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‘Should not be released’

At the center of that debate sits serious questions about the impact — or lack thereof — of the more than $100 billion that Congress says has been channeled toward Afghanistan reconstruction.

Although the amount is far less than the $600 billion estimated to have been spent on U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, it represents the core of America’s attempt to build a government that would not crumble quickly should President Obama come through on his promise to pull all U.S. forces out of the nation by the end of this year.

USAID alone has channeled $20 billion toward the effort, according to SIGAR officials.

SIGAR and USAID have fought bitterly in public in recent weeks over whether the U.S. exerted enough safeguards over its spending and whether the State Department has tried to hide the blemishes inside each Afghan ministry.

The Stage II Risk Assessment Reports, along with a series of other Afghan ministry audits that USAID contracted out to the high-level Washington accounting firms KPMG and Ernst & Young, have sat at the center of the dispute.

SIGAR used the assessments as the basis for its scathing report in January highlighting rampant claims of fraud and abuse across the ministries. But what came next was even more eye-opening: The watchdog group wrote a letter to USAID accusing the agency of seeking at “virtually every turn” to block the information from becoming public.

“When SIGAR first requested copies of the ministry assessments at issue here, USAID stamped them ‘Sensitive But Unclassified’ (SBU), with a legend on the front covers stating that they should not be released ‘outside the Executive Branch,’ i.e., should not be released to Congress or the public,” SIGAR General Counsel John G. Arlington wrote in a March 26 letter to USAID’s legal branch.

The letter triggered speculation inside government circles in Washington that USAID might be guarding the material because of a reference that the ministry assessments had made to terrorism.

A version of the assessment, which was conducted by KPMG, appeared this month on the website of the Project on Government Oversight and highlighted how the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development had never developed a mechanism “for screening of beneficiaries for their possible links with terrorist organizations before signing contracts or providing funds to the suppliers.”

Lack of accountability

That particular assessment, along with others that USAID contracted KPMG and Ernst & Young to conduct, were not included in the FOIA response that SIGAR provided Tuesday to The Times.

In the response, SIGAR provided The Times with more than 100 pages of the assessments that USAID officials conducted to gauge the capabilities of Afghan ministries.

The documents paint a sobering picture. In one, USAID auditors assessed a shocking lack of management over the financial dealings at the ministry overseeing all mining activities in Afghanistan.

“There is no financial management and accounting system in place to record transactions for both operational and development budget,” states the September 2012 assessment of the Afghan Ministry of Mines.

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