A longtime Arlington County Board member shakes up Virginia politics by announcing plans to step away. Uncertainty clouds the future for the chief of one of Maryland's treasured public school systems. And the field of candidates narrows in D.C.'s special elections looming in the spring.
John Sopko cut his teeth as a lawyer prosecuting organized crime in Cleveland, Ohio. But now he’s putting his investigatory skills to work as the watchdog of the American reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. Sopko joins Kojo to chat about combating waste, fraud and abuse as the United States draws down its military mission in Afghanistan and civilian assignments there take on even more importance.
- John Sopko Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The United States is winding down its military operation in Afghanistan but the fight to make sure that the billions of American dollars spent on the reconstruction of that country are put to good use is far from over. John Sopko has been the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction since 2012. His agency tasked with snuffing out waste, fraud, corruption and abuse in the massive effort to help Afghans rebuilt their country and develop durable institutions.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a big job. He says that during his tenure, his office has overseen investigations that have led to dozens of convictions in the recovery of savings of more than $250 million. And the American development work in Afghanistan is likely to become even more complicated as troop levels draw down and the country transitions to new political leadership of its own.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us this hour to explore what's at stake in Afghanistan and his office's role in it is John Sopko, the U.S. special investigator -- inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction. John Sopko, pleasure to meet you.
MR. JOHN SOPKOPleasure to meet you.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for John Sopko give us a call at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. There are a few dozen people who hold inspector general jobs in Washington. It's fair to say that a lot of the investigations that they conduct are into matters too mundane to splash onto front page headlines. You're providing oversight of some of the most difficult and dangerous work that the U.S. government is overseeing in a war that's now well into its second decade. What is your specific mission? Where do you fit into what's happening in Afghanistan?
SOPKOWell, thanks for asking it, Kojo, and also thanks for inviting me to the show. I've been a fan of yours for years and it's great to finally meet you.
NNAMDIThanks for telling me I'm old but go ahead.
SOPKOI'm no young person either but we were set up -- the agency was set up in 2008. And the reason it was set up because of the amount of money being spent there. And to put it in context, it's about $104 billion for just reconstruction. That's more money than we spent on the entire Marshal Plan. By the end of this year, which will be a little bit higher, more money than the entire Marshal Plan.
SOPKOSo a decision was made in congress to set up an agency that didn't sit in any particular government agency to oversee all reconstruction money. So we looked at the Department of Defense, State, Aid and the Department of Agriculture. We just issued a report on soybeans the other day. So if it's reconstruction money, that's what our focus is. And we're the only agency who can look across the various agencies of the government. So that's what our mission is, to detect and report on fraud, waste and abuse. And we also have law enforcement authority so we can actually conduct arrest searches and seizures and turn it over to the Justice Department for prosecution.
NNAMDISo you can do everything up to the point of prosecution. That's where the Justice Department comes in.
SOPKOWell, actually we do and we actually have a creative method. We have some prosecutors on our payroll to help on putting the cases together. So they work exclusively for us. They're called sig pros. (sp?)
NNAMDIYou've had a lot of different jobs. You once went after organized crime as a federal prosecutor in Cleveland. How have those experiences informed your approach to working in Afghanistan?
SOPKOWell, I've realized over time you have to understand what motivates people, and that's the good and the bad people out there, understand your terrain, understand the -- what's going on. So I like to say I like to kick the tires of a crime scene. And that means the same thing over in Afghanistan. But I think the important thing is I realize that law enforcement can't do it all by itself. You got to work with the community. You'll have to work with industry. You have to work with all the various agencies to try to investigate things and to report on it.
SOPKOI've also learned is if you do reports and you do investigations, if you really want to make a change you got to get the report out. People have to listen. People have to even know the reports. So that's one of the reasons that we have a very aggressive program of working with the press, working with various groups to get our message out to change things, change how things are being done.
NNAMDIWhat would you say is at stake in this job? You took over in 2012. Two years later the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan is winding down after more than a decade. And development work there is going to continue to shape the legacy of the military operation that went on for so long. I saw in a CSPAN interview where the interviewer said that a lot of people -- we've spent all of this money and a lot of people don't seem to care how much of this money has been wasted. You are the spokesperson, said that interviewer, for the people who do care. Why should we care? What's at stake here?
SOPKOWell, you know what's at stake is the gains we've made could all be wasted. You know, part of our strategy over there has been to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people with the stated goal to make certain it's never a place where terrorists can operate freely and attack the United States and its allies.
SOPKOThe way we view it, and we support that mission. That's why I took the job, my people took the job. If we build schools that fall down and kill kids, if we build bridges that falls down, if we end up giving money to corrupt officials and not caring, not trying to prosecute them, we're losing the hearts and minds of the Afghans. And that's something serious. People tend to think that the Afghans don't know about the waste. And that's why I always find it humorous, oh you don't support the mission because you're reporting on the waste. Well, my view is, I work for the taxpayer. The taxpayer has a right -- the American taxpayer has the right to know where his money goes or her money goes.
SOPKOThe Afghans do too. And Afghans know. We get a lot of allegations from Afghans and actually there are some very brave Afghans who have community groups set up who are reporting on the fraud, the waste and the abuse. So if we don't get reconstruction right, we could actually waste every gain we've made over the last 13 years.
NNAMDIOur guest is John Sopko. He is the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. You can join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. What do you see as at stake in the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan that will continue even as American troops are drawn down from the country? What do you think could make the aid that the United States provides to Afghanistan more effective, 800-433-8850? You can send email to email@example.com or go to our website kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there.
NNAMDIJohn Sopko, how would you describe your office's approach to conducting investigations? You have mentioned some very brave Afghanistans leading -- Afghans leading community organizations, providing information. But how do you go about finding the nuggets, the tips that are worth diving deeper into? Just yesterday you put out a report that the U.S. military spent millions of dollars on trash incinerators in Afghanistan that were never used, even as tons of trash burned in open piles.
SOPKOWell, that information came to us because we have more people on the ground, more investigators on the ground than any other government agency. So we're not just in the embassy in Kabul. We're all around at the various military bases. And that was an allegation given to us -- I think it started and I can't remember FOB, Forward Operating Base Salerno when we got the first tip, that these incinerators were being constructed and they're not being used. And so we pulled that tip. We talked to other people. We talked to the other IGs and we found that information.
SOPKOA lot of our information comes to us, like I say, from the Afghans. We have website in Dari and Pashtun and we get tips there. The other thing -- and I've been referred to recently as a radioactive. That actually is a term that somebody used who worked for the embassy who said, I can't be seen talking to you, John. You're a radioactive. And so that's what -- we get a lot of information coming to people from inside the embassy, inside the Pentagon, as well as from contractors and other people.
NNAMDIWell, right now you're active on the radio and we certainly appreciate it. You have said that a lot of what you uncover is mismanagement, that there's criminality to be sure but just a lot of mismanagement.
SOPKOThat's correct. The problems we're identifying are problems that have been identified by other IGs, by the general accounting office, by -- I go back to the Packard Commission back in the 1980s and Ill Wind investigations. I remember talking to a number of friends who were in the GAO and they reminded me that procurement has been a high risk issue with the GAO since 1991 -- for DOD I should say. And it's never gotten off of it.
SOPKOSo what we're seeing is a lot of problems with personnel, with hiring people, with moving people in, with contracting that are just sort of like on steroids when you're in a warzone. And the other thing that makes us so much worse is we're throwing so much money in such a small country. So what we're seeing are problems that are endemic throughout the government. They're just highlighted because they're in Afghanistan.
NNAMDIWe got this email from Beth. "House Republicans have been holding hearings on everything under the sun, but I do not believe they have ever held a single hearing on graft and corruption in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, billions of dollars in cash went missing in Iraq, yet no one ever investigated." Have you been invited to testify before a House Committee?
SOPKOActually I have on a number of occasions. I've been invited to testify before the House Oversight Government Reform Committee. I just testified a couple months ago before the House Foreign Relations Committee. So I have testified before a number of committees in both the House and the Senate.
NNAMDIHow would you describe the challenges American officials are seeing working with their Afghan partners, and your challenges with Afghan partners? You told the Washington Post recently that the Afghan ministry of justice is particularly corrupt.
SOPKOWell, it's difficult. You're dealing with one of the most corrupt countries in the world that's been rated by somebody else, not us, as corrupt as North Korea, and I forget the other country. You're dealing with agencies over there that don't want to fix the problem. So it's very difficult. We can't win this all by ourselves. We can't win it just with our allies. The Afghan people and the Afghan government has to have the will to actually fight the corruption issue and fight some of the other issues.
SOPKOAnd so it's tough but it's something we have to deal with. We try to work around it because we actually are the only agency who's brought prosecutions in the Afghan judicial system, which is an interesting judicial system. But we've been able to do it. We understand our limitations. As a matter of fact, some of the prosecutors and the police who have cooperated with us have been punished accordingly but we try to work with them as much as we can.
NNAMDIWhat concerns do you have about both the integrity of the work and the safety of those doing that work as American troop levels are drawn down?
SOPKOWell, that's one of my biggest concerns, Kojo. the security of my people as well as the security of the other Americans working in the embassy for state aid in the Department of Defense. We have a problem getting out. We have a problem seeing the sites, seeing the construction sites.
SOPKOAnd it's something we're going to have to work with. And what I'm trying to do is make certain aids stayed in DOD are planning to oversee the work. Because by the time we come in to see something, I almost feel sometimes like those detectives in the murder mysteries. You know, there's an outline of a body on the floor. By the time the IG or the GAO gets in there, many times the money's been stolen, it's gone. The people who have to be the first line of defense has to be that aid worker. It has to be the State Department Foreign Service officer. It has to be the DOD worker or contractor. They're the ones. And they have security problems too, just as much as we do.
NNAMDIMore American money, you pointed out, has been spent on Afghan reconstruction that was spent then was spent on the Marshal Plan to the degree you think it can be more effective. How much of it do you think has to do with people still not understanding Afghanistan well? You have said, we're not spending this money on projects in Kansas here.
SOPKOI agree totally with that. And I think it goes to the planning. I was shocked. A couple things that surprised me after all my years working on The Hill, and one was how poorly we planned for this and how poorly we tried to understand the Afghan environment. You can't pour that much money into that small a country with that little oversight and not expect to have a disaster.
SOPKOAnd, you know, this isn't rocket science but it didn't seem like anyone stopped and said, hold it, you know, maybe we ought to consider what the unintended consequences of pouring all this money in. Maybe we should think how that may distort the economy. And here's what we got now, Kojo, because of this. Because we've thrown so much money at it, we have basically a country that is addicted to foreign aid, a country that cannot survive without foreign aid.
SOPKOAnd so therefore that is our concern, and actually we'll be issuing a quarterly report very soon that's going to focus we're trying to alert congress, any executive branch that if you precipitously cut foreign assistance to Afghanistan, you may have dramatic consequences like not being able -- the Afghans won't be able to pay their troops or pay their civil servants or protect their economy and protect their cities. So we've essentially created somebody a country that can't afford the government we've left it, and that's a serious concern.
NNAMDIIf indeed foreign aid has become that country's lifeline, one has to question how much we're sending down that lifeline. Another analogy came up and we talked with journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran a few years ago about his book "Little America" which was about the effectiveness of American aid in Afghanistan. He said, part of the problem is that after years of getting a trickle of development money after 9/11, it was like they started drinking from a fire hose. They were overwhelmed. What would you say?
SOPKOI totally agree with Rajiv and I know him and have spoken to him about the issues. And we've talked a lot about that. And that's one thing I'd also like to mention. I mean, we do tend to say that the -- Afghanistan has been, you know, rated as one of the more corrupt countries in the world. And there's some truth to the argument that the Afghans make that is we helped create that problem.
SOPKOAnd I know a senior Afghan official -- and I don't want to mention his name because, like I said, I'm radioactive and I'm radioactive even to Afghan government officials -- commented that he had been in the United States and he remembers a Brinks money truck overturning in downtown Manhattan or New York somewhere. And the dollar bills floated outside and all the New Yorkers on the street went and grabbed some money. And he said, does this mean that the American people are corrupt? No. He says, with this much money floating out of the sky don't you think somebody -- some people are going to grab it? Particularly if you've never seen that much money before and you don't know when it's going to stop.
SOPKOSo there's a little guilt on both sides on this. And so we have -- that's why I'm saying we need to plan the next time we do this. We need a whole government approach to this. I mean, for example, again I'll cite back to the Department of Agriculture. Somebody came up -- some bureaucrat, I don't know where, came up with the brilliant idea that the Afghans should eat soy, soybeans. Okay. Well, the problem is they don't like soy. They don't grow soy. There's no market for soy. They've never seen a soybean. But we spent $32 million and we haven't really don't much other than waste U.S. taxpayers' money.
SOPKOWe have the plan. We have to understand the country we're dealing with, the people we're dealing with, the issues we're dealing with and act accordingly. Otherwise this is going to happen again.
NNAMDIDo you care how your tax dollars are being spent in Afghanistan? Prove it. Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us how you think your tax dollars could be spent more efficiently. And how do you think past experiences should inform the administration of American aid in Afghanistan? What should the U.S. be doing to make sure its investments are good for Afghans and good for American strategic interests, 800-433-8850? We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with John Sopko. He is the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with John Sopko, the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Let's talk about some of the specific things you've investigated. The U. S. military recently built a 64,000 square foot $34 million facility at Camp Leatherneck. The only problem is nobody seems to want it. The marine commander in the area submitted a request to cancel the project before construction began. And the Afghan army couldn't even afford to keep it running. What did you find instructive about this problem?
SOPKOWell, what we found instructive and one of the reasons why we looked at this is because I actually had two senior officers come up to me when I was in Afghanistan and tell me, John, you've got to look at this because this is the problem of construction in the military. Once it starts it never stops. And this is Exhibit A if you want to make that case. So we are actually conducting an investigation -- we're wrapping it up right now. Actually I just got briefed by my staff on it, it should be out shortly.
SOPKOAnd I said, we're going to find the people who did this and find out why. And maybe if we advertise it, we get the message out, we will see action by the congress or somebody else on this. I mean, unfortunately this is not a isolated case.
NNAMDIWhy can't this facility be used by Afghans once the American military reduces its presence?
SOPKOWell, it has to do with the sustainability . It is a huge facility. It's bigger than a couple football fields. It's a tremendous drain on power. They don't have much electricity in Afghanistan. It's a --it actually has no windows so it's in a location where the temperature is normally about 110 to 120 degrees. So it's a facility -- and they have no real need for it. So we would be giving a white elephant to the Afghans and saying, here, go try to figure out something to do with it. That's another common problem we have is stuff isn't sustained.
NNAMDIPut on your headphones, please, John because we're about to go to the telephones. We'll talk with Mike in Washington, D. C. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEHey, Kojo. You're a total rock star. Love your show.
MIKEYour guest previously described Afghanistan as a country that's addicted to foreign aid. And I was wondering if there's a distinction to be made, whether it's the Afghan government that's addicted to foreign aid and if there are other forces at play that are not as dependent on that aid that could, you know, take power should that aid to the current government stop.
SOPKOWell, I think there are some people in some parts of Afghanistan that would like to do it without U.S. assistance. I think a classic example is the telecom industry which initially USAID officials told me that that was a great success story. And then when I went and talked to senior officials in the companies that provide telephone service, they all told me USAID had absolutely nothing to do with the development of it. It is a success story. It was done by private industry by themselves.
SOPKOAnd so there are other -- there are instances where the Afghan people and industry, if left alone, and business can actually succeed. They don't need the foreign assistance. Now that's not everybody. And obviously you need to give foreign assistance to pay for the police and the military and other government functions. But there are some success stories. And not everyone is addicted and not everyone wants all of this money. And many Afghans are saying, you gave us too much.
NNAMDIHere's Paula in Washington, D. C. Paula, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Paula. Are you there?
PAULAYes, yes. Can you hear me?
PAULAThank you. I was saying thank you so much for another wonderful program. And the IG is incredible. I think the question becomes though, I'm so surprised that it sounds like there's no planning. The assistance that is taking place aren't giving us what we need. And I'm just so saddened, I think, by the example stories that we're in such a situation. And I guess I depend on us to make better decisions. And I'm so saddened by the stories but I'm so glad that you're sharing them, and ask what can we do as individuals to help you do your job?
NNAMDIJohn Sopko, the taxpayers want to know.
SOPKOWell, I think taxpayers should learn as much as they can about what their government does. And they should express their opinion accordingly. So whether it’s the congress to your local representative or whatever, I think that's important. And I think listening to shows like Kojo's or reading the newspapers or whatever are so important. An educated electorate is an important and smart electorate and that can maybe improve things.
NNAMDIPaula, thank you very much for your call. You too can give us a call, 800-433-8850. If you are interested in how your tax dollars are being spent in Afghanistan and would like to know more or have comments, 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. There are a lot of people in the Pentagon and in the State Department. You describe some people as viewing you as radioactive. Some -- how can I put this delicately -- think of you as something of a pest. What is it about what you're doing that you feel has elicited such strong reactions?
SOPKOWell, I think for many of these people - and I have to be very clear about this -- the senior officials in the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, senior officials in the White House are supportive of what we do because they understand the importance of an independent -- totally independent inspector general. Now there are people in the bowels of the bureaucracies who have never experienced that. They don't know what an inspector general is. They don't know what an independent inspector general is.
SOPKOAnd unfortunately some of these agencies that I deal with have not had independent inspector generals for years. So we're dealing with that. We have to educate these people. And I like to remind people, you know, I'm sort of like -- we've all been following soccer recently. And I'm like that referee going up and down and giving, you know, red cards or yellow cards out. He may not be appreciated by every player and every coach but he is an important element of the game. And he supports the game. It's just I got a different mission than the admiral or general or other officials.
NNAMDISome of your critics have said that the way you've gone about the job has undermined the work that's being done in Afghanistan to which you would say what?
SOPKOWell, that's my job to advise people on what the problems are. I mean, I walk around, Kojo, and I have them right here. Obviously your listeners can't see it...
SOPKO...I can them my bibles. It's the 1978 Inspector General Act and the SIGAR Act, I created this. You look in this -- these acts, they say what I'm supposed to do. I am supposed to report on problems and deficiencies and fraud waste interviews. I would highly recommend people to read it. It's the fantastic bills that were passed. I think congress was wise about it. But nowhere does it say I'm supposed to be a cheerleader. Nowhere does it say I'm supposed to go around and highlight successes.
SOPKOAnd that's why the Pentagon has a couple thousand people doing press. That's why the embassy itself I think has over 60 people in the embassy in Kabul doing press. My job is to highlight the problems to try to fix them.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Paul who writes, "Kabul is not Kansas. Contractor offices have been bombed, documents destroyed or burned. How do your inspectors deal with the on-the-ground realities? Do you think this has anything to do with the growing number of audits that are being challenged both by contractors and the U.S. agencies? How many SIGAR at your office -- how many SIGAR audits have been overturned on appeal?"
SOPKOI don't know -- well, first of all, audits aren't really appealed per say. But I think a recent example of how successful we are is the State Department, I think over 75 percent of all the recommendations they have implemented, which is pretty high, will be issuing a report next quarter which will have similar numbers for DOD and USAID.
SOPKOWe recognize the reality of the situation there in the field. But what we're identifying are problems where there should've been records or there should've been things done correctly. And -- but we take into consideration the fact that it is a war.
NNAMDIAnother email from Patrick who says, "Ask your guest why the U.S. government does not prosecute Afghan politicians who are duo U.S. citizens under the FCPA? It would make a huge difference."
SOPKOWell, we do. And we do investigate them. They're not easy cases to make in light of what the prior caller discussed. And that is the records are in Afghanistan and it's hard to get witnesses from Afghanistan to testify. But we have a number of duo citizens under investigation. The big problem is if the individual is an Afghan citizen or it's an Afghan company, we may not have jurisdiction in the U.S. courts. So that means we have to rely on the Afghan judicial system which has been notoriously remiss in its aggressiveness.
NNAMDIYou also have a different relationship with the press than a lot of government officials do. How do you work with the press and what is - what do you see as the press's role in maintaining accountability? The thought occurs to me that the press is interested in doing the same things that you are doing and that is finding out exactly how the taxpayers' money is being spent so that in some ways you have a comparable mission.
SOPKOWe do. And that's how I learned about this job is when I was on The Hill I spent 25 some years working for Sam Nunn and John Glenn and John Dingle doing oversight. And I remember working very closely with the press in getting our message out and also getting information from the press. We don't have all knowledge. We're open to people suggesting for us to look into things. So that is part of our mission in getting the message out is working with the press. And you're right, we are very similar to each other. We're trying to expose issues and trying to improve things.
NNAMDITransparency is what we're always looking for. Here is Mike in Baltimore, Md. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEHello, Kojo. Thank you and thank both of you for your excellent work. I had a little anecdote. Twenty years ago, I was in the Peace Corps in Malawi. And it was at the time when there was a lot of Mozambiquan and refugees because they were having a civil war. And the U.S. government and USAID sent food aid which was greatly needed, but they sent sweet corn, you know, which the farmers here grew. And that is not -- normally what they do with corn over there is they dry it and make a flour and then they make a paste out of it.
MIKESo the sweet corn makes a very different tasting -- I'm going to say bad tasting taste. And so the refugees were up in arms. They said, this is horrible, it doesn't taste good. So some smart person on the ground said, oh the corn that you normally use, it's the same corn we feed to animals. We call it feed corn now. I mean, it's different species. So they immediately started sending this corn over. So the corn makes the exact same tasting food but it came in bags that said, animal feed only. And of course the Mozambiquans were very upset again because now why are you feeding us your animal feed?
MIKEAn then somebody else said, why don't we put this corn into the other bags and send it over and then everybody was happy. Now this was a three-step process that took several months. But it did actually work in the end. And I was just wondering, how much of this is going on? Is there any improvement on the ground where people are (unintelligible) the feedback. There are people with some information there. Is it getting circulated?
NNAMDITo what extent to your investigations result in some things being, well, done differently and more efficiently?
SOPKOOh, I think that happens more often than one would read from some of the feedback from some of the people in aid and state. You know, we make recommendations. And it's a bit ironic that a couple of agencies will almost always say, no. Whatever we recommend, they will do the opposite. And then we check on it, because we're required by law to check on the recommendations. And usually, months later, they've implemented every one of them. We see changes.
SOPKOI've seen changes, great changes done by -- there's an organization called, that handles the, in the military, it's CSTIKA (sp?) , it's an acronym, but it's -- it provides the assistance to the Afghan military and police. And they have taken our letters -- they've actually used our letters to threaten the Afghans with and saying, look, if you don't change the way you're doing it and protect our money and do the X, Y and Z, we will turn it over to SIGAR. And actually, I mean, we're kind of cudgel being used by some people.
SOPKONow, I keep encouraging state and aid. And I wish aid would do it more often, but DOD does it a lot. They take our reports and then they walk over to the various ministries and say, if you don't do something, if you don't fix this problem, SIGAR will advertise it. And then Congress will respond. So we see a lot of changes. And we made a big deal a couple months ago about the security issue and the inability to go out and inspect sites because of security. And General Allen and then General Dunford issued specific orders to go check on every planned building or construction site and see if it was necessary to build it if you can't see it.
SOPKOAnd they cancelled a number, hundreds of projects because of that. So we were very encouraged, particularly by DOD on their response to our recommendations.
NNAMDIHere's Gretchen in Washington D.C. Gretchen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GRETCHENHi, Kojo. This is Gretchen Peters. I was actually on your show a few years ago when I had a book out about the drug trade in Afghanistan and used to report from Pakistan and Afghanistan as a journalist, and then went and started doing work on helping the U.S. military and law enforcement understand some of the criminal activity that was taking place in Afghanistan. And one of the things we found that was I think most upsetting to me was that there's not just corruption and fraud around some of these projects.
GRETCHENSome of these projects, there's such poor oversight that they're actually enriching and empowering the very adversaries in Afghanistan that we are trying to defeat. We heard stories -- we got reports in the course of an investigation I was doing around the Haqqani Network, Haqqani Network fighters being contracted to do security on road-building projects by day. So they were trained and provided weapons by the U.S. government. And then at night they would go back to fighting for the insurgency.
GRETCHENThere were other stories about construction firms that belonged -- secretly were owned by the Haqqani Network that were being given -- were provided funding by USAID and the State Department and CERF funds from the DOD. And there was so little oversight because, precisely as you guys have just been discussing, the area was quite dangerous -- there was not much security -- so they couldn't do oversight. And yet there was still this perception that the best thing we could do was to throw money at these very, very dangerous places. And I found that quite upsetting.
NNAMDIGretchen, I'm glad you brought that up. To what extent do your people on the ground -- when we hear reports like this, when we get tips like that -- to what extent do the situations on the ground inhibit your ability to investigate all of these reports?
SOPKOOh, it happens a lot. And we have to rely on the security provided by the regional security officers at State Department -- they've done a wonderful job for us -- as well as the military. And the military's done a wonderful job. But there are fewer military troops over there to protect our people. There hasn't...
NNAMDIBecause if I'm running a criminal network, if I'm running an underground operation against the government and U.S. forces, I'm not exactly welcoming your inspectors in.
SOPKOOh, absolutely. You're going to try to kill our people.
SOPKOAnd that's exactly the problem we deal with. And there are areas of Afghanistan -- I would think it's over 80 percent, it may get up to 90 percent -- that no U.S. employee is going to be able to see. So -- and we're talking about significant areas, where most of the narcotics are grown, in Helmand and Kandahar and that whole region will be beyond our ability to oversee them. So this is very serious. And that's why we keep harping upon the issue. If you're going to spend money down there, USAID or State Department, how are you going to ensure the money isn't diverted, like Gretchen just said, to the Taliban or to the other insurgency?
SOPKOSo that is our big concern. I mean, we've gone around and around on the -- I know you mentioned Rajit (sp?) before about the Kajaki Dam. We are giving hundreds of millions of dollars to the Afghans to put that third turbine in. We can't see the third turbine. So how do we ensure it actually spent on that, it isn't spent on some place in Dubai?
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with John Sopko. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is John Sopko. He's the United States' Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. It's been said that Afghan President Hamid Karzai governs through his personal networks as much as he does through official government institutions. What concerns do you have about the health of those institutions and the challenges lying in front of whoever replaces Hamid Karzai when this election is settled?
SOPKOWell, you know, I mentioned before that I have some concerns about sustainability of all those institutions. I do have some concerns about the corruption with all those institutions. And I do have some concerns about our ability to do oversight. And whoever the next president is will have to deal with those problems. And our job and the job really of our government and our allies is to help that next government navigate through those problems and those issues. But this is knowing the terrain. The military is good at that. They know the terrain they're fighting in.
SOPKOBut State and AID has to know the terrain also, on the corruption issue, the influence peddling and all of that.
NNAMDIAre there areas in corruption, in influence peddling, in waste, where you have seen legitimate progress under Karzai during the time that you have been in this position these past couple of years?
SOPKOYou know, that is a tough, tough question. And I'm sorry I'm going to have say, I have not seen much progress on corruption. And we have repeatedly warned our administration and warned the Congress that's essentially the lit bomb that's out there. Corruption could destroy everything. Now I'm not alone on that. General Allen, who was the four-start Marine general who used to run all of our forces, has testified as of I think last month, on the Hill, saying corruption is more serious a problem to the Afghan government and to reconstruction than the Taliban and the insurgence.
SOPKOGeneral Dunford, who just left as the four-star general in charge and now has taken over the Marines, commissioned a study done by I believe it was the Pentagon, looking at the military's role in the Afghanistan and the corruption issue. And it indicated that this is a serious problem. So we need to focus on and what we have identified -- and this is the thing that is so upsetting, is we have repeatedly identified -- we don't have an anticorruption strategy for the U.S. government. We still haven't written it. It is in draft and has been in draft for over three or four years. And we -- if you don't have a strategy, you don't have a priority. You don't have it as an important issue.
SOPKOAnd that is a serious problem that we repeat and we will repeat it again in this quarterly report to Congress. You need to come up with a strategy and you need to carry it out.
NNAMDIWe go back to the phones and Haney or Hainey in Burke, Va. Haney, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HANEYThank you very much, Kojo. It's Haney. And I love your show by the way.
HANEYAnd I'm sorry I missed the first part, but it's a very important subject. And I welcome the Inspector General for Afghanistan. My -- I have a short comment and a question. And I could have many, many questions. But the shortest comment...
NNAMDIOnly ask one, please, Haney.
HANEYYes, I know. So just a short one, a short comment and a question. Just, the comment is, we have a lot of smart people definitely in the U.S. government. And we have a lot of very smart people in the contractors that are supporting the U.S. government. And we have also anticorruption laws and everything. But yet we continue to run into these problems, not only in Afghanistan but in other countries, Iraq and so on and so on. And my question is, what is causing this to happen? Is there something fundamentally wrong in the way the contracts, for example, or the contractors are handled by the U.S. government? The contracting process, is there a way to fix that?
HANEYIs it the fact that in the countries we are working with, they don't have laws like we have here that regulate contracting. So instead of corruption you have a lobbying process, a contractive process, et cetera? What is the inspector general's view on the cause of this, in spite of all the smart, wonderful people that we have working -- and well-intentioned people? Thank you.
NNAMDIYou're welcome. John Sopko?
SOPKOWell, let me also affirm what the caller said. We do have a lot of smart and dedicated people in State, AID and Justice and the Defense Department who are trying to do the best. The problem with corruption -- first of all, it's not an easy problem to fix. But the big problem is, and I'll refer to somebody who I think appeared on your show before and I think she may have been a former colleague of yours, Sarah Chayes who just came out with a report. She used to be the NPR reporter, I know, in Afghanistan for years...
SOPKO...lived there for years -- just came out with a report on the whole issue of kleptocracy, not just corruption -- you know, corruption going from the top down. And she makes a big point. And I haven't done an audit on this. But she says, the problem with the anticorruption -- and she was there early on advising our generals on this -- and she talked about what happens is, counterterrorism will always trump anticorruption. So when the push comes to shove and you're going to make the indictment or you're going to make the arrest or you're going to condition the funding, we get nervous.
SOPKOAnd as long as the bad guys -- and I'm talking about the corrupt people -- realize that we will only go so far, they are not going to change their ways. So it's important. And I think if you read the Dunford report, if you talk to General Allen, if you talk to Sarah Chayes and you talk to a number of very smart people who have looked at this problem, we can't get locked around or around the axle on counterterrorism and not doing the right thing.
SOPKOAnd what the Dunford report talks about is, because we ignored corruption, that's why we're where we're at today. And you take that with General Allen's testimony, and he clearly says the biggest problem facing us in Afghanistan is the corruption.
NNAMDIWhat sorts of investigations should we be looking for in the future?
SOPKOWell, for us, we are doing a number of investigations dealing with following the money. I made a reference to that before. When I took over two years ago, we had a very moribund investigative group looking at corruption. I've hired a number of people who have worked on money-laundering cases from -- they were former legacy customs service or IRS or an FBI. And so we're doing a lot of cases on tracking the money. We're working very closely with our comrades over in DEA and DHS, because what we've seen is, if you're stealing money from us, you're probably doing drugs too and you're probably working with the bad guys.
SOPKOAnd you always want to get your money out of Afghanistan. So we're following the money. We've had one successful case on that where we actually seized over $70 million in stolen assets, stolen money from the U.S. government in Afghanistan. We're the only government agency who has successfully frozen assets in banks in Afghanistan. The money was mysteriously unfrozen, but we were able to track that money down. So you're going to see cases dealing with that.
SOPKOAnd I'm hoping you're going to see some major prosecutions coming out of some serious fraud cases that we've identified in the next six months.
NNAMDIAnd finally here is Matthew on the Eastern Shore in Maryland. Matthew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MATTHEW (CALLERYes, thank you very much, Kojo. I just wanted to take the time to thank your guest and just say what a wonderful job he seems to be doing and how proud he makes me feel to be an American.
NNAMDIOh, well. Thank you very much for your call. John Sopko.
SOPKOWell, thank you very much for that. And let me just throw this out. And this has nothing to do with me. It has something to do with the IG Act. I'm probably one of the most boring people you've met, Kojo. I'm a proponent of the Inspector General Act. And I think, as Americans, we should be proud of that. We are one of the few countries that created inspector generals, independent inspector generals. They are appointed by the president on Monday, and on Tuesday they're investigating the president's advisors. And that is amazing.
SOPKOAnd I have told that to some people over at State and AID who are saying, oh, you know, your reports are so negative and they hurt us. And I said, look, we're trying to teach the Afghans rule of law. We're trying to teach them how to govern. What the IG Act did is a tremendous thing to promote democracy. And they don't quite understand it. To me, the IG Act saves our foreign assistance programs. The strict oversight convinces the American taxpayer there is somebody appointed by the President of the United States who wants to take care of the taxpayers' dollars.
NNAMDIAnd John Sopko is that person. He is the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. John Sopko, thank you so much for joining us.
SOPKOIt's been a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Coming up tomorrow on the Politics Hour, President Obama publicly throws his support behind D.C. statehood. Prince George's County considers rolling back term limits. And Arlington's streetcar fight splits the County Board. The Politics Hour tomorrow at noon on WAMU 88.5 and streaming @kojoshow.org. And for listeners in Ocean City, Md., it's Coastal Connection with Bryan Russo.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo hears some of the "worn stories" behind the clothes we wear, and explores why clothing carries meaning far beyond fashion.
We explore the ripple effects of the U.S. scientific funding crunch with the president of Johns Hopkins University and leaders in the funding and biomedical research fields.
Kojo explores the creative business strategies fueling America's boom in fast-casual dining - and why food has become one of the engines for innovation in the American economy.