How the U.S. can fight corruption abroad: start by collecting intelligence

How the U.S. can fight corruption abroad: start by collecting intelligence
Egyptian demonstrators, some chanting slogans against corruption, protest a court's decision to drop murder charges against former President Hosni Mubarak. (Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP Getty Images)

In my Sunday column, I wrote that corruption in foreign countries isn’t only a moral, humanitarian and economic problem; it’s a national security problem for the United States as well.

But what can the U.S. government do about it? U.S. laws make it illegal for American companies to bribe foreign officials, but can the United States really do much to reduce the amount of corruption in countries where it's endemic?


Actually, yes, argues Sarah Chayes, who writes about the issue in her new book, "Thieves of State."

There are no easy fixes, but Chayes offers a list of remedies that could be tried.

It would be nice, for example, if corrupt chiefs of state were banned from official visits to the United States. (Some of the African leaders President Obama hosted for dinner in August would have flunked that test.)

It would be nice if the CIA stopped putting corrupt leaders on its payroll. (That happened in Afghanistan, where anti-corruption prosecutors often found their efforts inexplicably stymied by unseen forces.)

It would be nice if U.S. aid could be delivered with enough strings to make corruption impossible, or at least more difficult. (To its credit, the Obama administration is taking that tough love approach with military aid to both Iraq and Ukraine; weapons will be keep flowing only if they actually reach the troops.)

And it might even be possible, some day, to expand the financial sanctions the U.S. has slapped on Russia -- which apply to officials guilty of "significant corruption, including the expropriation of private or public assets for personal gain" -- to a longer list of countries.

"The real problem is lack of political will to apply any of the remedies," Chayes told me in an email interview from Nigeria, where she's doing more research on corruption.

The good news, she said, it that she is seeing "an uptick in interest in addressing the issue on [Obama's] national security staff, which is where most foreign policy happens."

The bad news: "Where terrorism rears its head, that priority still tends to trump anti-corruption, even though … it is precisely the corruption that fuels the rage that makes people vulnerable to extremist recruitment."

"Perhaps most shockingly," she added, "senior intelligence officials have conceded to me that this is not a topic that is a systematic subject of either intelligence collection or analysis. So we don't even know what we're dealing with."

So one of her proposed remedies would simply be to have the CIA and other intelligence agencies designate corruption as a formal target of U.S. intelligence gathering.

"It costs no one anything to gather systematic information on these corrupt networks," she noted.

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