Special inspector tasked with investigating corruption in Iraq was alerted about Lebanon bunker
Washington: Not long after American forces defeated the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussain in 2003, caravans of trucks began to arrive at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington on a regular basis, unloading an unusual cargo — pallets of shrink-wrapped $100 (Dh367) bills. The cash, withdrawn from Iraqi government accounts held in the United States, was loaded onto Air Force C-17 transport planes bound for Baghdad, where the Bush administration hoped it would provide a quick financial infusion for Iraq’s new government and the country’s battered economy.
Over the next year and a half, $12 billion to $14 billion was sent to Iraq in the airlift, and an additional $5 billion was sent by electronic transfer. Exactly what happened to that money after it arrived in Baghdad became one of the many unanswered questions from the chaotic days of the American occupation, when billions were flowing into the country from the United States and corruption was rampant.
Finding the answer became first the job and then the obsession of Stuart W. Bowen Jr, a friend from Texas of President George W. Bush who in 2004 was appointed to serve as a special inspector general to investigate corruption and waste in Iraq. Before his office was finally shut down last year, Bowen believed he might have succeeded — but only partly — in that mission.
Much of the money was probably used by the Iraqi government in some way, he concluded. But for years Bowen could not account for billions more until his investigators finally had a breakthrough, discovering that $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion had been stolen and moved to a bunker in rural Lebanon for safe keeping.
“I don’t know how the money got to Lebanon,” Bowen said. “If I knew that, we would have made more progress on the case.”
Bowen kept the discovery and his investigation of the cash-filled bunker in Lebanon, which his office code-named Brick Tracker, secret. He has never publicly discussed it until now, and his frustration that neither he nor his investigators can fully account for the missing money was evident in a series of interviews.
“Billions of dollars have been taken out of Iraq over the last ten years illegally,” he said. “In this investigation, we thought we were on the track for some of that lost money. It’s disappointing to me personally that we were unable to close this case, for reasons beyond our control.”
He is equally frustrated that the Bush administration, apart from his office, never investigated reports that huge amounts of money had disappeared, and that after his investigators found out about the bunker, the Obama administration did not pursue that lead, either. Bowen said his investigators briefed the CIA and the FBI on what they found. But Bowen added that he believed one reason American officials had not gone after it was “because it was Iraqi money stolen by Iraqis.”
Spokesmen for the FBI and CIA declined to comment for this article.
The Iraqi government has also not tried to retrieve the money, and has kept information about the Lebanese bunker secret. Bowen said that he talked to Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki about the missing money and his discovery of the bunker and that Al Maliki never took any action, while expressing anger at the way the United States had handled the airlifted cash.
The money so assiduously carried to Iraq from a vast facility in New Jersey operated by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York came from the Development Fund of Iraq, which was created by a United Nations resolution in May 2003 to hold Iraqi oil revenue. The fund was to be used in Iraq’s reconstruction, and the United Nations resolution called for the creation of a monitoring board to make sure the United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which governed Iraq in 2003 and the first half of 2004 and ordered the cash flights, used the money properly for the benefit of the Iraqi people.
For the CPA, an advantage of using the cash from the Development Fund instead of money appropriated by Congress for Iraq was that there were not a lot of rules governing its use, and no federal regulations or congressional oversight of what happened to it. It was Iraqi money, not anything from American taxpayers.