“Ghost Money”: Assessing the Risks of State-Sponsored Bribery

Back in 2014, the New York Times reported that the Central Intelligence Agency had been paying the office of then-President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai tens of millions of dollars in cash for more than a decade. Afghan officials termed these payments “ghost money,” a convenient term that I adopt here—though some might simply call it bribery. This case was hardly unique. Indeed, the practice of engaging in state-sponsored bribery in the interests of national security appears to be a longstanding and global one: Over last half-century or more, the CIA has reportedly made cash payments to heads of state from Angola to Zaire in exchange for favors.

U.S. officials have defended this controversial practice. One former CIA operations officer even went so far as to say that state-sponsored bribery serves a productive role in the anticorruption fight: where the CIA is asked “to monitor the level of corruption in a place like Afghanistan,” “it only makes sense that U.S. operatives would have to talk to, and if necessary, bribe those involved in the corruption to find out what is going on.”

Yet even if one sets aside the question of whether ghost money itself presents the same normative concerns as regular bribery by private parties (an issue previously discussed on this blog), ghost money raises more problems than it solves for the anticorruption fight. In particular, the U.S. practice of making ghost money payments in places like Afghanistan likely has three significant adverse collateral consequences: Continue reading

“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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