John Sopko is Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. He has worked as a prosecutor in Ohio and served in the Senate and House of Representatives conducting investigations.
BPR: When you were serving at the Senate, how did you decide on what to investigate?
John Sopko: What to investigate is determined by the chairman or the jurisdiction of the individual committee. When I was at the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, we had a broad jurisdiction over anything the government does. When I was at the Energy and Commerce Committee doing investigations on the House, we had a limited jurisdiction. At the PSI (Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations) I would propose important issues and Chairman Sam Nunn then, would pick the issues. Nunn always wanted hearings that could lead to legislation, or change the way government worked. We sometimes dealt with similar issues multiple times, in order to get people to actually change the laws. I put on almost 12 hearings to get changes in food safety laws when I worked for John Dingell eight years ago. Ironically, the regulation dealing with food safety only was issued last week. That’s how long it takes to get legislation through to regulation.
BPR: What was the most different aspect of working on Afghanistan Reconstruction, from your work overseeing domestic affairs?
JS: The biggest difficulty in Afghanistan was that our ability to do an investigation, audit or inspection was limited because of security situation. When I was a federal prosecutor, my FBI agents and DEA agents would do surveillance, attack phones and follow people. They could blend into the community. When you are in Afghanistan and you are doing an investigation, you don’t blend in because you are wearing a helmet and carrying a gun, so you can’t do surveillance like you would do here. It’s totally different because of security situation.
BPR: Among projects in Afghanistan, how much money is allocated to military use and how much to infrastructure on the civilian side?
JS: In Afghanistan, we have spent about 110,000,000,000 dollars on reconstruction alone. Of that amount, about 60% goes to support the Afghan military and Afghan police, purchasing equipment, training, paying salaries. The other 40% goes to the rest of the Afghan government and the economy, building roads, schools, clinics, airports, paying the salaries etc. This money doesn’t include warfighting and I don’t look at the budget of warfighting, which is totally different. The total cost of war in Afghanistan over these 14 years is close to 1,000,000,000,000 dollars. So warfighting costs a lot more money than reconstruction does. Actually, you have really good sources here at Brown – Dr. Catherine Lutz is doing research on the entire cost of war.
BPR: How can the US make sure that the money, whether in military use or civilian use, won’t indirectly support the Taliban, or other radical groups?
JS: We have identified that stolen/misused money does end up in the hands of the insurgents, whether Taliban or ISIL. Just like we know that the insurgency is directly involved with narcotics trafficking, a large amount of money that supports insurgency comes from the illegal narcotics, which is a booming business in Afghanistan. Most of the criminals that we run into, who steal our money and misappropriate funds, pay taxes to the Taliban and the insurgency. Yet, it’s extremely difficult to prevent this because the security situation doesn’t permit many actions. We encourage USAID (the United States Agency for International Development), DOD and State Department to design such programs that are harder to steal from. The other way is prosecuting people. We do audits and bring it to the attention to the Afghan government as well as our government. But it’s not foolproof – we do not catch 100% of the criminals, and we do not stop 100% of the money being stolen.
BPR: How severe is corruption? What is the process when corruption is uncovered?
JS: Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Transparency International, which rates the corruption index, reports that Afghanistan is tied with just North Korea and Somalia. That’s very serious and very tricky to deal with. I have jurisdiction over Americans, American funds and American contractors and we can pursue them. But when we give money directly to the Afghan government as “on-budget assistance,” I lose jurisdiction. For example, when money enters the Afghan Ministry of Finance and then to Ministry of Defense, which have a contract with Afghan contractors who pay bribes to that, I have no jurisdiction in this case. In fact, we uncovered a conspiracy among Afghan contractors to fix the price for delivering fuel to the Afghan military higher than it should have been. It was a billion-dollar contract, but over 200,000,000 dollars of that contract was bogus, basically stolen by the contractors. Normally I will go into the Afghan judicial system and turn it over to the Afghan prosecutors of the Afghan Court, but the Afghan judicial system is one of the most corrupt judicial systems in the world, so they wouldn’t prosecute them. Under the new regime of Afghanistan, President Ghani and his people are actually reacting to this. They have set up a procurement reform commission, which is reviewing every major contract of the Afghans, and we, my staff, are working with his staff to try to develop good practices for procuring contracts. So we are hoping for indictments and convictions.
BPR: Do you have any advice for youth in the millennial generation?
JS: Public service is a useful service and we need good people in our government helping people, more than ever. It’s probably difficult for the youth to have interests in government as it hasn’t really been a good delight. When I was your age, government was viewed as a very positive reform of everything. I came of age during the Kennedy administration, so working for the government and the DOJ was always my goal. Your generation may choose industries like finance to pay off your college debt, but don’t ignore public services, the federal government, state government, teaching, work in Afghanistan or Africa. Don’t lose sight of this one point: you are part of the problem, then you are part of the solution. If you zone out and don’t participate, you are participating, in the wrong way. You get a lot of problems that we left you – ISIL, the economy, pollution, environmental changes – there are so many areas where I think your smart aggressive generation can make a difference.