When the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan closed shop on Sept. 30, it reported its "sobering but conservative" estimate that U.S. taxpayers had lost between $31 billion and $60 billion in waste and fraud of the $206 billion Uncle Sam has spent on contracts and grants in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, that's not all. According to the commission's final report, "a similar amount could be lost due to unsustainable projects and programs."
These staggering, if "conservative," figures are the result of three years of the commission's work, including 25 hearings and eight reports to Congress. What the commission neglected to mention in its final press release, however, was that it was trucking all of its records to the National Archives where, as The Wall Street Journal reported, also on Sept. 30, they would be sealed for 20 years.
News traveled slowly up Capitol Hill. "We learned of this development after the fact," the two original Senate co-sponsors of the commission, Claire McCaskill and Jim Webb, wrote in a Nov. 7 letter to the archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero. Noting that the commission hadn't thought to ask or even inform Congress about deep-freezing the documents for the next two decades, the senators asked "that the National Archives make a full disclosure of the commission's files and records as quickly as possible, consistent with protections for privacy, proprietary information and other applicable laws."
There, as they say, the matter stands. And what an outrage. Locking up vital public records and throwing away the key is not behavior becoming to a democratic republic; it is a peremptory and arbitrary act of authoritarianism. With the "overclassification" of government documents rampant, it fits into a democracy-imperiling trend. "Simply stated," the senators wrote, "we need to live in the light."
Amen -- no matter what crawls out from under the piles of paper. The fact is, these wartime contracting expenditures are not for run-of-the-mill public works projects flawed by cost overruns, fraud and waste. They form the foundation of a failed American foreign policy to use our armies to build nations in regions culturally and religiously hostile to our principles. In increasing desperation, as these documents no doubt attest, that foreign policy has become one of bribery on a grotesque scale.
I don't know what else to call a 2009 USAID agricultural project that started as a $60 million initiative to distribute vouchers for wheat seed and fertilizer in the north -- generous enough -- and ended up, "under pressure to inject $1 million each day into a dozen or so key terrain districts," dumping $360 million into the south and east not just for seeds and fertilizer but also "cash-for-work" -- hmm -- and something dubiously called "community development."
Or how about the U.S. mission to train and equip Afghan National Security Forces at a cost to American taxpayers of $6.4 billion a year? "Such costs far exceed what the government of Afghanistan can sustain," the commission determined, "so it is unclear how those costs will be funded in the future."
"Meanwhile," the report continues, "$11 billion of facilities constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for (Afghan National Security Forces) are 'at risk.'"
Needless to say, $11 billion worth of facilities is a terrible thing to waste.
Then there's a category called "Diversion of U.S. Funds" -- as in diversion of funds to the enemy. No official estimate here, the commission reports; it's anyone's guess. While the opium trade is considered to be the primary funding for the jihadists, guess who's next on the list?
You are. "During a March 2011 trip to Afghanistan, experts told the commission that extortion of funds from U.S construction projects and transportation contracts is the insurgents' second-largest funding source."
This record must be open to citizens, scholars and journalists -- not to mention the Justice Department fraud squad -- ASAP. Otherwise, the bucks won't stop anywhere, ever.