Two key Biden administration agencies have instructed their staffers not to provide information or communicate with the government watchdog responsible for tracking waste and corruption in Afghanistan, according to the head of the watchdog agency.
John Sopko, who runs the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power on Wednesday to say their agencies are “unreasonably refusing to provide information and assistance requested by SIGAR.”
Sopko wrote that State and USAID historically have complied with requests for information from SIGAR, which was established in 2008, and that no other administration has ever questioned SIGAR’s jurisdiction. “Inexplicably, this long track record of cooperation seems to have abruptly ended,” he said. “Agency officials now appear to have adopted a premeditated position of obstruction.”
Information from State and USAID dried up months ago, according to three congressional officials and a government official familiar with the process. Biden administration officials argued that the U.S. is no longer involved in reconstruction in Afghanistan, so SIGAR is outside the inspector general's jurisdiction, the officials familiar with the process said.
In one case, in response to an Oct. 1, 2021, SIGAR request for information, the State and USAID general counsels wrote back nearly seven months later arguing “activities involving humanitarian and development assistance remain outside SIGAR’s current mandate.”
Sopko’s letter asserts that State and USAID are violating the law by withholding information. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2008 specifies that government officials cannot prevent the IG from carrying out its work.
“I respectfully request that you direct State and USAID officials to cease their illegal obstruction of SIGAR’s oversight work and to provide the requested information and assistance without delay,” Sopko wrote.
Congress directed SIGAR to complete several reviews after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, including looking into the collapse of the Afghan government, evaluating the performance of the Afghan Security Forces prior to August 2021, determining whether the State Department and USAID are complying with laws that prohibit transfer of money to the Taliban, and evaluating humanitarian and development programs for the Afghan people.
The agency also has ongoing audit work that it is still closing out, according to its recent quarterly report to Congress.
SIGAR spokesman Philip LaVelle declined to comment.
Asked whether the State Department is still cooperating with SIGAR, spokesperson Ned Price pointed to the recent SIGAR report on the collapse of the Afghan Security Forces and said, “Our view is that the report does not reflect the consensus view of the State Department or the U.S. government, for that matter. Many parts of the U.S. government, including the State Department, have unique insights into developments in Afghanistan last year that were not captured in the report and we don’t concur with many aspects of the report.”
Price said, “SIGAR did not request input from the State Department in the process of drafting this report, nor did they afford us an opportunity to review the draft before it was finalized as had been a regular process for other reports. If we have any additional reaction to letters that were sent and responses that were given today, we’ll be sure to pass those along.”
USAID, which administers civilian foreign aid, is an independent agency that receives guidance from the secretary of state.
In December 2021, the Office of Management Budget issued guidance that President Joe Biden expects agencies to restore respect and integrity in Inspectors General and that it is the duty of agency personnel to cooperate.
But Sopko’s letter contends that a State Department official informed SIGAR that State Department staff have received “internal direction to not engage with or speak to SIGAR without prior clearance from State legal counsel,” a direction that could violate legal protections of whistleblowers.
“It is now evident that offices and staff who have cooperated with similar requests in the past were being silenced or overruled by officials opposed to SIGAR’s independent oversight,” he wrote.
State also informed SIGAR that it would no longer cooperate with future financial audits, but “would from now on choose its own auditors,” Sopko wrote.
Sopko also notified the chairs and ranking members of the Senate and House Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Homeland Security, and Appropriations committees.