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Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government has spent more than $770 billion on private contractors. Now, the Justice Department is following the money and aggressively targeting corruption. They've been sending investigators into war zones to build criminal cases.
But prosecuting those cases is turning out to be difficult and costly, as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON: This 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.
Mr. JIM HIBEY (Attorney): So they shackle his feet. They handcuff him at the waist, with a chain around the waist. 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.
JOHNSON: 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.
Mr. HIBEY: They claim they advised him of his rights. The guy can't speak English, but they advise him of his rights. He doesn't know a right from his left.
JOHNSON: The amount of the bribes: not much more than $100,000.
Azar traveled on a chartered plane, 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.
Lawyers who defend foreign executives accused of bribing U.S. military in Afghanistan say the Azar incident may be the most stark in a series of cases where American prosecutors extended the long arm of the law into a war zone.
Here's Kirby Behre, a defense attorney in another bribery case in Afghanistan.
Mr. KIRBY BEHRE (Attorney): The government has spent literally millions of dollars prosecuting these cases. They have utilized methods to prosecute this case that are typically reserved for terrorism cases and drug lord cases.
JOHNSON: 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 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.
Mr. BEHRE: 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.
JOHNSON: 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 in U.S. custody, travel to Afghanistan, they have no way of ensuring their safety.
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 is a law professor and former Justice Department official. He says the political environment makes it all the more important for the U.S. to devote energy to prosecute fraud among its contractors.
Professor STEPHEN SALTZBURG (Professor of Law, Wallace and Beverley Woodbury University): It's doubtful that if we didn't prosecute them, they would get prosecuted. 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.
Senator CLAIR McCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): Accountability works. Criminal accountability works best.
JOHNSON: That's Senator Claire McCaskill. The Democrat from Missouri has been a leading voice in preventing contractor fraud and abuse in war zones.
Sen. McCASKILL: So I've come down foursquare on the side of aggressive criminal prosecutions when people are stealing from the American taxpayers. 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.
JOHNSON: As for the dramatic treatment of Azar, flown hooded and shackled across the world to face charges in Virginia, the Justice Department said it wouldn't go on tape, but in a written statement to NPR, they say the FBI followed standard protocol in the Azar case 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.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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