Now, things that used to be top secret — like CIA bagsful of cash delivered, with no questions asked, to a government famously rife with corruption — are being featured on screens everywhere. And Washington policy is looking like a comic Hollywood parody of the way the world really works.
Scene One: Afghanistan’s president convenes a Saturday press conference and publicly confirms the CIA’s longtime practice of bringing him bags of money.
It had been a top secret until The New York Times disclosed it April 28. Karzai explains how and why he has been spending the CIA’s millions, which is as he sees fit, accountable to no one.
“This is nothing unusual,” Karzai deadpans. CIA money is simply “an easy source of petty cash” to get money to “political elites.” (That’s the neo-geopolitical term of art for Afghans you may know better as “warlords,” many of whom run opium-producing empires and other organized-crime endeavors.) “It has been given to individuals.”
Karzai discusses another formerly hush-hush matter: He just met with the CIA station chief, who assured him the moneybag deliveries will continue — despite controversy sparked by The Times’ scoop.
“I told him because of all these rumors in the media, please do not cut all this money, because we really need it,” Karzai says. “It has helped us a lot. It has solved lots of our problems.”
Why can’t this money simply be delivered the usual way, through the State Department’s international aid budget (which must be audited)?
Karzai must be thinking these reporters need a primer about how things really work in underdeveloped places.
“This is cash,” he says. “It is the choice of the U.S. government. ... If tomorrow the State Department decides to give us such cash, I’d welcome that, too.”
Karzai brags that the CIA always gets a receipt for cash it delivers. But no one thinks that means the CIA is getting all it thought it was buying. Afghanistan’s corruption remains widespread. It has reportedly extended into Karzai’s family and top levels of his government.
And Washington’s greatest frustration is that its money hasn’t bought Karzai’s public loyalty and support.
A mercurial and much-medicated man, Karzai still berates the U.S. government, unrelentingly and unrepentantly, for all sorts of military and political concerns — even while taking those bags of CIA money.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has written to President Barack Obama, calling the U.S. payments part of an “incoherent” policy toward Afghanistan.
The policy not only promotes corruption in Afghanistan, he wrote, but it breaks Washington’s “trust with the American taxpayer.”
But in this, Uncle Sam may have a most unlikely soul-mate: the rulers of Iran.
For years, Iran was providing Karzai’s office with bags of money — even while Tehran was giving arms and training to the Taliban. Iran hoped to drive a wedge between Washington and Kabul.
In 2010, another New York Times scoop famously revealed how a top Iranian official delivered a plastic bag of money to Karzai’s airplane, while the Afghan president was in Tehran. And Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly brought two boxes of cash with him to Kabul.
But in 2012, Karzai rejected Iran’s protests and signed a strategic partnership with the United States. And Iran promptly stopped its payments to Karzai’s government.
Back in 2010, U.S. intelligence officials willingly discussed Iran’s payments to Kabul — but kept secret the fact that the CIA was delivering cash to Karzai, too. “We called it ‘ghost money,’ “ Karzai’s former deputy chief of staff, Khalil Roman, once told The Times. “It came in secret, and it left in secret.”
Much has changed. After Saturday’s press conference at his presidential palace, Karzai served lunch for reporters. And Afghan journalists laughingly declared a new name for what Karzai was serving them: “CIA burgers.”
Top secret no more.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.