Foreign policy

State, USAID refuse to cooperate on Afghanistan audits, watchdog says

Inspector General John Sopko fired off a letter to Ron Klain and others, blaming State and USAID for "illegal obstruction" of his office's investigation.

State Department and USAID officials are refusing to provide information to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction needed for multiple audits related to the fall of the Afghan government and the ensuing months of Taliban rule, the watchdog wrote in a June 22 letter to the secretary of State and USAID administrator.

State and USAID have in some cases ignored SIGAR’s communications, declined to make officials available for interviews, and refused to permit the watchdog to travel internationally to conduct on-the-ground research, director John Sopko wrote in the letter, which POLITICO obtained.

SIGAR needs this information for multiple reviews related to, among other things, Kabul’s collapse in August 2021, the transfer of funds to the Taliban, and humanitarian programs in support of the Afghan people, Sopko wrote.

State, for example, would not make staff available for interviews about the settlement of Afghan refugees and the conditions they faced during their escape from Afghanistan.

Sopko is most concerned by State and USAID’s refusal to provide “basic information” about SIGAR’s audit concerning efforts to ensure that aid programs supporting the Afghan people do not lead to the illegal transfer of taxpayer dollars to the Taliban or Haqqani Network.

“Historically, State and USAID officials have supported SIGAR’s mission and honored my office’s requests,” Sopko wrote. “Inexplicably, this long track record of cooperation seems to have abruptly ended. Agency officials now appear to have adopted a premeditated position of obstruction.”

When asked by POLITICO for comment, a State Department spokesperson shared an April 25 letter from State and USAID legal counsel to SIGAR in response to the watchdog’s initial request for information.

The officials — Richard Visek, State’s acting legal advisor, and Margaret Taylor, USAID’s general counsel — argued in the letter that SIGAR’s jurisdiction is limited to “reconstruction purposes,” which does not include humanitarian and other development assistance.

“State and USAID are committed to assisting SIGAR with its important auditing and oversight role,” the spokesperson said. But “We have had concerns about how some of SIGAR’s requests for information relate to their statutory jurisdiction. ”

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said SIGAR’s most recent report on the collapse of the Afghan forces, which blasted both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump for withdrawing from the country, “does not reflect the consensus view of the State Department or of the U.S. Government, for that matter.”

SIGAR did not ask the State Department for input on the report or give the department an opportunity to review the draft before it was finalized, as is the usual process, Price said.

“Many parts of the U.S. Government, including the State Department, have unique insights into developments in Afghanistan last year that were not captured in the report. And we don’t concur with many aspects of the report,” Price said.

But Sopko stressed in the June letter that officials are prohibited by law from obstructing SIGAR’s oversight work, and noted that Biden himself recently underscored the importance of cooperation.

He implored Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID chief Samantha Power to direct their officials to “cease their illegal obstruction of SIGAR’s oversight work.”

“The coordinated efforts by State and USAID officials to deny SIGAR access to information and assistance are unprecedented,” Sopko wrote. “The billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars that have been spent and continue to be spent in support of the Afghan government and the Afghan people warrant independent oversight, and the law requires it.”

Congress has directed SIGAR to conduct several reviews, including an evaluation of the performance of the Afghan forces leading up to the government’s collapse last year, according to the letter. That review must examine the Pentagon’s efforts since 2001 to assist the Afghan military, as well as the impact of the American withdrawal and the current status of U.S.-provided equipment.

In addition, the lack of cooperation is hindering an audit evaluating State and USAID’s compliance with the laws and regulations prohibiting the funding of members of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, as well as a separate review concerning emergency food assistance to Afghanistan, according to the letter.

According to the letter, a State official said that department staff have “received internal direction to not engage with or speak to SIGAR” without clearance from State’s legal counsel.

“This direction is at odds with Section 7 of the Inspector General Act and other legal protections related to whistleblowers,” Sopko wrote.

State and USAID have told SIGAR that activities involving humanitarian assistance “do not pertain to reconstruction” and are outside of SIGAR’s jurisdiction — a claim Sopko disagrees with. Since 2008, SIGAR has reported on such programs in Afghanistan, he wrote, noting that no federal agency has challenged that oversight until now.

“State and USAID legal counsels’ claim that SIGAR’s jurisdiction does not include such matters is not only contrary to the law, but a gross deviation from over 14 years of precedent set by three prior administrations,” Sopko wrote.

Sopko cc’d Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, as well as Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, on the letter.

He also sent a version to the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate armed services and foreign affairs committees, which POLITICO also obtained.