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Iraq's Top Corruption Judge Testifies; GOPers Attack

Denying reality is now the central tenet of what passes for modern "conservatism."
 
 
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On Thursday, former Judge Radhi al-Radhi, Iraq's top anticorruption official until he was recently forced out by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, appeared before the House government oversight committee and described what had become of people who had worked for him at the Commission on Public Integrity as they investigated crime and fraud within the Iraqi government:

Thirty-one employees have been killed as well as at least twelve family members. In a number of cases, my staff and their relatives have been kidnapped or detained and tortured prior to being killed. Many of these people were gunned down at close range. This includes my staff member Mohammed Abd Salif, who was gunned down with his seven-month pregnant wife. In one case of targeted death and torture, the security chief on my staff was threatened with death many times. His father was recently kidnapped and killed because of his son's work at CPI. His body hung on a meat hook. One of my staff members who performed clerical duties was protected by my security staff, but his 80-year-old father was kidnapped because his son worked at CPI. When his dead body was found, a power drill had been used to drill his body with holes. Waleed Kashmoula was the head of CPI's Mosul branch. In March 2005, a suicide bomber met with Waleed in his office…and then set off his vest [bomb], killing Waleed….My family's home has been attacked by rockets. I have had a sniper bullet striking near me as I was outside my office. We have learned the hard way that the corrupt will stop at nothing.

Minutes later, Republicans members of the committee were suggesting there was nothing unusual or shocking about corruption in Iraq. "Corruption is not a new phenomenon," remarked Representative Tom Davis, the senior GOPer on the panel. Another committee Republican, Representative Darrell Issa ?, huffed, "We're not surprised a country that was run by a corrupt dictator…would have a pattern of corruption." And Republican Representative John Mica ? noted that corruption plagues many democratic countries, including the United States. Mica cited Watergate and the prosecution of Reagan administration officials, and he claimed that the Clinton administration had "the most number of witnesses to die suddenly."

Their spin: corruption in Iraq is no big deal.

But Radhi in his testimony reiterated what he said in an interview with me several weeks ago: corruption is "rampant" within Iraq (perverting virtually every ministry and costing tens of billions of dollars); it's undermining the entire government and has "stopped the process of reconstruction"; Maliki has consistently blocked corruption investigations (especially probes involving his associates and family); in some instances corruption is "financing terrorism" by funding sectarian militias; and the situation is getting worse. Radhi noted that of the 3000 corruption cases his commission investigated and forwarded to Iraqi courts for prosecution, only 241 have been adjudicated. Also appearing as a witness at the hearing, Stuart Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, echoed Radhi, testifying that corruption within the Iraqi government is the "second insurgency." Bowen reported that corruption is on the rise in Iraq--partly due to Maliki's protection of crooked officials. He quoted one Iraqi official who said that "corruption is threatening the state."

That is, this is worse than Watergate. (And back then, no one investigating Richard Nixon's dirty tricks ended up dead and suspended on a meat hook.)

Radhi agreed with the Republicans that corruption was present during the days of Saddam Hussein, but he pointed out that the current corruption "is undermining my country." And he was not fazed when the GOPers tried to discredit his testimony. Republican Representative Dan Burton excitedly pointed out that Radhi had once served as a prosecutor during the Saddam years. (Burton did not mention that Radhi was twice imprisoned and tortured during the Saddam years and still bears the scars.) And Issa suggested that Radhi was appearing at the hearing (and offering testimony inconvenient for the Bush administration) in return for receiving backing from congressional Democrats for an asylum request Radhi recently submitted to the U.S. government for himself and family members.

Radhi came to the United States in August with ten of his CPI investigators for training sessions set up by the Justice Department. While he was in the Washington area, the Maliki government forcibly removed him from his post, accusing him of corruption and essentially stranding him with almost no source of funds. As one of his associates said at the hearing, "If Maliki is right and Judge Radhi stole millions of dollars, why did he have to check out of his hotel here when he couldn't pay the bill?" Christopher Griffith, a State Department official who worked with Radhi, in a pre-hearing interview with the House committee called Radhi "the most honest government of Iraq official that I have met in my 21 months in the country." Arthur Brennan, a former State Department official (and a past New Hampshire state judge) who worked with Radhi in Iraq, has called him "courageous, honest, and effective." Bowen dubbed him, "My most reliable partner….in Iraq."

The Republican attempt to taint Radhi was predictable. Radhi, who has praised the U.S. invasion of Iraq, said he has no political agenda. But his testimony raised a troubling question for the Bush administration: should the United States expend American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars to create "breathing space" for a government that may be too corrupt to achieve political reconciliation or provide essential services to its citizens? As Representative Henry Waxman ?, the Democratic chairman of the committee, put it, "We need to ask, Is the Maliki government too corrupt to succeed? And if the Maliki government is corrupt, we need to ask whether we can in good conscience continue to sacrifice our blood and tax dollars to prop up his regime."

In response to the Republicans' corruption-is-everywhere defense, Radhi maintained that the "issue is different in Iraq….The infrastructure in Iraq is almost equal to zero. Services in the country is almost equal to zero." He noted that Iraq is a wealthy nation and that its government recently had a budget of $71 billion. Yet, he added, this money has not been used to rebuild and revive the country. David Walker, the comptroller general and another witness at the hearing, tried to spell out why corruption is a significant matter: "When the United States has 160,000 troops on the ground and billions of dollars invested…we ought to be concerned [with corruption] because it can have a direct impact on the Iraqi government's ability to achieve the 18 benchmarks [established by Congress]."

The 62-year-old Radhi left the hearing room quickly after testifying, taking no questions from reporters. Gerry Sikorski, one of his attorneys and a former House member, said, "He took a very risky step coming here"--implying that Radhi or his relatives might face reprisals for his testimony. In a written statement handed out by Sikorski, Radhi said that "real corruption…is destroying my country. It is impossible to have both democracy and corruption at the same time."

At the hearing, Waxman released a committee memorandum indicating that the Bush administration has mounted no serious effort regarding corruption within the Maliki government. After conducting interviews with several State Department officials responsible for anticorruption activity in Iraq, Waxman's committee concluded that "dysfunction and disarray…appear to be frustrating U.S. anticorruption efforts." Former Judge Brennan, who briefly headed State Department's Office of Accountability and Transparency (OAT), told committee investigators there was no coordinated U.S. strategy for combating corruption in Iraq. Michael Richards, the executive secretary of the Anticorruption Working Group, an interagency task force, said that his outfit did not have a coordinator for half a year and that few officials bothered to attend its meetings. And according to the committee memorandum, for a while this summer the State Department's OAT was run by a paralegal who previously had mainly performed administrative tasks within the department. In his prepared testimony, Inspector General Bowen reported that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad has been lackadaisical in its anticorruption efforts.

Yet after Radhi, Bowen and Walker were finished at the witness table, Ambassador Larry Butler, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, testified that the "Department of State has devoted considerable effort and resources to helping courageous Iraqi establish mechanisms and procedures to investigate and prosecute corruption." Butler did not have an easy task. But he stuck to his talking points, and--tougher still--he defended his department's refusal to cooperate fully with Waxman's committee.

Prior to the hearing, Waxman asked the State Department to provide witnesses and documents to his investigators. The department responded by claiming that previously unclassified documents about Iraqi government corruption were now classified (including the U.S. embassy draft report detailing extensive corruption within the Maliki government that I first disclosed in this column) and that any information provided by a State Department officials about corruption in Iraq would have to be classified (meaning it could not be discussed at a public hearing).

Writing to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Waxman contended that this was absurd and outrageous. He argued it was ridiculous for the State Department to claim it could not answer even general questions about Iraqi corruption within a public setting. At the hearing, Waxman hurled a series of queries at Butler. What effect does corruption have on the Iraqi government's ability to achieve political reconciliation? Has Maliki obstructed any corruption investigations? Does the Maliki government have the political will and capability to root out corruption? Is corruption funding the insurgency? Again and again, Butler replied that he would be delighted to answer these questions in the proper setting: a classified hearing behind closed doors. This information, he explained, was secret because its disclosure would "endanger" U.S.-Iraqi relations.

Noting that Rice had previously praised Iraqi anticorruption efforts in public, an upset Waxman declared, "If you say something negative about the Maliki government, it's classified, but if it's positive, then it's not." Representative Stephen Lynch ?, a Democrat on the committee, angrily remarked, "Do you see the irony here? You've established [for Iraq] a committee on accountability and transparency. But here…you're claiming there is a level of confidentiality…and we cannot tell the American people what we're doing with their money." Butler would not be moved. He kept declining to say anything about corruption in Iraq and its impact on the U.S. efforts there. "Secretary Rice," Waxman warned, "is going to have a confrontation with this committee….The executive branch must answer the questions of the legislative branch."

Well, maybe. In the meantime, it's unclear what will become of Radhi. He has several lawyers working pro bono on his immigration status (and that of his family members). And with the Iraqi government refusing to pay him the retirement benefits usually awarded former government officials of his rank, he will have to find a way to support himself in the United States (assuming he stays here). Moreover, it's not certain what impact, if any, his testimony will have on the ongoing debate in Congress concerning George W. Bush's Iraq policy and the administration's latest funding requests for the war. There were several reporters--but not many--at the hearing.

During his testimony, Radhi said he does not favor a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. But he did say that the Iraqi government can only function effectively if "professional technocrats…qualified to perform vital government services" are placed in charge. And by his own account, that is not happening. He estimates the Iraqi government is meeting 2 to 5 percent of its obligations--with the rest of its activity committed to waste and fraud.

So Radhi is, as Waxman noted, a man "without a country," and he's also a man caught between his desire (a clean and functioning Iraqi government backed by the United States) and his view of reality (a corrupt Iraqi government that's a threat to him and his family and that does not deserve the support of the United States). By design or not, his testimony does undercut the Bush administration's rationale for the so-called "surge--as would any public examination of corruption within the Iraqi government. Which is why the State Department is in fierce battle with Waxman and why this matter will not end with Radhi's testimony.

According to a Radhi associate, Radhi left the committee room believing he had done the right thing. Even as he was depending on the U.S. government to process his asylum request, he had delivered Congress a straight message that happened to be rather inconvenient for the Bush administration. Then hours later, he received disturbing news: his son, who had been trying to obtain political asylum in England, was ordered by the British government to return to Baghdad. That's where people connected to Radhi have been kidnapped, tortured and killed. "For Judge Radhi," the Radhi associate said, "this put his day on Capitol Hill in a very different light."

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation and the co-author of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush . He writes a blog at davidcorn.com.

 
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