Journalism

Billions over Baghdad

October 2007

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Between April 2003 and June 2004, $12 billion in U.S. currency—much of it belonging to the Iraqi people—was shipped from the Federal Reserve to Baghdad, where it was dispensed by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Some of the cash went to pay for projects and keep ministries afloat, but, incredibly, at least $9 billion has gone missing, unaccounted for, in a frenzy of mismanagement and greed. Following a trail that leads from a safe in one of Saddam's palaces to a house near San Diego, to a P.O. box in the Bahamas, the authors discover just how little anyone cared about how the money was handled.

Hidden in plain sight, 10 miles west of Manhattan, amid a suburban community of middle-class homes and small businesses, stands a fortress-like building shielded by big trees and lush plantings behind an iron fence. The steel-gray structure, in East Rutherford, New Jersey, is all but invisible to the thousands of commuters who whiz by every day on Route 17. Even if they noticed it, they would scarcely guess that it is the largest repository of American currency in the world.

Officially, 100 Orchard Street is referred to by the acronym eroc, for the East Rutherford Operations Center of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The brains of the New York Fed may lie in Manhattan, but "xeroc" is the beating heart of its operations—a secretive, heavily guarded compound where the bank processes checks, makes wire transfers, and receives and ships out its most precious commodity: new and used paper money.

Under the watchful eye of bank employees in a glass-enclosed control room, and under the even steadier gaze of a video surveillance system, pallets of shrink-wrapped bills were lifted out of currency bays by unmanned "storage and retrieval vehicles" and loaded onto conveyors that transported the 24 million bills, sorted into "bricks," to the waiting trailer. No human being would have touched this cargo, which is how the Fed wants it: the bank aims to "minimize the handling of currency by eroc employees and create an audit trail of all currency movement from initial receipt through final disposition."

Forty pallets of cash, weighing 30 tons, were loaded that day. The tractor-trailer turned back onto Route 17 and after three miles merged onto a southbound lane of the New Jersey Turnpike, looking like any other big rig on a busy highway. Hours later the truck arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, D.C. There the seals on the truck were broken, and the cash was off-loaded and counted by Treasury Department personnel. The money was transferred to a C-130 transport plane. The next day, it arrived in Baghdad.

That transfer of cash to Iraq was the largest one-day shipment of currency in the history of the New York Fed. It was not, however, the first such shipment of cash to Iraq. Beginning soon after the invasion and continuing for more than a year, $12 billion in U.S. currency was airlifted to Baghdad, ostensibly as a stopgap measure to help run the Iraqi government and pay for basic services until a new Iraqi currency could be put into people's hands. In effect, the entire nation of Iraq needed walking-around money, and Washington mobilized to provide it.

What Washington did not do was mobilize to keep track of it. By all accounts, the New York Fed and the Treasury Department exercised strict surveillance and control over all of this money while it was on American soil. But after the money was delivered to Iraq, oversight and control evaporated. Of the $12 billion in U.S. banknotes delivered to Iraq in 2003 and 2004, at least $9 billion cannot be accounted for. A portion of that money may have been spent wisely and honestly; much of it probably wasn't. Some of it was stolen.

Once the money arrived in Iraq it entered a free-for-all environment where virtually anyone with fingers could take some of it. Moreover, the company that was hired to keep tabs on the outflow of money existed mainly on paper. Based in a private home in San Diego, it was a shell corporation with no certified public accountants. Its address of record is a post-office box in the Bahamas, where it is legally incorporated. That post-office box has been associated with shadowy offshore activities.

Coalition of the Billing

The first shipment of cash to Iraq took place on April 11, 2003 — it consisted of $20 million in $1, $5, and $10 bills. It was arranged in small bills on the theory that these could quickly be circulated into the Iraqi economy "to prevent a monetary and financial collapse," as one former Treasury official put it. Those were the days when American officials worried that the gravest threat facing Iraq might be low-grade civilian unrest in Baghdad. They didn't have a clue as to the power of the insurgency that was to come. The initial $20 million came exclusively from Iraqi assets that had been frozen in U.S. banks as long ago as the Gulf War, in 1990. Subsequent airlifts of cash also included billions from Iraqi oil revenues controlled by the United Nations. After the creation of the Development Fund for Iraq (D.F.I.)—a kind of holding pit of money to be spent for "purposes benefitting the people of Iraq"—the U.N. turned over control of Iraq's oil billions to the United States.

The first mention of the C.P.A. came on April 16, 2003, in a so-called freedom message to the Iraqi people by General Tommy R. Franks, commander of the coalition forces. A week after mobs ransacked Iraq's National Museum of its treasures, unchallenged by American troops, General Franks arrived in Baghdad for a six-hour whirlwind tour. He met with his commanders in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, held a video conference with President Bush, and then quickly flew off. "Our stay in Iraq will be temporary," General Franks wrote, "no longer than it takes to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, and to establish stability and help Iraqis form a functioning government that respects the rule of law." With that in mind, General Franks wrote that he created the Coalition Provisional Authority "to exercise powers of government temporarily, and as necessary, especially to provide security, to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid and to eliminate weapons of mass destruction." Three weeks later, on May 8, 2003, the U.S. and British ambassadors to the United Nations sent a letter to the U.N. Security Council, effectively delivering the C.P.A. to the United Nations as a fait accompli.

The day before, President Bush had appointed L. Paul Bremer III, a retired diplomat, as presidential envoy to Iraq and the president's "personal representative," with the understanding that he would become the C.P.A. administrator. Bremer had held State Department posts in Afghanistan, Norway, and the Netherlands; had served as an assistant to Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig; and had closed out his diplomatic career in 1989 as ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism. More recently, he had been the chairman and chief executive officer of a crisis-management business called Marsh Crisis Consulting. Despite his State Department background, Bremer had been selected by the Pentagon, which had elbowed aside all contenders for authority in post-invasion Iraq. The C.P.A. itself was a creature of the Pentagon, and it would be Pentagon personnel who did the C.P.A.'s hiring.

Over the next year, a compliant Congress gave $1.6 billion to Bremer to administer the C.P.A. This was over and above the $12 billion in cash that the C.P.A. had been given to disburse from Iraqi oil revenues and unfrozen Iraqi funds. Few in Congress actually had any idea about the true nature of the C.P.A. as an institution. Lawmakers had never discussed the establishment of the C.P.A., much less authorized it—odd, given that the agency would be receiving taxpayer dollars. Confused members of Congress believed that the C.P.A. was a U.S. government agency, which it was not, or that at the very least it had been authorized by the United Nations, which it had not. One congressional funding measure makes reference to the C.P.A. as "an entity of the United States Government"—highly inaccurate. The same congressional measure states that the C.P.A. was "established pursuant to United Nations Security Council resolutions"—just as inaccurate. The bizarre truth, as a U.S. District Court judge would point out in an opinion, is that "no formal document plainly establishes the C.P.A. or provides for its formation."

Accountable really to no one, its finances "off the books" for U.S. government purposes, the C.P.A. provided an unprecedented opportunity for fraud, waste, and corruption involving American government officials, American contractors, renegade Iraqis, and many others. In its short life more than $23 billion would pass through its hands. And that didn't include potentially billions more in oil shipments the C.P.A. neglected to meter. At stake was an ocean of cash that would evaporate whenever the C.P.A. did. All parties understood that there was a sell-by date, and that it was everyone for himself. An Iraqi hospital administrator told The Guardian of England that, when he arrived to sign a contract, the army officer representing the C.P.A. had crossed out the original price and doubled it. "The American officer explained that the increase (more than $1 million) was his retirement package." Alan Grayson, a Washington, D.C., lawyer for whistle-blowers who have worked for American contractors in Iraq, says simply that during that first year under the C.P.A. the country was turned into "a free-fraud zone."

Bremer has expressed general satisfaction with the C.P.A.'s work while at the same time acknowledging that mistakes were made. "I believe the C.P.A. discharged its responsibilities to manage these Iraqi funds on behalf of the Iraqi people," he told a congressional committee. "With the benefit of hindsight, I would have made some decisions differently. But on the whole, I think we made great progress under some of the most difficult conditions imaginable, including putting Iraq on the path to democracy."

The Bottomless Vault

To be fair, the C.P.A. really did need money desperately, and it really did need to start spreading it among the traumatized Iraqi population. It also needed to jump-start Iraq's basic services. As the C.P.A. demanded ever greater amounts of cash, the pallets of $1, $5, and $10 bills were soon replaced by bundles of $100 bills. During the C.P.A.'s little more than a year of life, the New York Federal Reserve Bank made 21 shipments of currency to Iraq totaling $11,981,531,000. All told, the Fed would ship 281 million individual banknotes, in bricks weighing a total of 363 tons.

After arriving in Baghdad, some of the cash was shipped to outlying regions, but most of it stayed in the capital, where it was delivered to Iraqi banks, to installations such as Camp Victory, the mammoth U.S. Army facility adjacent to the Baghdad airport, and to Saddam's former presidential palace, in the Green Zone, which had become the home of Bremer's C.P.A. and the makeshift Iraqi government. At the palace the cash disappeared into a vault in the basement. Few people ever saw the vault, but the word was that during one short period it held as much as $3 billion. Whatever the figure, it was a major repository of the banknotes from America during the brief time the cash was under the care of the C.P.A. The money flowed in and out rapidly. When someone needed cash, a unit called the Program Review Board, composed of senior C.P.A. officials, reviewed the request and decided whether to recommend a disbursement. A military officer would then present that authorization to personnel at the vault.

Even those who picked up large sums usually did not actually see the vault. Once a disbursement had been made, the cash was brought to an adjoining room for pickup. This "secure room," as one military officer called it, looked a lot like a vault itself: a thick metal door at the entrance, with the room beyond starkly furnished with only a table and chairs. The table would be piled high with cash. An authorized officer would sign papers for the money, then begin carting it upstairs—sometimes in sacks or metal boxes—to the Iraqi ministry or C.P.A. office that had requested it. Upon turning over the cash, the officer would be required to obtain a receipt—nothing more.

C.P.A. officials tried to keep a rough running tab on the amount disbursed to individual Iraqi agencies such as the Ministry of Finance ($7.7 billion). But there was little detail, nothing specific, on how the money was actually used. The system basically operated on "trust and faith," as one former C.P.A. official put it. Once the cash passed into the hands of the Iraqis or any other party, no one knew where it went. The C.P.A. turned over $1.5 billion in cash to Iraqi banks, for instance, but later auditors could account for less than $500 million. The United Nations retained a team of auditors to look over American shoulders. They didn't see much, because they were largely cut off from access while the C.P.A. held power. As a report by the U.N.'s accounting consultant, KPMG, noted dryly, "We encountered difficulties in performing our duties and meeting with key C.P.A. personnel."

"There was corruption everywhere," said one former military officer who worked with the C.P.A. in Baghdad in the months after the invasion. Some of the Iraqis who were put in charge of ministries after Saddam's fall had never run a government agency before. Their inexperience aside, he said, they lived in constant fear of losing their jobs or their lives. All many cared about, he added, was taking care of themselves. "You could see that a lot of them were trying their best to get a quick retirement fund before they were ousted or killed," he added. "You just get what you can while you're in that position of power. Instead of trying to build the nation, you build yourself."

Did any withdrawals from the vault pay for secret activities by government personnel? It is an obvious possibility. Much of the cash was clearly destined for American contractors or Iraqi subcontractors. Sometimes the Iraqis came to the palace to collect their cash; other times, when they were reluctant to show up at the American compound, U.S. military personnel had to deliver it themselves. One of the riskier jobs for some U.S. military men was to fill up a car with bags of cash and drive the money to contractors in Baghdad neighborhoods, handing it over like a postal worker delivering mail.

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