Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security

S1:E14 Thieves of State

Show Notes

02 Sep 2020




Is corruption involved in the calamities of 2020? I began probing this question this year. As part of my research, I read a pair of books by Sarah Chayes. The first book, “Thieves of State” published in 2015, explores governmental corruption. It links governments to the origins of radical religious movements that threaten global security. The second book, “On Corruption in America” published August of 2020, exposes long-standing corrupt networks here at home in the US. Sarah blends her educational background in history, with first-hand experience to paint vivid warning signs for us. Thankfully, there is hope. We’ll explore these books, a few of the lessons, and get introduced the author now.

Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security
By Sarah Chayes

Sarah Chayes is skilled storyteller weaving history and the most important events of our age together. I’ll be interviewing Sarah for this podcast. During that episode, we will focus the more recent book: “On Corruption in America and what is at stake.” For my UK friends, you’ll find this book under the title “Everybody Knows: Corruption in America”. I do wish everybody knew.

On Corruption in America and What is at state
By Sarah Chayes (Released Aug 2020)

Calling out corruption is difficult. We’re not filling prisons with corrupt folk. We occasionally encounter news about corrupt public officials. The horror of 2020 causes many people to ask the questions, but the investigative bodies are not responding. The phrase “law and order” points fingers at people on the street. To what extent is our government responsible for the insurrection and frustration we see in our neighbors, friends, and people on the streets.

A Minneapolis police officer tased a fellow repeatedly, then kneeled on him while the follow was handcuffed. He died. His name was David Cornelius Smith and he died on the 17th of September 2010. Ten-years ago this month, the Minneapolis police tased, handcuffed, and kneeled on a human being until they executed him. No actions were taken.

David Smith
David Smith (Photo: Angela Smith)

To what extent is Minneapolis Police responsible for the frustration and anger they face during 2020. The mathematician informs us two dots make a line. Is there a trend? Do we point at the human being killed by our government claiming them to be responsible for their deaths?

Or do we look at the institutions of our government?

“Thieves of State” takes its readers or listeners to Afghanistan, and other places, to examine corrupt governments. The book non-fiction, Sarah pulls tricks from the novelist’s kit to offer surprises and twists. If you are a curious person whilst willing to be challenged to see our institutions in new light, read this book without delay. If you indulge in Audible, you’ll be introduced to Sarah as the narrator. As a former NPR journalist, you’ll find she has a practiced and professional voice.

LA Times Book Prize

 “Thieves of State: Why corruption threatens global security” won the 2016 Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Sarah opens the book making scented soap and beauty products in Kandahar Afghanistan. She promptly informs us that she has no familial or ancestral connections with the troubled nation. I read her opening narratives of police roadblocks, shakedowns, and malfeasance while we are all giving witness to the armed conflicts between American police forces and American citizens.

We’d recently seen federal agent snatch-and-grab people from streets and toss them in unmarked white vans. That is not the America I want to believe in. I had already written a few essays about crooked cops and exploring the breadth of public corruption in the US.

The boundaries blurred between the Afghan police of Sarah’s book, the Iraqi police, and Puerto Rican government of my own experience, and the behavior here in the ole USA. Some of the behavior American viewers saw in movies, television, and news media are now happening in US cities.

Little distinction exists between “extraordinary rendition”, “disappeared”, “missing ones” and extra-judicial detention. We, once, would have been shocked at secret warrants and military-style home invasions; we now understand innocent people are being killed by police in their beds. Police are killing citizens on our streets. Battles between police and citizens escalate. For each new weapon and tactic the police introduce, the citizens introduce counter-measures. The back-and-forth battle between forces is a military action – in all classic senses. If we painted these scenes on amphora (old pottery) we recognize a military battle. If we saw these woven into a tapestry from the middle ages, we’d recognized armed rebellion. When looking at modern video or photographs, one can only see an insurrection facing off against a military force.

When looking at DHS agents in full military kit, I asked how many DHS law enforcement agents do we have? The answer, as given in the essay “Department of Homeland Secrecy”, is 120,000 plus or minus 120,000. The secretary of DHS may designate any of 240,000 employees as a law enforcement officer under 40 USC 1315. They can then arrest or detain anyone in the country for any crime pretty much anywhere. They have more power than the FBI who have a limited set of laws that they may enforce.

It is this context that I read about police and government activities in Afghanistan. And I remember my own experiences in Iraq with the government and police there. I saw more bundles of cash flowing and moving in Iraq than I had ever seen. Movies and TV shows do not get it right. New crisp US bills on shipping pallets existed there. Soldiers pulled crispy US bills from walls in Saddam’s buildings and from buildings all over the country. Our government shipped in cash via military cargo planes. On my rare hours free, I would walk a bazaar to buy pirated DVDs and cheap technology, I would hand over cash that would be used to buy more Soviet, Chinese, or American weapons. These would then be aimed back at us and fired. It seemed stupid then.

In 2006 when in Iraq, I embedded with the U.S. Army as a civilian advisor on communication technology, I strived to find the vantage point that Sarah offered me this year – fourteen years later.

Once upon a time, I thought I could return to Iraq where I worked to re-discover my own footprints in the decades ahead. My cousin and uncle who fought in Vietnam never got to return as tourists, others have though. American and British soldiers returned to France and Italy after World War II to see the land and people again. My name is written on concrete pads there in Iraq. I thought I’d go find them.

We did not fix much in Iraq. I doubt Iraq will become a tourist spot soon enough. Returning as a tourist would indicate that people are safe on the streets, that the economy works, that maybe I was part of something that helped. Instead, I face heartache.

We failed at recognizing the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sarah points her finger saying the root of so many of these issues are kleptocracies – corrupt government who steal.

The corrupt governments cause social breakdown. They create violent extremism.

Sarah guides the reader through historical literature, anecdotal narratives, and hard evidence to prove the causal link between corrupt governments and violent extremism. When individuals can not appeal to the rule of law, and protect their rights to property people look for spiritual purity. One need to only look around to discover who is actively opposing the evils of bad governance. The forces opposing these criminal governments are people that the United States calls enemies.

Time after time, these are enemies of our own creation.

I returned home in 2007 after out-processing at Fort Hood Texas having spent 311 day in country. I did a few days more than my nephew who served as a special operations qualified Marine in Iraq. He did three very intense tours in some of the most violent regions of Iraq during the worst times possible. He has 4 limbs and 6 kids but lives now with a lifetime of pain and lasting injuries from that war. The DOD did recently recognize his injuries and present him with 100% disability but have not yet seen to award him a Purple Heart. His HUMVEE got blown up by an IED. Jake did not bleed; therefore, he was not then considered wounded. Jake lived with us through his teen years and the early years of his career with the US Marine Corp. I was in a dank windowless room studying global cybersecurity threats to government in Texas on a Tuesday morning in September of 2001. After seeing the events unfold on our laptops, I called Jake at our home in Alaska to inform him, that he was off to war. I did not know then that I was to follow him.

Our two decades of war impact millions of Americans. Just look at the rate of suicides by returning U.S. veterans, the rate of divorce – by so many metrices, our hubris during these wars leaves as many scars here as there.

Sarah exposes the conflicted missions between the military, the diplomats, and the intelligence sectors. Each of these sectors worked without coordination, communication, and oversight. They created their own instability and promoted the very kleptocracy that promoted the continuance of the wars. Which in turn hurt our soldiers, sailors, marines, and civilians who volunteered to help our nation overseas.

Sarah observed that if bad, even criminal, governance causes insecurity, we should first deal with the criminals running the government. Solve the governance problem and we’ll likely make progress towards domestic security and improve the safety and lives of the citizens of Afghanistan. “Western officials,” she writes, “habitually flipped the sequence: First let’s establish security, then we can worry about governance.”

From soap maker to military advisor, Sarah landed on the staff of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. I am well pleased that our leaders saw her talents and entirely disappointed that they didn’t finish listening to her. In the last chapter of the book, she offered various tools and techniques to combat systemic governmental fraud. An analysis akin to the process occasionally used to take down criminal enterprises in this country.

It takes citizens to recognize corruption as corruption. It takes voices and videos to be heard. It takes leadership to target and take down corruption whether domestic or international.

That’s the trick isn’t? Our elected leaders need to see corruption for what it is. They need to identify the impact of corruption. Then they need oppose corruption with consistency.

Let me ask you, can you identify the rise of religious and social extremism in the United States? Do we have people who want to control the social, legal, and political environment? Are these people coalescing into groups? Are they arming themselves? Do they feel threatened by our police and government? Are these groups responding to disenfranchisement and corruption in our own government?

I’d say yes. As corruption in our nation becomes more visible, rebellions appear. Armed, violent, lethal rebellions.

I lived and worked in Puerto Rico and with the Puerto Rican government from October 2017 through December of 2018. The corrupt nature of that government manifested daily around us and it shockingly stupid ways – blatantly admitting criminal activity on social messaging apps like WhatsApp. Contracts with that government involves numerous pay-to-play schemes. And there I sat at the table representing the governor himself. I was just naive enough to think that our software would be loved and adopted widely. The strength of our software is that it combats corruption with transparency, score cards that guide people through rules and regulations. Our software tracked dollars spent and it wants actual receipts. That’s not a thing the Puerto Rican government does. I thought I was there to help track and manage $5 billion US dollars and help Puerto Rican’s recover from two hurricanes. I misunderstood. “Thieves of State” identifies the same patterns in Afghanistan. Imagine paying a bank teller cash to write a receipt for the money you just withdrew? Paperwork, receipts, and transparency are an enemy to corruption.

Instead FEMA and the Puerto Government is paying a Canadian-based multi-national firm annual fees at 30 times our rates to do the job we were already doing, and doing well. But this firm’s software obscures data, cash movement, tends to be more difficult to use and hated by those who need to us it.

FEMA is shipping millions of dollars to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico funnels that money through a public-private partnership that gets to dodge federal procurement laws. Puerto Rico does not have publish procurement rules for public agencies. And FEMA is paying millions of dollars to a firm that is obfuscates the money trail. Like an eraser on a chalkboard, information disappears.

Do remember that the 3 to 4 million people living on the islands of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. Their pains are our pains. Their corruption is our corruption. The money spent there is our shared money.

It is still easier for us all to point over the ocean-blue to call another place corrupt. We do not want to see corruption here. Yet look at how people are responding. They are saying something is wrong. We are saying something in wrong. We point at our own heroes and neighbors to blame them for the wrongness.

Two decades of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq should inform us that a lead bullet shot from barrel of a rifle or sidearm will ever strike or wound the cause of corruption. In fact, those few grams of lead and the emotional distraction may facilitate the on-going criminal activities within the government.

Maybe we should solve the problems of governance before the crisis of security and insurrection take over? Thank you, Sarah Chayes for helping me understand this better. Please keep going.

In her August 2020 book, Sarah introduces us to the Hydra of Lerna, a serpent of Greek and Roman mythology. New heads appear when one is struck off. It is a monster that ravaged the people. The most obvious action one takes when threatened by the head of this serpent only makes it stronger.

Maybe we should evaluate the entire threat, look for vulnerabilities, and study it before we start lopping heads off.

I do have hope and that is why I write.