U.S. Captain: Corruption Threatens Iraq's Future

Michele Norris talks with U.S. Army Capt. Luis Carlos Montalvan of the 11th Infantry Regiment, who says that corruption among Iraqi security forces threatens to undermine Iraq's future. Montalvan describes two kinds of corruption: commanders benefiting from "ghost" soldiers on payrolls, and rampant oil smuggling. The latter, he says, likely benefits insurgent activities.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

There is no secret that there is corruption in Iraq among some profiteering contractors facing charges for taking kickbacks and bribes and among Iraqi officials who take advantage of the fledgling government in the country's often chaotic security system. The Iraq Study Group found that between $5 billion and $7 billion are lost annually to some kind of corruption. The question is what is the U.S. doing to clamp down on the problem.

Not enough says Luis Carlos Montalvan, an Army captain with the 11th Infantry regiment. In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, he said staggering corruption among the Iraq security forces threatens to undermine U.S. credibility and Iraq's future.

Captain Montalvan joins us now from Fort Benning, Georgia. So glad you're with us, sir.

Captain LUIS CARLOS MONTALVAN (U.S. Army): Thanks, it's nice to be here.

NORRIS: When you were last deployed in Iraq and what kind of corruption did you witness there?

Capt. MONTALVAN: My last tour was from March of 2005 to March of 2006.

NORRIS: Where were you deployed international he country?

Capt. MONTALVAN: Well, this last time, I was then south Baghdad for a while before moving to the western Ninawa province, which is west of Mosul.

NORRIS: And the two problems that you cite, I'd like to tick through those one at a time if we could. These ghost soldiers, these are non-existent soldiers that appear on the payroll, is that correct?

Capt. MONTALVAN: Yes.

NORRIS: Exactly how does this work?

Capt. MONTALVAN: When payroll time comes around, obviously there are people who have gone AWOL or who have been killed, and yet the commander pockets that cash come payroll time. When he doles out the money, he pockets that cash and then that cash goes to any number of things to include tribal, ethnic, sectarian and insurgent agendas.

NORRIS: So that the money that the commander is pocketing, is this basically payroll that would have gone to soldiers who are AWOL or is he pumping up his payroll with non-existent soldiers.

Capt. MONTALVAN: It's a little bit of both, but it depends on the circumstance. Certainly, there needs to be better oversight with the hiring process, because we don't really know who we're hiring and if they still exist at a given unit.

NORRIS: And these so-called ghost soldiers, any idea what kind of numbers we're talking about?

Capt. MONTALVAN: Oh, it can vary from unit to unit, but what I saw in the units that I was assigned to were anywhere up to 30 percent ghosts.

NORRIS: And the second problem you cite, the smuggling, you say this costs the country $100 million a year. That's a lot of money. What's actually going on there, and who's profiting from this?

Capt. MONTALVAN: Well, that figure is cited by government sources. In fact, Mr. Stuart Bowen of the special inspector general of Iraq team - he's actually the inspector general himself - you know, he has cited that pipelines are meant to take oil north, and that because the pipelines have been blown up, the only way to export it is by road, and that that leaves the road vulnerable to smuggling and then black-marketeering.

NORRIS: So who's engaged in this smuggling? Are Iraqi customs officials or other government agents involved in the smuggling?

Capt. MONTALVAN: It's really hard to put your finger on exactly who's doing it, but, you know, everyone is smuggling. And they're doing it in large measure because that's the means that they survived the U.N. embargo after the Gulf War.

NORRIS: I would assume that these trucks leaving the country, at some point would have to pass U.S. checkpoints. Is that not an opportunity right there to clamp down on the problem?

Capt. MONTALVAN: It is, and that's one of the recommendations of the article, that we need to have a really joint port-of-entry transition team that's comprised of the best and brightest from all of the U.S. agencies with our Iraqi partners. And those Iraqi partners need to be jointly vetted and very honest. And so the recommendation is that we fire most of the officials at the 14 points of entry and start anew.

NORRIS: So you're talking about 1,400 of what you call elite officials along Iraq's 14 land-border crossings. Where are you going to find these 1,400 people?

Capt. MONTALVAN: Well, that's a great question. Certainly, it's not an easy answer, but I'm very confident that multinational forces - Iraq and the ministries can sit down and work out a way to select people who are very reputable.

NORRIS: If the U.S. and Iraqi officials are losing the country's precious resources - as you say, one truckload at a time - what's at stake? What happens if the U.S. or the Iraqi government doesn't figure out a way to tamp down on this problem?

Capt. MONTALVAN: Irrespective of the number of troops sent to Iraq and their mission, we must get serious about corruption. If we don't stop corruption, then we will not prevail in Iraq.

NORRIS: Captain Montalvan, thanks so much for speaking to us.

Capt. MONTALVAN: Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Luis Carlos Montalvan is an Army captain with the 11th Infantry Regiment.

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