The Afghanistan Watchdog Blasts State and USAID for ‘Sudden Refusal to Cooperate’
The agencies defended their handling of requests since October and said they’ve “regularly responded” to the office over the years.
The Afghanistan watchdog blasted two federal agencies on Wednesday for their “sudden refusal to cooperate” on reviews of the collapse of the U.S. backed government in Afghanistan and other related matters.
John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, sent letters on Wednesday to several congressional committees as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power about issues his office has had over the past few months in trying to obtain interviews and information from the agencies.
“State and USAID's sudden refusal to cooperate is particularly surprising,” Sopko wrote to the lawmakers. “After more than a decade of cooperation with my office, the agencies have now refused to provide information and assistance needed for several audits and congressionally mandated reviews pertaining to, among other things: the collapse of the U.S. backed government in Afghanistan; State and USAID compliance with laws and regulations prohibiting the transfer of funds to the Taliban; and ongoing humanitarian and development programs supporting the Afghan people.”
Starting in October, SIGAR has been submitting requests for information and interviews to State and USAID related to the collapse of the Afghanistan government last August, but Sopko argued that the agencies have been resisting. Then in April, State’s acting legal advisor and USAID’s general counsel sent a letter to SIGAR asking for clarification on SIGAR’s jurisdiction to take on these audits and reviews and claimed, “activities involving humanitarian and development assistance remain outside SIGAR’s current mandate.”
In May, John Arlington, general counsel for SIGAR, sent a letter in response saying the agencies’ claim about the lack of jurisdiction was “astonishing” and outlined the special IG office’s statutory authorities since it was established 12 years ago. In regard to State and USAID’s concerns about possible duplication of efforts, Arlington wrote: “all of our audit work is coordinated with other oversight bodies prior to initiation, specially to avoid duplication.”
In Wednesday’s letter to Blinken and Power, Sopko noted that his general counsel has not received a response yet. He said this situation is “particularly troubling” due to the authorizing language in the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (which established the office) that prohibits State and USAID from preventing SIGAR’s oversight as well as guidance the Office of Management and Budget released in December calling on federal agencies to increase communication and collaboration with their IGs.
“As the U.S. government continues adding to the billions of dollars that it has already spent on the Afghan government and people since 2002, U.S. taxpayers deserve objective information concerning where their money is going and to whom it is being given,” Sopko wrote. “It is my sincere hope that you will follow the example of your predecessors across administrations and affirm the duty of State and USAID officials to comply with SIGAR’s requests for information and assistance.”
Sopko requested that Blinken and Power’s offices respond within 10 days, inform his office of their plans to provide information and/or accept interview requests, and “rescind any written or oral direction prohibiting State or USAID staff from communicating with SIGAR.”
A State Department spokesperson told Government Executive, “State and USAID are committed to assisting SIGAR with its important auditing and oversight role” and the agencies have “regularly responded” to SIGAR’s requests over the years.
“Since receiving SIGAR’s October letter, we have had concerns about how some of SIGAR’s requests for information relate to their statutory jurisdiction,” the spokesperson continued. The letter sent in April “was our effort to resolve those concerns—including nuanced, technical details—to help us best comply with all of our oversight bodies.” As for the May letter, the spokesperson said State received it and officials are working on a response.
In the April letter, the State and USAID officials wrote: “to be clear, the State Department and USAID remain committed to assisting SIGAR with its important auditing role. Nevertheless, given the apparent attenuation between someone of the requests for information and SIGAR’s statutory jurisdiction, we would appreciate additional information regarding the nexus of each [information request] sent pursuant to [certain evaluations]” and “going forward, it would be helpful if SIGAR would provide the jurisdictional basis for each forthcoming [request].”
During a briefing on Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price was asked about the situation. He referred to SIGAR’s May interim report on the collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces, which “does not reflect the consensus view of the State Department or of the U.S. Government, for that matter” and “we don’t concur with many aspects of the report.”
The IG office “did not request input from the State Department for—in the process of drafting this report, nor did they afford us an opportunity to review the draft before it was finalized, as had been a regular process for other reports,” Price said. “If we have any additional reaction to letters that were—and responses that were given today, we’ll be sure to pass those along.”
The May SIGAR report says, “The Department of State declined to comment on the report and the U.S. Agency for International Development did not have any comments.”
Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, whose office shared the letters publicly, blasted the administration for its lack of cooperation.
“This is unacceptable and demands immediate congressional oversight. What does President Biden have to hide?” Comer asked in a statement. “The American people deserve transparency and accountability.”
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement, “the Biden administration’s decision to withhold critical information from SIGAR based on shaky legal interpretations is just another transparent attempt to sweep President Biden’s chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan under the rug,”
McCaul added that the U.S. Afghanistan withdrawal that “left more than 800 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans behind enemy lines deserves a robust investigation and oversight, not further cover up attempts.”
A spokeswoman for the Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee said: “Our committee has worked closely with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction for years, and we are grateful for the diligent oversight work that SIGAR conducts to ensure the responsible stewardship of U.S. taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., committee chairwoman, “is reviewing the letters sent by Mr. Sopko yesterday and has reached out to the State Department to seek clarification about their position in response to SIGAR’s requests for information,” the spokeswoman added.