Corruption in the Iraqi government–it’s classified information. So says the State Department.
In preparation for a September 27 hearing on corruption within the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Representative Henry Waxman, who chairs the House government oversight and reform committee, sent a request–and then a subpoeana–to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for documents and witnesses. He wanted the State Department to turn over various documents, including a copy of a secret report prepared by the Baghdad embassy that details rampant corruption within the Iraqi government. He also demanded that the State Department make available to his investigators three officials in the department’s Office of Accountability and Transparency who have worked on the issue of Iraqi corruption. [UPDATE: The hearing has been postponed until October 4.]
The State Department refused to turn over the documents and said no to the interview requests. Then it slightly changed its tune. Joel Starr, the deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, notified Waxman that his committee could interview the State Department officials, but anything they had to say about corruption within the Iraqi government would be classified–meaning Waxman could not disclose that information to the public.
How can information about criminal waste and fraud in another government be considered a state secret in the United States?
On September 25, an irritated Waxman fired off a letter to Rice, detailing his exchange with her department:
The State Department is taking the position that investigators for the Committee may speak with these individuals, but the investigators may not ask them questions that could embarrass the Maliki government unless the Committee agrees to refrain from any public discussion of their answers. State Department officials explained that any information about corruption within the Maliki government must be treated as classified because public discussions could undermine U.S. relations with the Maliki government.
This absurd position was confirmed in an e-mail sent to Committee staff….In the e-mail, the State Department provided a description of the “redlines” that its employees may not cross in unclassified interviews scheduled….According to the State Department, the following information is now classified:
Broad statements/assessments which judge or characterize the quality of Iraqi governance or the ability/determination of the Iraqi government to deal with corruption, including allegations that investigations were thwarted/stifled for political reasons;
Statements/allegations concerning actions by specific individuals, such as the Prime Minister or other GOI [Government of Iraq] officials, or regarding investigations of such officials.
The scope of this prohibition is breathtaking. On its face, it means that unless the Committee agrees to keep the information secret from the public, the Committee cannot obtain information from officials in the Office of Accountability and Transparency, about whether there is corruption within the Iraqi ministries, how extensive the corruption is, or whether the corruption is funding the insurgency and undermining public confidence in the Iraqi government. The Committee also cannot obtain information about whether Mr. Maliki himself has been involved in corruption or has intervened to block corruption investigations of Iraqi officials close to Mr. Maliki.
There is already plenty of information on the public record about corruption within the Maliki government. I first disclosed that secret embassy report in this column. And former Iraqi Judge Radhi al-Radhi, whom Maliki forced out as chief of Iraq’s lead anticorruption agency, has said in an exclusive interview with me that Maliki thwarted many of his anticorruption investigations and that the Maliki administration is so rife with corruption it ought to be scrapped. Radhi also pointed out that corruption within the Iraqi government has produced funding for insurgents.
The State Department–which has abandoned Radhi, whom it once supported–is trying to prevent Radhi’s charges from receiving wider notice. It obviously does not want its own records and officials to be used publicly to confirm his claims. (Radhi will be a featured witness at the Waxman committee’s hearings.)
In his letter to Rice, Waxman complained that when his staff conducted a phone interview with Vincent Foulk, one of the Office of Accountability and Transparency officials, Foulk was not permitted by other State Department officials on the call to say whether there is extensive corruption in Iraq, whether Maliki and other Iraqi ministers have blocked corruption probes, and what impact corruption within the Iraqi government is having on U.S. efforts. Foulk told Waxman’s staff that he had never previously heard of a State Department official being prevented from talking about corruption in Iraq.
During this interview, Waxman’s staffers read Foulk a statement Rice had made in October 2006 praising Maliki for taking action against corruption. Foulk was asked if he agreed with Rice’s remarks. Foulk replied he could not answer the question because his opinion is classified information. In his letter to Rice, Waxman griped, “Your position seems to be that positive information about the Maliki government may be disseminated publicly, but any criticism of the government must be treated as a national security secret…If there is widespread corruption within the Maliki government, this is information that both Congress and the public are entitled to know.”
The Bush administration apparently believes otherwise. It’s holding on to documents; the State Department retroactively classified the embassy report on corruption. It has essentially imposed a gag order on State Department officials knowledgeable about corruption in Iraq. In doing so, it has stretched–and possibly abused–its power to classify information. Why go to such lengths? Because George W. Bush’s Iraq policy–at least for the moment–depends on the Maliki government. But if that government is thoroughly corrupt and dysfunctional, Bush’s policy doesn’t make sense. And that’s the real secret the Bush administration wants to keep.