By Philip Wegman for RealClearWire
As President Biden returned to Washington and boarded a European train destined for Kyiv, Representative James Comer and his team drafted the long-awaited letter.
Standing next to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Biden on Monday vowed not to loosen more than $100 billion in lifeline economic and military aid to that nation and that the United States would stand with Ukraine. takes.”
Comer, the new chairman of the House Oversight Committee, gave the Biden administration a different message on Wednesday: Save your receipts. All of them.
The committee is calling on the administration to turn over all documents and internal communications “relating to any financial assistance programs to the Ukrainian government” and similar materials “relating to any anti-corruption efforts” as they relate to both economic and military aid.
The announcement came on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion. The letter heralds the promising start of the most comprehensive accounting of the war effort to date. It was first and exclusively acquired by Real Clear Politics.
“Providing security and humanitarian assistance for war and reconstruction purposes comes with an inherent risk of fraud, waste and abuse,” Comer wrote, before urging that the U.S. must develop “oversight mechanisms” to mitigate risks made worse by orders to spend the money “quickly.”
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House Republicans are casting a wide net. The committee wants a comprehensive account of “techniques, equipment for end-use monitoring of weapons, direct budgetary assistance and any form of financial or security assistance to the Ukrainian people.” They’re also calling out all the items related to how much federal money has been spent so far and how much is “left in the spending pipeline.”
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Comer wants the administration to know and disclose matters related to “any criteria for success” of aid programs and “any conditions imposed on funds provided as aid to Ukraine.”
The letter was sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Administrator Samantha Powers of the US Agency for International Development. The White House knew it was coming. Speaker Kevin McCarthy said ahead of the midterms that House Republicans won’t write a “blank check” to Ukraine, and it’s only a matter of time before the GOP makes good on that oversight promise.
There are reasons for concern. While Zelensky rose to power on an anti-corruption platform, the former Eastern Bloc country has a history of battling government fraud and graft. They regularly rank near the bottom of international corruption indices, which worries even ardent supporters of defensive warfare.
Sen. When Angus King traveled to Ukraine last month, he told the RCP, an independent from Maine, that he warned Zelensky that misappropriation of funds or misfiring could undermine support in the West: “I said one scandal would really turn this around.”
That message was well received. According to King, “He got it right away.” But verbal promises have not been enough to assuage Republican concerns, and the administration has struggled to accurately account for all the billions spent, according to the Joint Strategic Oversight Plan for the Ukraine Response. For example, the Pentagon inspector general warned that the department was “unable to provide end-use oversight consistent with DOD policy.”
Related: Congress spends $100 billion on Ukraine aid in first year of invasion
One of the specific areas Comer is asking for answers is: requiring tracking of serial numbers on weapons and ammunition, as USA Today and others have previously noted.
Congress has approved $113 billion in economic and security aid to Ukraine since Russian tanks rolled across the border. Over two decades, by comparison, the US has spent $146 billion sending military and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
The administration takes corruption seriously and insists that it takes measures to guard against it from the beginning of the conflict. He has seen no wrongdoing so far, according to John Kirby last month, saying neither military nor financial aid “has been a victim of any form of corruption in Ukraine.”
“Okay,” Biden’s national security spokesman replied without qualification when asked by RCP to confirm that the administration had not misused any previous equipment or funds from the United States.
The oversight committee highlighted that exchange in light of reports that Zelensky had fired several senior officials involved in bribery and embezzlement of public funds. “Based on Mr. Kirby’s remarks,” Comer wrote in the letter, “the US National Security Council appears to be unaware of this corruption scandal, raising concerns that US agencies are not monitoring taxpayer assistance to Ukraine.”
But Kirby, who responded directly to those reports, told reporters that the firing of senior Ukrainian officials shows how Zelensky and the US share concerns about the corruption allegations “and it’s clear that they take it seriously.” Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland later echoed the sentiment, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the personnel changes in Kyiv “sent a very strong signal to others who would try to dismantle this war effort.”
If the comer receives a signal from a distance, it doesn’t look promising. The president wrote that agencies must work overtime to ensure that US taxpayer dollars spent in Ukraine are used “for their intended purposes to prevent and reduce the risk of waste, fraud and abuse.”
The Kentucky Republican is calling on the administration to detail information related to any anti-corruption efforts going back to February 24 of last year, the date of the Russian invasion. His committee expects those items “as soon as possible” but he has given the administration a two-week deadline. The Oversight Committee expects that information “no later than March 8, 2023.”
A senior administration official told RCP in January that Biden believes “oversight is critical” and that the administration “takes very seriously our responsibility to work with the Ukrainian government so that U.S.-funded aid reaches whom it is intended to.”
He reiterated that he had “seen no credible evidence” that US military aid had been used anywhere other than on the battlefield, and referred the RCP to a whole-of-government plan to “prevent and combat the illicit diversion of arms and military equipment.” That plan was released by the State Department last October, eight months after the conflict began and after Congress appropriated tens of billions of dollars in aid.
He noted that the financial assistance will be handled by the World Bank. The administration contracts with national consulting firm Deloitte as a third-party monitor to “examine the financial controls and procedures used by the government of Ukraine to track and monitor U.S. funds.” USAID administers humanitarian aid and, according to the official, the agency has internal safeguards to combat fraud and hires an unnamed third-party contractor to monitor the funds.
Republicans say those steps are vague and cold comfort in light of the past two decades of experience. When it comes to the World Bank and NGOs, they call for all materials related to how multilateral organizations are used and want “any information on any oversight mechanisms.”
“We learned from efforts in Afghanistan that the World Bank does not always have effective monitoring and accounting of funds and often lacks transparency,” Comer wrote, adding that “unrealistic timelines and expectations for prioritizing spending quickly lead to corruption and reduced effectiveness of programs.”
Conservatives have always been wary of massive government spending. Nothing will change, Comer told RCP last month, as the war continues. “With any massive government expenditure comes the opportunity for waste, fraud, misuse and abuse,” he said. “Aid to Ukraine is no different.”
When the White House gives Ukraine high marks for the steps it has taken to root out abuses, they insist they are on the lookout. After all, Kirby told reporters last month, corruption is an ever-present danger in all conflicts. “You can’t forget it,” he said. “I mean, it’s war.”
Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.
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