Troops Stole Boxes of Iraq Reconstruction Cash ... Literally ... But There's a Lot More to the Story

This weekend the Los Angeles Times ran an article titled "Some U.S. troops tempted by reconstruction cash," reporting that the Department of Justice is pursing some "three dozen prosecutions" of soldiers and others involving bribery for "reconstruction" projects in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The piece tells the story of one Army captain, a 28-year old graduate from West Point, who according to a federal indictment, "managed to skim more than $690,000 in cash as the civil affairs officer overseeing millions of dollars intended for reconstruction projects and payments to private Iraqi security forces northeast of Baghdad." In a particularly brazen move, Capt. Michael Dung Nguyen allegedly packed the cash into boxes, which he then mailed to his home in Beaverton, Oregon.

According to the LA Times, "at least 25 theft probes are underway."

The story has gotten relatively little attention, and no doubt the response to these crimes will take the predictable form of blaming it on a few bad apples. But, as the Times hints, the system that has produced this sort of corruption by U.S soldiers was ripe for abuse from the start. "The prosecutions reveal the extent to which troops have been tempted by the Pentagon's 'money as a weapon system' policy, which has left battlefields awash in cash."

Late last summer, the Washington Post ran a article titled "Money as a Weapon," which painted a picture of how, five years into the U.S. occupation, "American cash" had become the U.S. military's most valuable strategic counterinsurgency tool.

Soldiers walk the streets carrying thousands of dollars to pay Iraqis for doorways battered in American raids and limbs lost during firefights. Sheiks appeal to commanders to use larger pools of money locked away in Humvees and safes at military bases for new schools, health clinics, water treatment plants and generators, knowing that the military can bypass Iraqi and U.S. bureaucratic hurdles.

The cash was used for things big and small, many of which would ft neatly into the category "hearts and minds":

Army documents show that $48,000 was spent on 6,000 pairs of children's shoes; an additional $50,000 bought 625 sheep for people described in records as "starving poor locals" in a Baghdad neighborhood. Soldiers ordered $100,000 worth of dolls and $500,000 in action figures made to look like Iraqi Security Forces. About $14,250 was spent on "I Love Iraq" T-shirts. More than $75,000 sent a delegation to a women's and civil rights conference in Cairo. And $12,800 was spent for two pools to cool bears and tigers at Zawra Park Zoo in Baghdad.

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