PICTURED: John F. Sopko, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). PC: SIGAR. CC 2.0.
Story at a glance…
Government watchdog for Afghanistan released two reports on the weekend, cites massive fraud and “ghost soldiers”.
State Department officials requested more than 2,400 redactions, claiming personnel security.
Watchdog chief John Sopko blames “bureaucratic inclination” to restrict public information access.
ARLINGTON, Virginia. October 29th, 2021. Without explaining why, the State Department sent several letters with requests for 2,400 redactions or more from the most-recent report made by John Sopko, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
Created to monitor and investigate corruption, fraud, and waste, involved in America’s failed nation-building project in Afghanistan, SIGAR has often undermined public confidence in the conflict there, but sustained attempts to censor the 53rd quarterly report to Congress would suggest major attempts at face-saving.
At this year’s Military Reporters & Editors Association Annual Conference, Sopko congratulated the reporters there for often telling “inconvenient truths,” and said that many U.S. agencies make reporting thusly difficult.
“We have a recent example of this bureaucratic inclination to try to restrict public information,” said Sopko in his prepared remarks. “As we report in today’s Quarterly report, shortly after the fall of Kabul, the State Department wrote to me and other oversight agencies requesting to “temporarily suspend access” to all “audit, inspection, and financial audit…reports”.
Sopko explained their reasoning was that the reports could put Afghan allies or American servicemembers in danger.
This is the same defense that has been used many times throughout the War on Terror to withhold information from the public: that its release would put the security of high-level operatives or military personnel at risk. The public recently heard that defense in the case of Daniel Hale, the whistleblower who revealed the details of Obama’s covert drone assassination program, and received 45 months in a maximum security prison.
“But despite repeated requests, State was never able to describe any specific threats to individuals that were supposedly contained in our reports, nor did State ever explain how removing our reports now could possibly protect anyone since many were years old and already extensively disseminated worldwide,” Sopko said, who added that he, for a short time, complied with State despite “great reservations”.
A legacy of waste
SIGAR has been behind several bombshells that have pockmarked the 20-year history of the war, most recently the Afghanistan Papers published in the Washington Post.
WaL has reported on just how corrupt the former-Ghani government was, with 2019 Fiscal Year seeing more money paid in bribes than collected in national taxes.
The 53rd quarterly report accounts for $290 million paid for salaries to the army and police. As of April 29th, 2021, the DoD reported that 300,699 Afghan military and police were eligible for pay, but SIGAR cites estimates from Ghani’s last finance minister that it was more like 50,000, and that the others were simply “ghosts”—names created to allow corrupt officials to siphon more money out of the U.S. backers.
In an accompanied report entitled “Lessons Learned” was news of an audit totaling 60 U.S.-funded infrastructure projects in Afghanistan.
It found that “$723.8 million, or 91 percent, had gone toward assets that were unused or abandoned, were not used as intended, had deteriorated, were destroyed, or some combination of the above,” SIGAR said.
The Dept. of State would send a second letter to SIGAR and Sopko, this time referencing a spreadsheet of 2,400 items requested for redaction from the 53rd report.
Given how hard the Department reportedly was working to evacuate Americans from Afghanistan and resettle Afghan refugees, I was surprised they found the time to go through every one of our reports and compile such an exhaustive list. Nevertheless, upon reviewing their request, it quickly became clear to us that State had little, if any, criteria for determining whether the information actually endangered anyone – and I think you will agree with me that some of the requests were bizarre to say the least.
These examples included the former president Ashraf Ghani, the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville Alabama, and the name of a USAID official who testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and whose video testimony is still available.
“SIGAR conducted a risk-based assessment and reviewed each one of the approximately 2,400 redaction requests and found all but four to be without merit,” Sopko said in Virginia on Friday.
Turning the tables a little, Sopko suggested that if the public at large had been made squarely aware of the massive problems with corruption, “ghost soldiers,” and other hallmarks of SIGAR reports in the past, the August capitulation of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan could have been prevented.
“In my opinion, the full picture of what happened in August – and all the warning signs that could have predicted the outcome – will only be revealed if the information that the Departments of Defense and State have already restricted from public release is made available”.