Tracking American Counterterrorism Money to Dark Places

Instead of a series of unreturned emails and calls from officials deep with the federal government’s budget offices, researchers and advocates can now find a one-stop shop.

America may be tired of war, but learning how the U.S. government supports foreign security forces can serve as a harsh awakening. A group of researchers has combed through disparate sources to create an online tool, the Security Assistance Monitor (SAM), that shows where this money goes.

American taxpayers have been supporting foreign military forces, including ones in countries with dismal human rights records, for decades. Earlier this year, however, President Obama proposed a massive new $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund.

Obama’s proposal marks a crucial moment for those of us who want accountability from our military’s spending. The president explicitly set forth a strategy to rely more heavily on U.S.-trained and -supplied foreign military forces in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

This might make political sense in a nation weary of funding more U.S. military engagements, and it might even make for strategic sense in some cases. But it could make for murky alliances, since this money is normally buried deep within the Pentagon budget. In 2012 alone, according to the U.S. State Department’s International Security Advisory Board [PDF], the U.S. Department of Defense gave $16.2 billion in equipment, training, and weaponry—scattered across 100 different programs—to foreign militaries.

The SAM exists to clarify how the money is spent—where it’s going, who’s receiving it, and what was done with it. SAM’s researchers, working with a small staff and frequent use of the Freedom of Information Act, have created a searchable database that allows researchers to find data based on country, program, or specific law. It also provides ways to track this spending over time.

Instead of a series of unreturned emails and calls from officials deep with the federal government’s budget offices, researchers and advocates can now find American spending in a one-stop shop. The data will allow a more informed debate, at home and abroad, about how U.S. foreign security assistance is being spent and who it is going to.

The Pentagon seems in no hurry to promote such a debate. Unlike more traditional development aid, security assistance comes with few public reporting requirements. Earlier this month the international Aid Transparency Index found the DOD to be the least transparent of all U.S. agencies providing overseas aid. With some of the content available on the Security Assistance Monitor, we can see why the Pentagon might be reticent:

  • 171 countries received U.S. counterterrorism assistance from the Pentagon’s Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program in 2012;
  • 16 different U.S. government programs provided direct assistance to the police, military, and border guards in Uzbekistan in recent years;
  • In 2012, the U.S. contributed $79.8 million in counter-narcotics assistance to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa;
  • From 2007 to 2012, the Pentagon delivered $2.6 billion of U.S. weapons to Iraq while the State Department approved another $8.1 billion in direct weapons exports from the arms industry (although it’s not clear how much of that was actually delivered).

Of course, there’s also the bigger question of whether the spending is helping or hurting, and whether it is well spent. These questions rarely get asked when it comes to military assistance, but the track record is poor.

The CIA conducted a still-classified study on the impact of CIA assistance to rebel forces over the course of the past few decades. According to the New York Times, the assistance normally had an adverse impact. Even though the United States spent $25 billion to rebuild the Iraqi army, it fell apart in just a few weeks when under assault from Islamic terrorists earlier this fall. In 2012, after years of training and aid, U.S.-trained soldiers overthrew a democratically elected government in Mali.

By providing accurate information about what the U.S. government is supporting and where, the Security Assistance Monitor helps make it possible for the public to assess the expenditures and to more effectively advocate for sounder approaches. Going forward, we hope the Security Assistance Monitor allows for more robust debate and a louder insistence on accountability, and better outcomes.

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