WASHINGTON — The U.S. Agency for International Development withheld information from Congress showing the Afghan government's apparent inability to prevent its ministries from doing business with people tied to terrorism, according to a letter from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and documents obtained by USA TODAY.
The letter, from SIGAR's general counsel asserts that USAID "covered up information" showing some Afghan ministries can't account for cash or what they own. The audits show the Afghan government has failed to monitor the "potential risk of contracting with suppliers/beneficiaries having links with terrorist organizations,"
"USAID kept this information from Congress and the American people," said John Sopko, the inspector general. "As a former federal prosecutor and congressional investigator, to me it begs the questions: What were they trying to hide, and why?"
Matt Herrick, a spokesman for USAID, rejected that assertion Wednesday, saying the agency had provided members of Congress and their staffs full access to its documents upon request. SIGAR's claim relates to documents that have been made available to Congress, Herrick said. The agency hasn't hidden anything, he said.
"Congress and U.S. government auditors have access to USAID documents in unredacted form, either in their offices or at USAID, and we reject the claim that we have improperly withheld information," Herrick said.
Congress may take up the issue Thursday when Sopko and an official from USAID are scheduled to appear before a panel of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. USAID has spent nearly $15 billion in taxpayer funds to help build infrastructure in Afghanistan.
"USAID must be accountable to the American people for how they are spending taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who chairs the committee's panel on national security, told USA TODAY in a statement. "They have the responsibility to cooperate with Congress and SIGAR in an open and transparent manner as we continue to pipe billions of taxpayer dollars into a country with an alarming track record of waste, fraud and abuse."
The lack of controls to prevent Afghan ministries from contracting with people connected to terrorist organizations pops up throughout a series of audits on the agencies obtained by USA TODAY through a Freedom of Information Act request. A KPMG audit of the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development says, "A mechanism has not been developed for screening of beneficiaries for their possible links with terrorist organizations before signing contracts or providing funds to the suppliers."
A copy of USAID's version of the same document shows that mentions of links to terrorism are blacked out.
"Withholding information that highlights concerns about U.S. taxpayer dollars being funneled to terrorists is reprehensible and circumvents our system of checks and balances," said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan watchdog group. "USAID should come clean to the military and SIGAR to ensure that lives are not at risk, mission priorities are attainable, and wasteful spending isn't rampant."
Information USAID has blacked out in documents released publicly includes names and other data that identify Afghans who could be at risk of retaliation, Herrick said. SIGAR, in its letter, acknowledges the need to limit dissemination of such information.
"It is a common practice to redact information from the general public about individuals who could come into harm's way if their names were released or vulnerabilities that could be exploited by unscrupulous actors if exposed," Herrick said.
Preventing aid money from leaking into the hands of insurgents and terrorist organizations has been a problem for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. In 2012, the U.S. government determined that a contractor working on a courthouse there had been involved with networks that provided parts for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Sopko has been a persistent critic of U.S. spending in Afghanistan, issuing regular reports about poor oversight of building projects. Wednesday, his office found fault with an $11 million prison built there after the inspector general's review showed design defects and the facility's placement in "in the second-highest earthquake zone in Afghanistan."