June 20, 2010 -- The U.S. government, which is pressing Iraqi and Afghan leaders to get tough on internal corruption, is doing the same in its ranks.
Cases of suspected fraud and other wrongdoing by U.S. troops and contractors overseeing reconstruction and relief projects in Iraq and Afghanistan are up dramatically.
James Burch, the Defense Department's deputy inspector general for investigations, says his agency is investigating 223 cases -- 18 percent more than a year ago.
Investigators have charged an Army officer with pocketing cash meant to pay Iraqi civilian militiamen, contractors offering an Army officer $1 million for the inside track on a road project in Afghanistan, and three contractors for an alleged conspiracy to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fuel from a U.S. base in Baghdad.
Army Maj. John Cockerham was sentenced in December to 17½ years in prison for accepting $9 million in bribes for contracts to sell water and other supplies to the U.S. military.
In Afghanistan, where U.S. spending on reconstruction will soon surpass the $50 billion spent in Iraq, the U.S. government is bolstering its investigative presence. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has a staff of 15 and plans to expand to 32 by October. By September 2011, the agency plans to have 49 full-time employees, says Raymond DiNunzio, an assistant inspector general
In Iraq, investigators have opened 67 fraud cases this year, compared with 69 for all of 2009, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR). In Afghanistan, it's 42 cases this year vs. four last year.
Stuart Bowen, who heads SIGIR, says more tipsters are coming forward. "Some of these people have come back to the States, so they're out of the threat zone," he says. "Perhaps what they saw is gnawing at their conscience."
The U.S. spent more than $1.2 billion last year on reconstruction and relief in Afghanistan and Iraq. The funds were paid to local contractors, often in cash, at the discretion of officers in the war zones.
"Given the lessons from Iraq," Bowen says, "ratcheting up the resources devoted to pursuing cases and effective prosecution in Afghanistan is paramount."