SIGAR and USAID Clash over Access to Afghan Assessments

Most Hollywood sequels flop, but the second showdown between two particular federal agencies gets two thumbs up—there were explosive allegations, vehement denials, and a very dramatic congressional hearing. The basic plot is that the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) thinks that U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is withholding information (see p. 6) from SIGAR, Congress, and the American public about billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan.

USAID administers U.S. civilian development efforts in Afghanistan, including promoting economic prosperity, strengthening democracy, protecting human rights, and furthering public health and education. SIGAR is tasked with exposing and remedying waste, fraud, and abuse in all non-military Afghanistan reconstruction spending, including the $18 billion spent by USAID since 2002.

Last week, SIGAR and USAID appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security to discuss successes and failures in Afghan reconstruction spending. Both agencies testified almost a year ago on the same topic. It has become an epic battle that has spilled out of congressional hearing rooms and into the national media.

Between 2007 and 2010, USAID conducted capacity assessments of Afghan government ministries to ensure that they had the capacity to effectively manage U.S. funds. Unfortunately, a November 2010 report issued by the USAID’s Inspector General (IG) warned that “the assessments performed to date did not provide reasonable assurance of detecting significant vulnerabilities.” In response, USAID contracted with two external accounting firms—Ernst & Young and KPMG—to independently assess the capacities of the Afghan ministries.

Now the plot thickens. USAID provided redacted copies to SIGAR and Congress, prompting a displeased SIGAR to respond:

At virtually every turn USAID has sought to withhold from the public information concerning the direct assistance programs discussed in SIGAR’s audit report. When SIGAR first requested copies of the ministry assessments at issue here, USAID stamped them “Sensitive But Unclassified” (SBU), with a legend on the front covers stating that they should not be released “outside the Executive Branch”, i.e., should not be released to Congress or the public.

SIGAR agrees with USAID that privacy-related information about individuals, including names, should be redacted, as well as truly sensitive information, such as physical security vulnerabilities. However, when SIGAR compared the redacted versions of the ministry assessments that USAID provided to Congress with the original documents, we found that many of USAID’s redactions seemed to be without reasonable explanation or legal support. For example, USAID redacted information indicating the Afghan government’s apparent inability to prevent its ministries from contracting with individuals with ties to terrorism. Other USAID redactions covered up information indicating that certain Afghan ministries lacked controls on the management of cash, could not keep track of fixed assets, and were using pirated copies of Microsoft software. SIGAR is unaware of any legal basis for withholding information of that nature.

The Project On Government Oversight acquired, via a Freedom of Information Act request, an email between SIGAR and USAID that caused POGO to question the legitimacy and quality of the independent assessments.

Even though the assessments were conducted under USAID agreements paid for with U.S. funds, and were addressed to USAID, the email shows that USAID rebuffed numerous requests from SIGAR for copies of the reports. According to the email, sent on January 22, 2013, USAID asserted that the assessments “belong to the Government of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and…may not be copied, published, or distributed without the specific written consent of GIRoA.” POGO was concerned that the Afghan government controlled the assessments and potentially removed critical or embarrassing information from them.

In the same email, USAID offered SIGAR the opportunity to view the reports, but cautioned that SIGAR “may not copy or publish information contained within the report without specific redact by GIRoA.” Those statements, in addition to a control marking that prevented the reports from being disseminated, caused concerns for SIGAR and Members of Congress.

During an April 2013 hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Special Inspector General John Sopko stated that when he had originally requested the assessments, a senior USAID official told him that the reports “were sensitive, but they were mainly embarrassing, so they were going to let the Afghan ministries redact them before they gave them to [SIGAR]” (see p. 99).

Sopko stated during the April 2013 hearing that his office received the unredacted assessments, but indicated that he was unable to release the reports to Congress because they were stamped SBU. In the face of a bipartisan request from Committee Members, USAID’s Acting IG Michael Carroll promised to promptly provide the Committee with unredacted copies.

In response to questions posed by POGO last summer, USAID acknowledged the SBU stamp and explained that it stems from the special agreement between USAID and the Afghan government. USAID further informed POGO that, following the hearing, it provided redacted assessments to the Committee—despite being directed to provide original, unredacted copies.

USAID claims that the redactions, prepared specifically so that hard copies could be released to Members of Congress, excluded both personal identifying information and information that could damage the Afghanistan government (for example, information about critical structural weaknesses that could empower insurgents to attack Afghan computer systems). USAID further claimed that the redactions did not exclude embarrassing information. POGO learned from congressional sources that Members of Congress were invited to view the unredacted assessments, which a USAID spokesperson recently confirmed to USA Today. However, there are still questions about whether the redactions were necessary and whether they included embarrassing information.

POGO received two redacted copies of the same Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) pre-award assessment conducted by KPMG. One copy was released by SIGAR following a public request. That copy has minimal redactions. The second copy, released by USAID, included multiple redactions. USAID removed all information about the Afghanistan’s government’s lack of a system for “screening…beneficiaries for their possible links with terrorist organizations before signing contracts or providing funds to the suppliers.” While this finding might be embarrassing to USAID, it doesn’t justify being concealed from Congress or the public. SIGAR and Congress have been vehement about preventing money from going to those with terrorist ties.

USAID should stop stonewalling and give SIGAR, Congress, and the public comprehensive information about its Afghan spending and failures. During last week’s hearing (1:24:09 – 1:29:34), the issue of coming clean to Congress came up. Sopko asked the Committee Members if they had received unredacted copies of the Stage 2 Assessments, which he claimed were very “damming” and “important” to everyone working to ensure there was no loss of direct assistance money in Afghanistan. The answer from the Members was unclear, but Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) responded that he was concerned that the Committee has to pry information from USAID, which he stated wasn’t being forthright.

Aimee Thomson, a legal intern in 2013, contributed to this article.