In theory, endeavoring to learn the specifics of the US empire should be a simple task. Each year brings a new public budget with itemized appropriations; open hearings in Congress on the number of bases, weapons, operations undertaken by the US government; and press releases and published reviews of plans and resources from the relevant military and intelligence agencies.
So goes the theory.
In reality, the US empire runs on secrecy – partly to protect its operatives, but mostly to cover up its failures. This leads to insane amounts of classification of official documents and operations undertaken by the US government to pursue its interests. Interests that are typically those of the empire’s richest citizens that typically correspond and interlock with the interests of transnational corporations.
Due to this reality, it is exceedingly difficult to get a complete and precise understanding of the empire in its entirety. The intelligence budgets are often secret or “black” and the US military footprint is hard to measure.
For instance, the US government has admitted to having over 660 foreign military bases, but tracking the increasing use of ad hoc and secret bases is extremely difficult. US special operations forces – usually used for assassinations and training foreign fighters – are reported to have operated in 135 countries in 2015.
Those forces are likely to be even more active in 2016 as plans for new bases in the Middle East, Asia and Africa were already announced this fall with the ostensible objective of countering ISIS’ expanding influence. In all likelihood, US forces will be used to expand the empire further into Africa and Asia, partly in hopes of countering Chinese influence.
But while it is difficult to cobble together the increasing comings-and-goings of US special forces, the most indecipherable element in the US imperial apparatus is the Department of Defense’s spending. The Pentagon’s own newspaper, Stars and Stripes, reported in 2014 that “the Department of Defense remains the last federal department still unable to conduct a financial audit despite laws passed in the 1990s that require the accounting.”
The Pentagon reportedly spends roughly $2 billion per day both for its current operations and maintaining over a trillion dollars worth of physical assets with no substantive financial oversight. Weapons projects can run in the trillions, with DoD procurement officers often switching sides to join arms-makers such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. Pentagon officers can be highly protective and secretive of projects, often hiding information from Congress and the public about costs and failures and threatening those that would reveal unflattering information.
In 2013, the Department of Defense broke new ground and submitted an audit of its smallest service branch, the US Marine Corps, with much fanfare. But in March of 2015, the audit was withdrawn after further scrutiny showed it was fundamentally flawed. The private firm that oversaw the Marine Corps audit, Grant Thornton, was fired.
Now, Congress has finally demanded that the Department of Defense undergo a financial audit. The process has so far been a nightmare, with Politico reporting that one of the first agencies within DoD slated to be audited, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), is unable to match its financial records with its inventory. The DLA only represents $44 billion of the annual $700 billion-plus annual Pentagon budget.
War is fundamentally, as one decorated US General put it, a business. But unlike many modern businesses, those in the business of war pretend to have other motives than profit. This poses an interesting problem related to the question of auditing.
With more transparency comes more scrutiny – both for operations and lucrative contracts. So while the US empire probably can be audited, there is little to no incentive for those able to provide the accounting to do so.