Prosecutors Criticized For Tactics Against Contractors

Cranes move materials at a construction site in central Baghdad in May. i i

hide captionCranes move materials at a construction site in central Baghdad in May. The U.S. government has spent more than $770 billion on private contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq since the wars began. U.S. prosecutors increasingly are targeting bribery schemes, but their efforts have been criticized for employing strong-arm tactics designed for terrorism cases.

Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images
Cranes move materials at a construction site in central Baghdad in May.

Cranes move materials at a construction site in central Baghdad in May. The U.S. government has spent more than $770 billion on private contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq since the wars began. U.S. prosecutors increasingly are targeting bribery schemes, but their efforts have been criticized for employing strong-arm tactics designed for terrorism cases.

Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. government has spent more than $770 billion on private contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq since the war began.

And the Justice Department is following the money — aggressively targeting corruption, and even sending investigators into the war zone to build criminal cases.

But the prosecutions are raising some practical difficulties.

Shackled, Handcuffed And Flown To Virginia

One story begins in April 2009, on a rainy day in Afghanistan. Contractor Raymond Azar waited in a cafeteria with a co-worker for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer to come discuss a project.

Instead, a group of federal agents came. Azar's lawyer Jim Hibey described what happened next.

"So they shackle his feet, they handcuff him at the waist, with a chain around the waist," Hibey said. "I should say before they do that, they do a full body strip search. Not only is he naked, but when I say full body I mean full body cavity search."

Azar was charged with bribing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The feds hustled Azar onto a plane, where he set off, hooded, on a 17-hour flight to Virginia.

Hibey says that Azar, who's from Lebanon, spoke little English at the time, surely not enough to understand a Miranda warning. "They claim that they advised him of his rights," Hibey said. "The guy can't speak English but they advised him of his rights? He doesn't know a right from his left."

The amount of the bribes? Not much more than $100,000.

Azar traveled on a chartered plane, was held for the next several months in U.S. custody, and eventually pleaded guilty late last year. So did his American-born co-worker and her sister, a retired contracting officer for the Army Corps in Afghanistan.

Azar returned home to his family a few months ago.

Millions Of Dollars

Lawyers who defend foreign executives accused of bribing the U.S. military in Afghanistan say the Azar incident may be the starkest in a series of cases where American prosecutors extended the long arm of the law into a war zone.

"The government has spent literally millions of dollars prosecuting these cases," said Kirby Behre, a defense attorney in another bribery case focused on Afghanistan. "They have utilized methods to prosecute this case that are typically reserved for terrorism cases and drug lord cases."

Behre represents an Afghan business executive accused of bribing Army officials to win contracts at Bagram. The U.S. military officers involved in the case used the mail to send thousands of dollars in cash back home. The American servicemen all pleaded guilty.

Behre's client and his brother are still fighting with the Justice Department over access to witnesses and evidence in Afghanistan, information they say they need from a place that's expensive and dangerous to visit.

"I guess the larger question in my mind is whether the U.S. government should be forcing its own lawyers and defense lawyers to handle cases in a war zone," Behre said.

One of the biggest fights is over depositions of witnesses who are in Afghanistan. The FBI and criminal prosecutors in the case say it's too risky to do depositions anyplace other than the U.S. Embassy. And they argue that if the defendants who are now in custody in the U.S. travel to Afghanistan, they have no way of ensuring their safety.

'We Can't Depend On The Afghanistan Government'

The issue is a sensitive one, since the Afghan government has come under fire for not doing enough to root out corruption in its own ranks.

Stephen Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University and former Justice Department official, says that the political environment makes it all the more important for the U.S. to devote energy to prosecuting fraud among its contractors.

"It's doubtful that if we didn't prosecute them, they would get prosecuted," Saltzburg says. "We can't depend on the government of Afghanistan for lots of reasons to be the prosecutor. It may be in some instances that some of the companies have relationships with the government."

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) couldn't agree more. She's been a leading voice in preventing fraud and abuse in war zones. "Accountability works," McCaskill said. "Criminal accountability works best.

"So I've come down foursquare on the side of aggressive criminal prosecutions when people are stealing from the American taxpayers," she continued. "You know, I'm awfully proud that I sit in the same Senate seat that Harry Truman sat in. He is spinning in his grave over the war profiteering that has gone on."

As for the dramatic treatment of Azar, flown hooded and shackled across the world to face charges in Virginia, the Justice Department said the FBI followed standard protocol to protect the safety of its agents.

Prosecutors also say that expelling people to face trial in U.S. courts is a common practice. And they say they consulted with the Afghan government and got consent before they removed Azar from the country.

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