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14 Jul, 2008 00:15

Shady Afghan arms deal embarrasses U.S. military

The U.S. government is embroiled in a scandal over a contract to supply munitions to the Afghan army. With millions of dollars apparently having been wasted, questions are now being asked about how the contract came to be approved.

The U.S. created the Afghan army during the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban six years ago. But now it seems the army has recently been supplied with faulty ammo.

In January 2007, the American government awarded a $US 300 million contract to a Miami-based company run by a 21-year-old. Efraim E. Deveroly became the main U.S. contractor supplying munitions to Afghanistan.

He promptly got down to business. Together with other young arms dealers, Deveroly is alleged to have supplied banned Chinese ammunition – some of it 50 years old – shipping it from Albania and claiming it was made in Hungary.

The company's contract was terminated after five months because of alleged fraud, but only after $US 66 million of American taxpayers’ cash had already been spent.

Eric Schmitt is one of the New York Times reporters who were first to bring the scam into the spotlight. He says AEY exploited a weakness in the American legal system.

“If they were buying ammunition for the U.S. army, they’d use one of set regulations’, he said.  ‘But because this ammunition was being used for Afghanistan, they used a different set of regulations that had some loopholes that this company successfully exploited,” Schmitt said.

The U.S. State Department has a watch list of potential arms traffickers. AEY and the people who ran it were on it. However, there is no evidence that the Defense Department took the time to check the list before signing the AEY contract.

Making matters worse are claims that the U.S. State Department may have been involved in a cover-up.

Eric Schmitt believes the most disturbing part of the scandal is just how far it seems to reach.

“The Albanian Defense Minister came up with a plan that was essentially ‘let’s get rid of the evidence and according to the officer who was there, the U.S. Ambassador agreed to this plan,” Schmitt says.

The Ambassador, however, denies all the allegations being made.

The U.S. House of Representatives held an investigation of its own. And one of the things it discovered was that the need for the contract was questionable in the first place.

At the time the AEY contract was awarded, a number of countries had offered to donate ammunition without charge.

Lindsey Beyerstein is an investigative journalist and popular blogger who has been looking into the scam.

“The government could have had this old junk for free and then these international dealers snapped it up and sold it to the government for a whole lot of money,” Beyerstein says.

Lindsey believes the people involved could have had friends in very high places, and that's how the scam went unnoticed for so long.

“If you look closer at the public archive, you start realizing that they were enmeshed into a whole network of defense, import-export and scrap metal dealerships and non-profits – it was this community – and it seems as if the younger guys are being set up to take the fall,” Beyerstein says.

The AEY president has pleaded not guilty after being charged with more than 70 counts of defrauding the U.S. government, and could face decades in prison.
The first stages of the judicial process are now getting under way.