Our government has long seemed to be descending into a type of Orwellian universe of double speak. The Libyan War was not a war but a “time-limited, scope-limited military action” under Obama. Torture of detainees was not torture but “enhanced interrogation” under Bush. Now it appears open bribery of foreign officials is not bribery but “incentives” to implement policies favorable to their own people. Congressional members are moving to address what is being called a “slush fund” with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) where millions are paid to political figures in foreign countries. We have previously discussed such payments by the CIA to the openly corrupt Afghanistan government, including suitcases of cash to President Helmit Karzai. What is most interesting is that an act that is a federal crime for citizens doing business abroad can be not only legal but an official program by government officials. It appears that in the handshake shown on the USAID seal, there is often a sawbuck or two in the palm.
The USAID routinely makes “incentive” payments to lawmakers to pass legislation or enact policies throughout the world. Even policies that benefit their own people, like granting rights to women or protecting the democratic process, are secured by greasing the palms of corrupt officials. In doing so, the United States perpetuates the rampant corruption in these countries and enriches officials who will only act if it benefits them personally.
Consider the $15 million forked over to Afghan lawmakers in 2013 to get them to pass a law prohibiting violence against women. Remember these payments were made at the very time that the CIA was being hammered for publicly assuring Karzai that his regular delivery of suitcases of cash would continue despite an outcry from critics. USAID defended buying lawmakers by telling Congress that the lawmakers would not have protected women if they were not paid off. Such a law would be have deemed “unpalatable” without the effective bribes.
Of course, many citizens may find it “unpalatable” for the United States to engage in open corrupt practices that are illegal for businesses. Indeed, the $15 million is nothing. The USAID has an “incentive fund” of $175 million just for Afghanistan to pass legislation protecting basic rights. It has not worked very well since the country continues to deny basic rights and protections to women and religious minorities. Now that U.S. money is declining, Karzai is openly denouncing the U.S. and seeking alliances with Russia, China, and Iran. That is the problem with dealing with corrupt politicians –they tend to follow the money.
Just last month, we reportedly paid out $15 million just to get budget changes in Afghanistan. In the meantime, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, has complained that Afghanistan continues its downward spiral into “persistent corruption, wasteful spending and increased violence.”
It is not just Afghanistan. We are greasing the palms of corrupt officials around the world, including $30 million handed out in incentives in the Republic of the Congo to curb violence against women. Clearly some of that money goes to social services but it appears that the “incentives” are designed to buy lawmakers and pay them to actually serve the interests of their own people.
I do have a concern that these hearings are focusing on USAID rather than the CIA and Defense Department. The CIA payments appear clear and unmistakable bribes. USAID is at least trying to secure positive legislation and some of this money likely goes to actual programs and training. If USAID is paying for programs that is one thing but, if they are paying lawmakers, it is entirely a different matter in my view. Congress is right to demand answers but the lack of any response to the Karzai corruption raises serious questions over the focus of the investigation.
Putting that concern aside, the hearings do present this novel question of what is legal for government officials and yet illegal for corporate officials. As with torture, this appears a crime for which only citizens can be prosecuted. The Justice Department emphasizes that the corrupt practices provisions are broadly written and will result in criminal charges for anyone making
payments to foreign government officials to assist in obtaining or retaining business. Specifically, the anti-bribery provisions of the FCPA prohibit the willful use of the mails or any means of instrumentality of interstate commerce corruptly in furtherance of any offer, payment, promise to pay, or authorization of the payment of money or anything of value to any person, while knowing that all or a portion of such money or thing of value will be offered, given or promised, directly or indirectly, to a foreign official to influence the foreign official in his or her official capacity, induce the foreign official to do or omit to do an act in violation of his or her lawful duty, or to secure any improper advantage in order to assist in obtaining or retaining business for or with, or directing business to, any person.
In order to secure short-term reforms, the United States continues to fuel corruption in other countries. Yet, by reinforcing such corrupt practices, these bribes will only secure such reforms so long as we continue the pipeline of money flowing. These are obviously not people who put either human rights or their own people first among their priorities. It also reflects the questionable assumption that we can change deep-seated prejudice and abuse in these countries that are often based on primitive religious and social practices that treat women as chattel or lesser beings.
While CIA and agency officials dismiss such objections as naive, they hardly have a track record supporting their corrupt practices as part of a realpolitik. Karzai is the best example that corruption is the only constant value for such officials. While allies and reforms come and go, only the corruption remains.