Whatever happened to that $6.6 billion in cash we sent to Iraq?
There will be those who defend the Bush administration by making the argument that there is waste in all wars and Iraq was no different.
That may be. But it is also true that it is stupid, negligent, and outright crazy to send 20 C-130 planeloads of $100 bills in shrinkwrap to a country in chaos and not expect a good portion of that money to go missing.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the George W. Bush administration flooded the conquered country with so much cash to pay for reconstruction and other projects in the first year that a new unit of measurement was born.
Pentagon officials determined that one giant C-130 Hercules cargo plane could carry $2.4 billion in shrink-wrapped bricks of $100 bills. They sent an initial full planeload of cash, followed by 20 other flights to Iraq by May 2004 in a $12-billion haul that U.S. officials believe to be the biggest international cash airlift of all time.
This month, the Pentagon and the Iraqi government are finally closing the books on the program that handled all those Benjamins. But despite years of audits and investigations, U.S. Defense officials still cannot say what happened to $6.6 billion in cash - enough to run the Los Angeles Unified School District or the Chicago Public Schools for a year, among many other things.
For the first time, federal auditors are suggesting that some or all of the cash may have been stolen, not just mislaid in an accounting error. Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, an office created by Congress, said the missing $6.6 billion may be "the largest theft of funds in national history."
The mystery is a growing embarrassment to the Pentagon, and an irritant to Washington's relations with Baghdad. Iraqi officials are threatening to go to court to reclaim the money, which came from Iraqi oil sales, seized Iraqi assets and surplus funds from the United Nations' oil-for-food program.
The Guardian conducted an investigation of the missing cash a couple of years ago and found this:
Because the Iraqi banking system was in tatters, the funds were placed in an account with the Federal Reserve in New York. From there, most of the money was flown in cash to Baghdad. Over the first 14 months of the occupation, 363 tonnes of new $100 bills were shipped in - $12bn, in cash. And that is where it all began to go wrong.
"Iraq was awash in cash - in dollar bills. Piles and piles of money," says Frank Willis, a former senior official with the governing Coalition Provisional Authority. "We played football with some of the bricks of $100 bills before delivery. It was a wild-west crazy atmosphere, the likes of which none of us had ever experienced."
In such a "wild west crazy atmosphere" is it any wonder that someone - Iraqi or American - could have waltzed in and started carting away wheelbarrows full of $100 bills? Dozens, perhaps hundreds of people - from CPA officials to officers and soldiers in the field who were disbursing this cash - might have "wet their beak" and gotten sticky fingers.
There is waste, and then there is gross negligence. Since it really wasn't our money to begin with, you've got to assume the latter.