By MICHAEL SHANK
The scandal at the Internal Revenue Service illustrates well the critical importance of an inspector general in keeping an administration accountable, regardless of which party holds the presidency. Had it not been for the Office of the Inspector General within the IRS, for example, we would not have known about American taxpayer dollars being spent on lavish conferences, line-dancing and Star Trek look-a-like contests. This is not how Americans want their money spent, nor is it a good use of federal funds.
But the sad fact is that IRS-type waste and abuse of funds is all too common. Take, for example, the Defense Department. While the IRS may be pilfering funds in California conference rooms, inspectors general found Pentagon employees engaged in corruption, fraud, kickback schemes and bribery in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thankfully, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, or SIGIR, and the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, recovered hundreds of millions of hard earned American taxpayer dollars.
Yet, as the U.S. engages in more wars, whether in Syria, Mali, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, we have no permanent office for oversight, no permanent special inspector general to provide critical transparency and accountability. These “overseas contingency operations,” as they are officially called, may well experience the same kinds of corruption and kickback schemes that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars witnessed. Except this time, there will likely be no inspector general to investigate, prosecute and bring the perpetrators to justice. That is, unless we do something about it.
The American people should waste no time in calling for accountability and demand a special inspector general for overseas contingency operations, or SIGOCO, to oversee the hundreds of billions, sometimes trillions, of dollars going to U.S. war efforts. Too many “emergency funding” pretexts have been pushed through Congress by presidents eager to pump billions into a war zone, with little to no oversight opportunity for Congress, let alone an inspector general. This has to stop.
If the American people think the IRS was bad, take a quick look at Afghanistan. Late last year, a U.S. army staff sergeant was charged with smuggling $1 million in cash inside numerous DVD recorders loaded for shipment to the U.S. Another U.S. army sergeant pleaded guilty to smuggling $100,000 in a backpack at the end of her overseas tour, while a former U.S. army chief was convicted of conspiracy for his role in a bribery/kickback scheme, after soliciting a $60,000 bribe.
Afghanistan war profiteering is ubiquitous. A U.S. army sergeant first class stole $225,000 in funds earmarked for reconstruction. A U.S. army 7th Special Forces group sergeant stole tens of thousands of dollars hidden inside a teddy bear. The convictions are constant, the charges are countless and the monies lost are by now in the billions. But don’t take my word for it; read the SIGAR report.
Iraq was even worse. The now-infamous Anham, a defense contractor that made millions off the Iraq war, charged U.S. taxpayers $4,500 for a circuit breaker that cost only $183 at an appliance store, $3,000 for a separate circuit breaker that cost $94 and $900 for a control switch that cost $7. DynCorp was also investigated by SIGIR for inflating claims for the construction of container camps. To its credit, SIGIR reclaimed $7.7 million from the company and another $1 million from its subcontractor, the Sandi Group.
These Iraq war stories are pervasive. A U.S. Army sergeant was indicted for taking more than $170,000 in bribes from defense contractors and laundering up to $250,000 through bank accounts in Kuwait and the U.S. A former U.S. Army major pleaded guilty to bribery, funneling $250,000 to an account in Los Angeles. A former U.S. Army major was found guilty of money-laundering, after admitting to the receipt of four wire transfers – at $100,000 each – and the creation of a sham agreement with contractors to conceal the payments. And a U.S. Marine Corps contractor officer helped money-launder approximately $150,000 in bribes from contractors in Iraq.
In all of these corruption cases, had there not been a special inspector general on the scene, these Pentagon employees and defense contractors would’ve made off with millions of taxpayer dollars. The problem is, these inspector general mandates are short-lived. The SIGIR mandate in Iraq expires this year and the SIGAR mandate in Afghanistan, which started years after the initial invasion, will end shortly, as the U.S. winds down the war in Afghanistan.
The question remains: who will monitor U.S. military efforts elsewhere, from Syria to Somalia, from the Persian Gulf to Pakistan? There are billions of U.S. taxpayer funds floating around overseas, unmonitored and unchecked, ending up in teddy bears, DVD recorders and illicit bank accounts, and unless we do something about it, the corruption will continue. The time is now to make permanent this oversight of overseas expenditures before another American dollar is wasted.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.