11 attacks and the two wars. U.S. government buildings in Washington and around the world have grown to resemble fortified bunkers. And the line between government power and individual liberty was redrawn as agencies gained new powers to combat a novel threat.

The complete figure may be higher than the Bloomberg analysis. Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics Inc., said bin Laden cost the U.S. government and businesses $2.5 trillion, or $250 billion each year, since 9/11. "I think a prudent planner would anticipate these costs continuing ad infinitum into the future," he said in an e-mail.

Indeed, the meter didn't stop running May 2 when bin Laden's corpse slipped into the Arabian Sea. Next year alone, the United States plans to spend an additional $118 billion on military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Additional fiscal 2012 spending that can be attributed to bin Laden includes an extra $14 billion for homeland security, about $125 billion for the Pentagon excluding the two wars, expanded intelligence spending and increased aid to Pakistan, according to the Bloomberg analysis.

As the U.S. celebrates the demise of the No 1 figure on the FBI's "Most Wanted Terrorists" list, the future spending that can be attributed to bin Laden far exceeds direct war costs. Gordon Adams, who oversaw national security budgeting at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration, said roughly $125 billion of the Pentagon's $553 billion fiscal 2012 budget request represents unnecessary spending justified by claims of wartime need.

"That's a tax which would not have happened without Osama bin Laden," Adams, a professor at American University's School of International Service, said in a telephone interview.

The "bin Laden tax" has been levied every year for the past decade. Pentagon spending — excluding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — between fiscal 2002 and today was $742 billion higher than the Congressional Budget Office's January 2001 baseline forecast.

Amid a wartime atmosphere, military spending requests faced less scrutiny both within the Pentagon and in Congress, Adams said. Programs launched with modest initial funding often live on, their costs ballooning with the years.

The military wasn't alone in securing expanded financial resources because of bin Laden. The budget for intelligence agencies tripled over the past 12 years, representing an average annual increase of 9.6 percent.

While it is difficult to determine how much of the incremental increase in can be directly linked to bin Laden, the amount is undoubtedly sizable. In October 2010, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said the intelligence budget for fiscal 2009 was $80.1 billion, including $27 billion for military intelligence. Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution defense expert, estimated that $25 billion to $30 billion of annual intelligence spending can be laid at bin Laden's feet.

"A large portion of that cost growth is from 9/11," said O'Hanlon, a former national security analyst with the Congressional Budget Office.

The government's finances also will groan beneath the weight of the Department of Homeland Security, the 216,000-employee bureaucracy created to protect Americans from additional terrorist attacks. Over the past nine years, the department spent about $123 billion more than if the 22 component agencies' pre-Sept. 11 spending trends had continued, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

That is an extra $14 billion annually U.S. taxpayers can attribute to bin Laden — or 24 percent of the $57 billion the department is seeking for the 2012 fiscal year.