My friend’s succinct reaction to the amazing headline was, “How do you lose $6.6 billion?” How indeed!
Despite a full decade of audits and investigations, Pentagon officials still cannot say what happened to $6.6 billion in cash that was intended for the Development Fund for Iraq.
Apparently, it just “disappeared.” Was it just misplaced in an accounting error, or was it “stolen”? Who knows? Apparently, the Pentagon has no idea. Ah, the perils of the fog of war that covers up all sorts of foul play.
It’s little wonder the money disappeared. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration flooded the country with cash for reconstruction and other projects. It was a cash delivery that made the post-World War II Marshall Plan pale by comparison.
Pentagon officials determined that one giant C-130 Hercules cargo plane could carry $2.4 billion in shrink-wrapped bricks of $100 bills. They sent an initial full planeload of cash, followed by 20 other flights to Iraq by May 2004 in a $12 billion haul that U.S. officials believe to be the biggest international cash airlift of all time. The handling of the cash was haphazard at best, and totally lacking in financial controls.
According to official reports, the cash was carried by tractor-trailer trucks from the Federal Reserve currency repository in East Rutherford, New Jersey, to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, then flown to Baghdad. U.S. officials there stored the stash of cash in a basement vault at one of Hussein’s former palaces, and at U.S. military bases, and eventually distributed the money to Iraqi ministries and contractors.
House Government Reform Committee investigators charged in 2005 that U.S. officials amazingly “used virtually no financial controls to account for these enormous cash withdrawals once they arrived in Iraq, and there is evidence of substantial waste, fraud and abuse in the actual spending and disbursement of the Iraqi funds.” No one established cash controls, no one wrote cash-handling procedures, no one even attempted to account for disbursements and now “no one” has been found accountable.
This is not rocket science. Banks keep track of large amounts of cash every day. Head tellers and managers are accountable for the branch cash, and line tellers are accountable for their cash drawers. They don’t make a lot of money, but their jobs depend on accounting for every penny in their control. They can be fired for losing control of relatively small dollar amounts, and entire banks can be shut down for losing control of large amounts of cash. Yet highly paid government contractors have not been accountable for this criminal “mysterious disappearance.” The U.S. government could have hired some strong tellers for a lot less money, and gotten a lot more accountability.
But Pentagon officials have contended for the last nine years that they could eventually account for the money if given enough time to track down the records. Remarkably, repeated attempts over ten years to find the documentation, or better yet the cash, have been fruitless. The $6.6 billion had just vanished into thin air. No records. No ledger sheets. No nothing.
Astonishingly, in June 2011 the Pentagon and the Iraqi government closed the books on the program that handled the disappeared $6.6 billion in cold, hard cash. They just gave up. But before shutting the program down, federal auditors admitted that that some or all of the cash may have been stolen, not just misplaced in an accounting error. Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, an office created by Congress, said the missing $6.6 billion may be “the largest theft of funds in national history.” No kidding Mr. Bowen!
This shameful story of Department of Defense misfeasance/malfeasance/aiding and abetting of grand larceny makes the iconic Pentagon outrage of the $400 hammer and the $200 toilet seat seem like meaningless rounding errors.
But U.S. officials claim they didn’t have the necessary time or staff to keep strict financial controls. Officials have testified that millions of dollars were stuffed in gunnysacks and hauled on pickups to Iraqi agencies or contractors. Didn’t have the time?? Didn’t have the staff for financial controls?? This isn’t a stand selling lemonade at a quarter a cup. This is $6.6 BILLION of taxpayer’s money that suddenly went missing without a clue.
In the past decade, what efforts have been made to track and recover these funds? Where is the accountability? Who were the officials responsible for this whopping amount of cold hard cash just vanishing? When can we expect grand juries to investigate and indict those responsible for the disappearance of this huge amount of money? When can we expect heads to roll in the financial chain of command in charge of the Development Fund for Iraq?
The time for accountability was yesterday. The time for recovery of the money is long past. The time for action is now, before this outrage is relegated to the ranks of “cold cases” and swept under the Pentagon rug with all those other monster rounding errors.