We've all heard the stories about the massive waste and fraud that has taken place in Iraq. There have been so many anecdotes about how money just flew out of the U.S. Treasury to all sorts of shady operators that we don't pay attention anymore.
Besides the frequency of these events, the sheer size of the numbers involved makes it hard to grasp just how big this problem is.
So let's just look at one little part of what may be the largest theft in history.
In the first 14 months of the war, the U.S. shipped $12 billion to Iraq. Out of that, $9 billion is unaccounted for.
And who was supposed to be accounting for all that money? You would think that with so much cash on the line, the Bush administration would make sure there was someone watching out for it, right? Someone with at least some experience and knowledge about the difficulties of handling that much cash in a war zone.
There was. A firm called NorthStar Consultants was paid $1.4 million to account for and audit these funds as they were used in Iraq. Too bad that NorthStar Consultants had no accountants working for them.
In fact, this firm is based out of a private home in La Jolla, Calif., with a mailing address in the Bahamas. It is run by the husband-and-wife team of Thomas and Konsuelo Howell. Business records dug up by Vanity Fair magazine show the couple operates a couple of other businesses from the same address - selling furniture and doing home remodeling.
How someone goes from remodeling homes to accounting for pallets of cash in a war zone is the $9 billion question.
Because of the classified nature of its contract, no one outside of government knows exactly what this company did to land that contract, or what it took to complete the task it was paid to perform. What we do know is that three-quarters of the money they were supposed to account for walked away.
How could this happen?
Perhaps this quote made to the BBC by David Oliver, the Coalition Provisional Authority's director of management and budget, says it all.
"I have no idea - I can't tell you whether or not the money went to the right things or didn't - nor do I actually think it's important."
Yep, it's just not important. Oliver's reasoning is that it wasn't American money, but Iraqi money they were wasting, seized from assets of the former regime. Of course, once that money was wasted, billions of U.S. taxpayer funds had to be shipped to Iraq to carry on with the reconstruction work that still had to be completed.
I'm sure this guy is on the short list to be George W. Bush's next Secretary of the Treasury.
After being birthed by the CPA, the current Iraqi government is arguably the most corrupt government in the world. Radhi Hamza al-Radhi, the former head of the Iraqi Commission on Public Integrity, testified before Congress recently the massive corruption in government ministries has brought reconstruction to a standstill, and the money is used to fund the militia forces that are killing American troops and tearing the country apart.
People point fingers at causes for the disaster that is Iraq: the lies, the lack of troops for the initial occupation, the disbanding of the Iraqi army. But the theft of billions of dollars, and the continuing corruption it helped spawn, may be even worse, since they continue to fuel the war.
And it's not like all of this waste has stopped. Last October, the State Department reported that it was unable to account for $1.2 billion that was supposed to be used to train troops. Or even more recently, $1 billion in Iraqi military equipment has disappeared.
The fact that money disappeared in Iraq isn't surprising. What is surprising is that George W. Bush, the CEO president who claimed he was going to run government like a business, has done nothing to hold anyone accountable. How many businesses would survive such blatant waste and corruption? Is there any company that would let a contractor off the hook for losing $9 billion?
Or maybe the question should be, is there any company that would give a home-based remodeling business a no-bid contract to watch $12 billion in cash?
Who is responsible for hiring this company? And who hired David Oliver, who didn't think any of this was important? Did any of them end up with some of this money?
This begs a much bigger question, which country has the more corrupt government, the U.S. or Iraq?
• Kirk Caraway writes for Swift Communications, Inc. He can be reached through his blog at http://kirkcaraway.com.