Procurement: Thieves In The Spotlight

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September 24, 2008: Western investigators are finding massive amounts of defense related corruption in the Middle East and Africa. Old habits die hard, and corruption in defense procurement is thousands of years old. At least according to surviving records from ancient Egypt, China, India and Mesopotamia. What makes this culture of payoffs and outright theft so pervasive is that weapons tend to be expensive, traded in an atmosphere of secrecy, and rarely used. This makes it easier for government officials and weapons manufacturers to take a little, or a lot, off the top for themselves, and get away with it.

In the last few decades, Western nations have tried to put a halt to these corrupt practices. The reformers have encountered strong resistance in many parts of the world. China, India, Africa and the Middle East have been reluctant to play fair. Saudi Arabia recently got British investigators to back off by threatening to cut off cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts. Before that, there was a major (but largely concealed) scandal when UN officials were found to be taking bribes from Saddam Hussein, to ignore Iraqi plundering of the Oil For Food program in the 1990s. Now South African officials are rebuffing attempts to investigate bribery in the recent South African purchase of Swedish Gripen jet fighters. There are other allegations of South African corruption in weapons purchases, but the government there is not eager to prosecute their own people.

It's widely known in India that defense purchasing, as well as government weapons manufacturers, are awash in corruption of all kinds. Attempts to stem the problem have met with much resistance, and progress has been slow. China and Russia managed to keep their defense related corruption problems quiet for a long time, but the introduction of market economies, and more aggressive media, has made the matter more public. This has led to increased efforts to eliminate the problem. But despite both countries having authoritarian governments, the sticky fingered generals and officials have been able to survive.

Even the West is not immune to the problem, despite their zeal for clean government. The United States continues to unmask, and prosecute senior officials for defense related corruption. Much of the bribery in developing countries comes from European arms manufacturers seeking an edge in making multi-billion dollar sales in developing countries. But at least the problem is out in the open, more than it has been for a long time. But much more is being spent on defense (over $1.3 trillion a year) than ever before. There's more to steal, even if more of the thieves are being caught.