The US Navy’s “Fat Leonard” Scandal: How the Virtuous Fall

Last March, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed the latest indictment in the so-called “Fat Leonard” corruption scandal that has haunted the Navy since 2014 and continues to grow. “Fat Leonard” is Leonard Glenn Francis, a Malaysian citizen and the owner of Glenn Defense Marine Asia (GDMA), which provided support to the Navy’s Seventh Fleet in Southeast Asia from 2006-2014. When Navy ships pull into foreign ports, local companies are contracted to provide marine husbanding, port security, refueling and waste management services, ground transportation for sailors and Marines in port, etc. GDMA offered these services, but also much more: for a number of senior Navy officials, Francis paid for prostitutes, extravagant meals, luxury hotel stays, and other travel expenses, and provided gifts of both cash and goods. All he asked for in return was assurances that Seventh Fleet ships would use ports Francis controlled, classified information about Navy operations (including ships’ schedules), sensitive information on the business practices of his competitors, and assistance in facilitating a price gouging scheme that yielded GMDA excess profits of $35 million over eight years. The total number of people charged in the “Fat Leonard” scandal now comes to 27, including two admirals, fifteen other senior active duty naval officers, an NCIS special agent, and two contracting supervisors; another 200 additional individuals remain under scrutiny by prosecutors. This was a full-fledged cultural problem, not just a case of a few bad apples.

The details of what these men got up to in port are quite salacious, but my focus in this post is instead on what this scandal exposes about how corruption can spread among decorated public servants and what can be done to prevent similar scandals in the future. Every single one of the senior officers charged had been trained to be self-disciplined and to put mission and country above self—it’s what those of us who serve in the military vow to do. Each officer had a long and distinguished career before becoming entangled with Francis and his lurid scheme. Yet each sold his integrity, and sold out his country, for immediate gratification. Why? Continue reading

Corruption in Kurdistan: Implications for U.S. Security Interests

Since the rise of ISIS, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has been a vital U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS. The KRG is in many ways a unique sub-state, created through U.S. intervention following Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds, and preserved in the new Iraqi constitution through Article 137, which grants the KRG a degree of autonomy.  Yet Kurdistan is plagued by corruption common to governments that, like the KRG, are heavily reliant on oil and gas revenue. Of the hundreds of millions dollars produced by the oil and gas industry in Kurdistan each month, only a portion reaches the actual Kurdish economy. Kurdish officials have tried to combat this problem to some degree, but oil revenues continue to “leak” from official channels to foreign advisors and government ministers. The problems are exacerbated by the fact that the KRG government, while nominally a democracy, is dominated by two tribal-familial groups, the Barzani and the Talabani, and the government actually resembles a hereditary dictatorship more than a parliamentary democracy, with the Barzani family in particular controlling the presidency, prime minister, and head of the region’s security forces through direct familial ties. In fact, current president Massoud Barzani has been serving without a democratic mandate since 2013.

KRG corruption is not just a concern for the Kurdish people, but a real security threat for the United States, for two main reasons: Continue reading

Why Did the U.S. Fail to Fight Corruption in Afghanistan Effectively?

The war in Afghanistan is already the longest conflict in United States history. Over the past fifteen years, the U.S. government has poured over $100 billion into the reconstruction effort—more than the Marshall Plan. In spite of this massive public investment, Afghanistan’s government is weak, its economy is moribund, and the Taliban remains an active threat in the region. Contributing to all of those problems is persistent, systemic corruption. This problem was highlighted recently by a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which  served as a harsh reminder not only that corruption in Afghanistan remains is daunting problem despite years of the reconstruction effort, but also that the U.S. has failed to address the problem, and has sometimes made it even worse. According to the SIGAR report, the U.S. failed to grasp the importance of combating corruption as part of a broader effort to improve security and stability, with policymakers and military leaders instead viewing anticorruption as a competing goal that had to be traded off against the seemingly more pressing security goals.

The SIGAR report is valuable in many ways, and its emphasis on viewing anticorruption and security as complementary rather than competing goals is welcome. (This corruption-insecurity link, and its relative neglect, have been emphasized by many other outside critics as well, most recently and prominently Sarah Chayes, who has argued that when government breaks down under the weight of corruption, people in those countries are pushed towards radicalization.) But the SIGAR report’s suggestion that the U.S. failed to adequately confront corruption in Afghanistan because leaders failed (until recently) to grasp this complementarity is not quite right.  Continue reading

TNI’s Gold Mine: Corruption and Military-Owned Businesses in Indonesia

The Grasberg Mine, located close to the highest mountain in West Papua, Indonesia, is the world’s largest gold mine and third-largest copper mine. The mine, owned by the corporation Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, has been the site of strings of grave human rights abuses, linked to Indonesia’s own National Armed Forces (Tentara National Indonesia/TNI). TNI’s presence in the territory is ostensibly to protect the mine, and Freeport’s Indonesian subsidiary acknowledges having made payments of as much as US$4.7 million in 2001 and US$5.6 million in 2002 for such government-provided security. A report by Global Witness, however, revealed numerous other payments ranging from US$200 to US$60,000 that Freeport Indonesia allegedly made to individual military officers.

The TNI’s sale of security services to companies like Freeport is only one of the many business ventures conducted by the TNI and its officers. As Human Rights Watch has reported, the Indonesian military has been supplementing its income through both its formally established companies, and through informal and often illicit businesses such as black market dealing. Moreover, the military’s business activities (both lawful and unlawful) are largely shielded from public scrutiny: budgeting for military purposes is generally kept secret, and TNI members generally refuse to answer questions about institutional spending.

Military-owned business in Indonesia are problematic, not only because this private-sector activity impedes military professionalism and distorts the function of the military, but also because it also contributes to crime, human rights abuses, and especially corruption. This problem is greatly compounded by the fact that TNI officers generally enjoy immunity from corruption charges brought by civilian institutions. In fact, the Transparency International’s Defense and Security Program has deemed Indonesia one of the countries most prone to corruption in its defense and security institutions. It is therefore appalling that this issue has not been addressed more seriously by the Indonesian government. Although a 2004 law mandated the transfer of control over TNI businesses to the civilian government within five years, the law did not clearly specify which types of business activities were covered, and this legal loophole enabled the TNI to preserve many of its moneymaking ventures, including TNI’s infamous security services—to say nothing of already-illegal criminal enterprises and illicit corporations. Moreover, despite the five-year timetable in the law, the government has been notably reluctant to enforce the transfer of ownership, making repeated excuses alluding vaguely to the need for the TNI to compensate for the lack of budgeting for security purposes. As a result, despite some efforts to reform the way the TNI is allowed to handle its businesses, military-owned businesses in Indonesia continues to flourish, with the Indonesian people of Indonesia having to pay the price.

The government’s weak response towards the military’s non-compliance with the 2004 law is merely one of the many indicators of how impervious the TNI’s power and seeming impunity. There are factors that contribute to this impunity, along with the corresponding corruption and abuse of power in the operations of military-owned businesses: Continue reading

Not My Neighbor’s Keeper: Military Corruption and International Peacekeeping

There are few more troubling examples of how corruption can both create and sustain violent conflict than the current crisis in Nigeria. As Liz emphasized in a recent post, many observers believe that rampant corruption may have contributed to the rise of Boko Haram, and may also be one of the primary reasons for the Nigerian military’s difficulty in combating the threat posed by this group. While Liz focused on the reasons why it might be particularly difficult to combat corruption in the Nigerian military, I would like to take up a different issue: the ways in which military corruption is currently perceived and addressed by members of the international community.

The dichotomy between the treatment of certain instances of military corruption, and the international community’s perception of the problems posed by this phenomenon, is perhaps best illustrated by the coverage that two different examples of military corruption have received in recent months. First, as mentioned above, coverage of the role that military corruption has played in Nigeria’s ability to ward off Boko Haram and its potential impact upon the surrounding region has been widespread.  Second, the Chinese government has released the names of 14 generals in the People’s Liberation Army suspected of corruption – a move that has been seen as part of a broader anticorruption effort by the new regime and that has been justified, at least in part, by the fact that these officials’ corruption has potentially undermined the “military readiness” of Chinese forces. This development has been largely viewed as a purely domestic concern for China and received relatively little news coverage.  Yet, while the treatment of these two events by the international community may differ dramatically, the root of both of these problems – military corruption – is the same.

It is not particularly surprising that the problems posed by military corruption in China and Nigeria have been treated differently by outside commentators. After all, the threat posed by Boko Haram is a serious one, with potentially significant import for international security. However the fact that there can be such a swift change between a situation in which rampant military corruption can be categorized best as simply a “local concern” – an absence of military readiness amongst a state’s armed forces or too many supplies gone missing – and instances, such as those in Nigeria, in which military corruption in one state can implicate the security of an entire region suggests, perhaps, that there may be some merit in reframing how we think about the phenomenon of military corruption.

Continue reading

Who Calls the Shots?: Boko Haram and the Legacy of Military Leadership in Nigeria

When Boko Haram operatives attacked a Nigerian military outpost near the village where I lived in northern Cameroon in 2011, locals condemned the assault. But they admitted that something had to be done about soldiers who, they said, regularly apprehended people and held them for ransom. Boko Haram’s tenor and tactics have grown increasingly radical and destructive since, but the early perceptions of the group highlight, in part, the relationship between corruption and instability. In that case, alleged military corruption directly contributed to violent conflict. Indeed, many analysts have drawn connections between government corruption and the rise of Boko Haram (see here, here, and here).

Transparency International has weighed in on the situation, as well, detailing how corruption has both continued to fuel instability and hampered the response to Boko Haram attacks. TI calls on the Nigerian government to “speak out against corruption and … invite civil society organizations to take part in developing an anti-corruption strategy.” Each course requires significant political will. Nigerian leaders’ historic relationship with the military may do a lot to explain why the requisite political commitment has failed to materialize within past administrations. Continue reading