How Killing bin Laden Helped Lower the Deficit
Policy + Politics

How Killing bin Laden Helped Lower the Deficit

AP Photo/Department of Defense

As expected, the controversy is still raging over whether the United States had the right to kill the mass murderer who annihilated 3,000 innocent Americans on 9/11 and was planning to launch even more deadly attacks over time. Before his death, bin Laden hit us right in the gut — emotionally, physically and economically. His legacy was the three "Ds" — death, destruction and an increase in the U.S. deficit.

Had it not been for bin Laden, we would have been able to save about $2 trillion or more. (Some economists put the Iraq war alone at over $3 trillion.) The two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, prompted by a response to terrorism, are still being counted; the Department of Homeland Security, created because of 9/11, now employs over 230,000 people, produces 50,000 reports a year and is housed in 33 new building complexes occupying 17 million square feet. 

Bin Laden's stated goal after 9/11 was to "bleed America to the point of bankruptcy." He said in a videotaped message in 2004, "All we have to do is send two mujahidin ... to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses." 

If we had captured bin Laden instead of killing him, he would have cost us a bundle more. 

  • Legal scholar Jeffrey Toobin calls the trial of Osama bin Laden the greatest trial that never was. “I think it would have run over $100 million,” Toobin told The Fiscal Times. “It’s really a hard question, depending on many variables, like whether it would take place in a military tribunal or a courtroom.” Toobin's estimate is close to the cost of Operation Crevice, "the longest and most expensive criminal case in Britain — costing £50 million [$80 million], lasting more than a year," according to the London Sunday Times.
  • Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said, “[A bin Laden trial would] probably be relatively cheap, in the millions. My guess is the trial would have been at Bagram [the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in Bagram, Afghanistan], probably done largely behind closed doors, and not as a big, ballyhooed public trial done in a civilian court, with an opportunity to make bin Laden a martyr.”
  • The cost of a trial doesn't account for the cost of security. If 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was being tried in New York City instead of Gitmo, it would cost more than $400 million to provide security, assuming the pre-trial preparation and trial took two years, which experts say is inevitable. (They put the cost of trial at $206 million. Surely bin Laden would cost more than that.)

The trial is just part one, of course. The 55-year-old bin Laden could live as long as or longer than, say, Idi Amin, who died at the age of 78. So add 23 years of incarceration and the number jumps again. 

  • Although it costs $28,817 a year on average to incarcerate a prisoner, if bin Laden were jailed in California, he would cost $44,563 a year, nearly the same price as Harvard for one year. Total:  $1,024,949.

One last thing: If this murderer had been tried and sentenced to death in California, it's likely that he still would have cost taxpayers a fortune. Spread over an average of 27 years, the cost would be $250 million to kill bin Laden.

Additional reporting by Kathleen Deveny

Related Links:
How Much as Osama bin Laden Cost the U.S.? (The Curious Capitalist)
Terrorists Get Their Wish: A Trial at Guantanamo (Times Record News)
Skyrocketing Costs May Have Doomed NYC Terror Trial Plan (