Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Deluge of Greed

Duty, Honor, Country: When Being Ethical Can Be A Killer

The February 15, 2009 New York Times carried an above-the-fold right-hand side front page story that, before long, may develop "legs."

Editors may have been drawn to the account because the circumstances involved Iraq and the dispersal of huge sums of money. Or the editors may have had a hunch that the information available was just the tip of the iceberg and, given enough time, the paper just might stumble onto the much larger tale.

The basic story – running this time under the headline Inquiry on Graft in Iraq Focuses on U.S. Officers – is not new. The Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) has been trying to trace what happened to $125 billion – the where, when, to whom, and under what circumstances – designated for the rebuilding of Iraq after the U.S.-led coalition deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003.

There have been allegations for some time that U.S. contracting officials were demanding or at a minimum were being offered – and some accepting – bribes or kickbacks for awarding contracts to the “right” companies, both Iraqi and U.S. To date, prosecutors have obtained 35 convictions for graft and bribery committed by contracting officers in Iraq. But the problem is not unique to Iraq. Last autumn, a U.S. Army major and his wife were arrested for skimming money off contracts to supply the Colombian armed forces with military equipment. They had been suspected of similar activity while the officer was assigned to Iraq, but he was reassigned before firm evidence was available.

But there was something else in the newspaper story. One civilian official reportedly confessed to accepting $225,000 to steer a multi-million dollar contract to a particular company. The day after she admitted her involvement, she committed suicide.

When I saw that, I immediately thought of another suicide in Iraq, one that, according to the details in the “Texas Observer,” came about because the officer involved simply could not countenance the greed and the graft that he saw all around him. It was so commonplace, so pervasive, that it seemed to overwhelm him – like Leonardo da Vinci’s obsession with drawings of “The Deluge” in his notebooks accompanied by the query: "Tell me if ever anything was done."

He was a West Point graduate, the honor code captain his senior year. As a cadet and then in his active service he took the motto of West Point literally. In Iraq, his job was to supervise training of all Iraqi security forces, a responsibility that depended in part on the procurement of military equipment through the contracting office established by the Pentagon in Baghdad.

It was here that principles and ethics collided head on with greed and graft. The loser was the West Point graduate.

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