The News Without Transparency: Afghanistan on the brink of blacklisting


The News Without Transparency: SIGAR Corruption by Sunlight Foundation

Two weeks ago, the man charged with providing independent and objective oversight of more than $96 billion of reconstruction funds in Afghanistan warned an audience in Washington that the considerable blood and money expended in the America’s longest overseas military commitment could go to waste if there isn’t a shift in how we deal with the country.

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko’s blunt speech to the Atlantic Council, received significant media coverage, but none of the sobering information would have been possible without Congress’ power to create autonomous inspectors general, like Sopko, to review government spending and issue public reports about their findings.

The graphic to the right illustrates just how much of the story would have been told absent this important method of transparency: almost none.

We are highlighting the power that inspectors general can have to call out waste and fraud in government spending today as part of our News Without Transparency series. The latest editions have been generously underwritten by Take Part. As part of our partnership, we earlier looked at the power of the Freedom of Information Act to reveal information about government operations and create news.

After 12 years, the American military mission in Afghanistan is scheduled to draw to a close at the end of 2014. Conservative estimates suggest that the U.S. has sunk well over half a trillion dollars into Afghanistan and the final cost could be much, much higher.

It wasn’t until seven years after the United States invaded Afghanistan that Congress made a special effort to watchdog all that money, establishing the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

First authorized in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2008, SIGAR is tasked with providing “independent and objective oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction projects and activities.” SIGAR conduct audits and investigations with the aim of promoting efficiency and effectiveness and prevent waste, fraud and abuse in reconstruction programs.

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This piece was written in collaboration with TakePart in association with the Social Action campaign for the film “The Unknown Known.”

SIGAR submits quarterly reports to Congress which are also made publicly available. These reports provide detailed information about obligations, expenditures and revenues associated with reconstruction.

SIGAR is not merely a glorified accountant. Its Investigations Directorate has the power to conduct both criminal and civil investigations and has full federal law enforcement authority.

Congress imbued the SIGAR with significant power to expose corruption and waste in the United States’ Afghanistan reconstruction efforts and, as the coverage of Sopko’s speech illustrates, he has a significant megaphone.

It is not uncommon for Congress to insist on an independent source of oversight when the federal government undertakes significant and expensive projects. In the past decade, it has created two other special inspectors general, one for Iraq reconstruction and one to oversee the Troubled Asset Relief Program. In each case — and varyingly — the inspectors were able to right wrongs where local governments, federal programs or military officials had failed.