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Biden: Government must draft anti-corruption plan by December

President Joe Biden addressed service members at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, May 28, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Marcus M. Bullock)

The Biden administration is directing agencies to come up with a plan by December to boost their fight against corruption, in a memo released Thursday.

Analysts are optimistic that the national security study memo, the first from President Joe Biden, represents a broader commitment by the administration to elevate the attention paid to illicit financing and codify the link between corruption and national security. But they are also watching to see what sort of results come out of the 200-day review launched by the president

“You begin to see a pattern here, which makes you think they’re really serious about this,” said Gary Kalman, the director of Transparency International’s U.S. office. “Obviously time will tell. We will want to see how this stuff turns into actual policy.”

The memo, which represents a follow through on a commitment Biden made on the campaign trail to combat corruption, directs top White House advisors to develop a strategy to boost the government’s fight against corruption, including increasing accountability for individuals and organizations who conduct illicit financing, developing global anti-corruption norms, and establishing partnerships with the private sector.

“Corruption is a risk to our national security, and we must recognize it as such,” Biden said in a statement. “Fighting corruption is not just good governance. It is self-defense. It is patriotism, and it’s essential to the preservation of our democracy and our future.”

The review will include officials from more than a dozen agencies, including the Defense Department, State Department, and Central Intelligence Agency.

The Pentagon’s piece of the review could look at how to reduce corruption surrounding security assistance the department gives to train and equip militaries in other countries, said Abigail Bellows, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

For example, the military could decide to implement mandatory assessments to determine how much corruption exists in a country before deciding what assistance is given. If problems are found, Bellows suggested the Pentagon could make the help conditional on increased transparency, or could give additional training and fewer weapons that could be traded or sold on the black market instead of being used for their intended mission.

Corruption also plays a big role in global power competition, because adversaries such as Russia and China are using it “as a hybrid weapon,” Bellows said. For example, China is circumventing the procurement process or paying bribes to win contracts and exert influence in African nations. Bellows also talked about the fight against Boko Haram, where bullets intended for the Nigerian military were being sold on the black market.

“Helping people see it as a security problem and not just a rights issue is really important,” Bellows said.

The timing of the announcement is significant, Kalman said. This issue has the attention of Congress, which passed a significant update to anti-money laundering laws in the last National Defense Authorization Act.

How the Treasury Department writes the regulations to implement that legislation will be a “crucial test” for how seriously the administration takes this issue, Kalman added.

The international community is also prioritizing efforts to fight corruption. The United Nations General Assembly is meeting in a special session this week to discuss its anti-corruption agenda. G7 ministers on Wednesday released a statement commending the United Nations for tackling the issue, and promising to host a “discussion” on the problem at the ministerial meeting in September.

“It’s the timing of this and what else is happening around this that makes me feel like this could be more than just rhetoric,” Kalman said.


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