Scare Cuts

From an emboldened Iran to unsafe beef, the eight most hysterical warnings about how automatic spending reductions could harm U.S. national security.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Batten down the hatches! This week, Barack Obama joined the growing list of national security officials forecasting dire risks to the country’s defenses if $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts are allowed to take effect March 1. In a speech on Tuesday at Virginia’s largest industrial employer, Newport News Shipbuilding, the president said sequestration would damage the nation’s economy and naval readiness. "The threat of these cuts has caused the Navy to cancel the deployment or delay the repair of aircraft carriers," he said. "Another might not get finished. Another might not get started at all."

The remarks added to a media blitz by officials including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who’ve offered a range of doomsday prophecies if Congress allows the automatic spending cuts known as "sequestration" to take effect.

Politically, the warnings are designed to ostracize Republicans who refuse to raise government revenues in a deal to avoid sequestration. But in practice, the dire predictions have come under scrutiny from independent and partisan critics who argue that they’re baseless, or at least exaggerated. In other cases, Republicans have joined the chorus of warnings about specific earmarks in GOP-controlled districts going on the chopping block. So what’s the nation supposedly in store for?

Drug Smuggling

In an overlooked alert, the Obama administration warned that sequestration could force a 25-percent reduction in what the Coast Guard does, "including everything from setting navigational aids to fighting drug smuggling and illegal aliens." Of course, the threat of drug smuggling has been used before — and not in the most convincing way. In its Office of Management and Budget sequestration report, the White House warned that the National Drug Intelligence Center would lose $2 million of its $20 million budget. But it turned out, embarrassingly, that the National Drug Intelligence Center wasn’t even functioning anymore — it was closed on June 15, 2012.

Unsanitary Food 

The threat of hazardous meats jeopardizing the nation’s security has entered the sequestration fray thanks to a Republican on the House Agriculture Committee. Last week, Rep. Michael Conaway (R-TX) sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warning of the risk to consumers if sequestration forces furloughs of meat inspectors. "This decision, if implemented, could disrupt the flow of commerce and the lives of millions of Americans, starting with meat and poultry industry and ending at America’s dinner table," Conaway said. "According to the American Meat Institute, furloughing FSIS inspectors is estimated to cost $10 billion in production losses to the industry. This industry and American consumers depend on the services provided by FSIS inspectors to ensure a safe and healthy food supply."

A Second Pearl Harbor 

Summoning the memory of the 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie warned that cuts to the Navy could leave the state’s naval base vulnerable to attack. "The plain fact is, that will undermine our capacity for readiness at Pearl Harbor," he told Congress on Saturday. He said the cuts could force a work-time reduction of nearly 19,000 full-time Pearl Harbor workers and made specific reference to the World War II assault. "At Pearl Harbor right now, which I hope everybody can understand symbolizes what happens when you’re not prepared," he said, "we’ll be laying off 19,000 people."

The reality? A once-in-a-generation surprise attack is probably not a realistic threat, as even Abercrombie later admitted. "I’m talking about institutionally," he said, adding that the cuts wouldn’t pose "an immediate threat or anything like that."

An Emboldened Iran 

If Iran isn’t afraid of U.S. military might, what’s to stop it from developing a nuclear weapon? That’s the scare theory proposed by Republican lawmakers who are worried about the redeployment of U.S. aircraft carriers from the Persian Gulf region due to budgetary woes. As it stands, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower will be the only aircraft carrier looming near Iran’s shores. (There used to be three.) Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) on Wednesday accused the administration of believing "we don’t have to do anything" to check Iran’s nuclear progress. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) made similar remarks earlier this month. "I’m sure Iran is very supportive of sequestration," he said, referring to the budget cuts.

Others have suggested that Republicans are overstating their case. "Most nations, Iran included, don’t have any carriers. And aircraft carriers do not travel alone: they travel in battle groups," wrote Wired’s Spencer Ackerman. "The Eisenhower’s includes eight aircraft squadrons; three guided-missile destroyers; and a guided-missile cruiser. Then there are all of the minesweepers, helicopters and patrol boats already in the region. Pretty much no other navy is capable of keeping that kind of seapower on station in a financial crunch." In other words, it’s not as if the Navy is hoisting up a white flag off the Iranian coast.

A Practically Empty Pentagon

Last week, Panetta warned Congress that sequestration could force the Pentagon to furlough the "vast majority" of the department’s 800,000 civilian workers. "There is no mistaking that the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force," Panetta said. Of course, if you’re picturing vast swaths of empty cubicles, that’s probably the wrong visual: The belt-tightening would mean workers lose one workday per week and 20 percent of their pay for 22 weeks starting in April.

A Porous Border

Lock your doors! Cuts to the Department of Homeland Security will reduce personnel guarding the border, Napolitano said yesterday. "I don’t think we can maintain the same level of security at all places around the country with sequester compared to without sequester," She said. Specifically, she mentioned a "rollback in border patrol" agent time. "If you roll that back, you make [the area] between the ports of entry less secure than the record security that has been there in recent years," she said. On Tuesday, U.S. officials released hundreds of detainees on supervised leave from immigration detention centers across the country to save money ahead of the sequestration deadline — a move some Republicans denounced as yet another scare tactic.

A Decimated Air Force

In a detailed rundown of cuts, the Air Force delivered an ominous presentation to Congress earlier this month. As The Air Force Times’ Jeff Schogol reported, the presentation said "sequestration would cut about 203,000 flying hours [and] Civilians could be furloughed for 22 days, translating into a roughly 20 percent loss in bi-weekly pay for each furloughed civilian." In all, the report said that it would take six months to recover from the loss of readiness.

A Blow to Disaster Relief

Besides leaving the U.S. vulnerable to a terrorist attack — a threat Napolitano outlined yesterday — the Homeland Security secretary also said natural disaster preparedness would be compromised. "It will reduce the disaster relief fund by nearly $1 billion, potentially affecting survivors recovering from Hurricane Sandy, the tornadoes in places like Tuscaloosa and Joplin, and other major disasters across the country," she said. "Threats from terrorism and the need to respond and recover from natural disasters do not diminish because of budget cuts."

Indeed — if U.S. officials are to be believed — these threats are only going to increase.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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