“Ghost Money”: Thinking About State Bribery in the National Interest

“It is difficult to overstate the profoundly negative impact that corruption has on society.  The abuse of entrusted power for private gain does violence to our values, our prosperity, and even our security.” — Secretary of State John Kerry

For a government so concerned with the fight against corruption, the United States sure does bribe a lot.  In fact, only months before Secretary Kerry delivered those remarks in December 2013, the New York Times revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency had been delivering millions of dollars in “ghost money” — packed in “suitcases, backpacks, and on occasion, plastic shopping bags” — to the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai for more than a decade.  In a way, this story was old news; it’s been known for years that the CIA has done everything from slipping little blue pills to local Afghan chieftains to bankrolling members of the Afghan National Security Council.  As it turns out, bribing foreign officials in the name of national security has been a standard practice at the CIA for decades, one that the public seems to have tacitly accepted.

Standard practice or not, how can one reconcile this state-sponsored corruption with the U.S. government’s efforts to combat transnational bribery?  Is it hypocritical for the U.S. Department of Justice to punish private firms that bribe foreign officials, while the CIA is bribing those same officials at the same time?

Perhaps in some cases it might be, but there a couple of possible justifications for aggressively prosecuting private bribery while at the same time accepting the permissibility of state-sponsored bribery (at least under some circumstances):

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