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Was bin Laden's death worth the cost?

Afghans watch television coverage announcing the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at an electronics store on May 2, 2011 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

STEVE CHIOTAKIS: Let's consider for a moment the actions of the United States like, say, a corporate maneuver -- money goes out and the country expects a return on the investment.

The U.S. takes a tragic and horrific hit on 9/11 -- spends a ton of money to go out and get the people responsible. And yesterday, takes out the top guy, Osama bin Laden. So, nearly ten years later, did the money we spent get the results we wanted?

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow for the Brookings Institution and specializes in defense policy. Good morning.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: Good morning. Nice to be with you.

CHIOTAKIS: All right, well how much money was thrown into the search for Osama bin Laden.

O'HANLON: That's a fascinating question. And as you know, with any issue in intelligence spending we don't really know. And all we can do is try to look at some numbers and surmise. As you're probably aware, the publicly released, or at least occasionally publicly released intelligence figure for the whole U.S. intelligence community is around $80 billion a year now. And that's a huge increase from what it had been, you know, a decade ago when it was probably more like $40 billion. Now how much of it was going after bin Laden specifically, probably a relatively modest chunk of that total. But certainly bin Laden and what happened on 9/11 contributed to an enormous increase in intelligence spending that would have to be measured in the many tens of billions of cumulative dollars by now.

CHIOTAKIS: Did we get a good return on that investment do you think>

O'HANLON: Well of course the war goes on. The struggle goes on, but I think we got an enormously investment and I think probably if you figured out the hourly wage we were paying people who were doing this it was pretty modest. Because, I know some of these people and the amount of hours, the number of days and weekends and nights committed to this effort is really quite extraordinary. And so my guess is the actual bin Laden cells that were operating here were probably only in the range of tens of millions of dollars a year, not tens of billions which was the broader campaign against terrorism. And therefore I think measured in those terms, the investment was very very wise.

CHIOTAKIS: You think we're going to spend near as much money going forward as we say, over the past 10, or 15, 20 years trying to go after bin Laden?

O'HANLON: Well, I don't think that the death of bin Laden will be the key determining feature in that decision. One could try to use the death of bin Laden as a sort of a symbolic moment to say here we are, now at a time when we can pivot, but of course the president took exactly the opposite approach yesterday. and I think he was right to do that, reminding everybody that in fact the war goes on and that the implications of bin Laden's death may or may not be all that great.

CHIOTAKIS: Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow for the Brookings Institution. Michael thank you.

O'HANLON: My pleasure.

About the author

Steve Chiotakis was the host of Marketplace Morning Report until January 2012.

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