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A Brief History of 'Bags of Cash'

The CIA's Afghanistan bribes join a long and storied genre


Yesterday The New York Times reported that the Central Intelligence Agency has been funneling tens of millions of dollars to the Afghan government for more than a decade, in the form of "bags of cash." For anyone surprised to discover that a foreign intelligence service would underwrite the daily operations of President Hamid Karzai’s National Security Council, it is perhaps worth noting that the paper exposed a similar fund, this one run by the Iranians, just a few years ago. Karzai confided at the time, “The United States is doing the same thing. They are providing cash to some of our offices”—a reference, his aides insisted then, to official U.S. aid. But late yesterday, Karzai confirmed the Times account (if not the amount).

The rivers of graft flowing through the Karzai’s domain should no longer come as news to anyone. Plentiful funds, toys, and patronage have been available off the books for as long as the United States has pursued influence over the country. (C.I.A. operative Milton Bearden, tasked with spearheading the agency’s support for the mujahedeen in the 1980s, described his open-ended mandate from then-Director William Casey: “'I want you to go over there and win. Whatever you need, you can have.’ He gave me the Stinger missiles and a billion dollars.”) Rosenberg’s story does present a new wrinkle in an even older story, however—it is yet another demonstration of the raw political power of bags of cash.

Today’s bag man can probably lay claim to the world’s second-oldest profession, since the history of public officialdom tracks so closely with the history of bribery. It hasn’t just been provincial tax collectors prying kickbacks from goat farmers, either. The very loftiest institutions of early Western civilization were riven with sleaze. Thessalian boxers paid their rivals to throw matches in the ancient Olympic Games; the Roman statesman Cicero famously railed against ambitus, the crime of electoral fraud that gripped the Roman republic; even the closest disciples of Christ came with price tags attached.

With the passage of centuries, whole cultures of malfeasance came and went, bringing with them innovative approaches to influence-peddling. The Ming dynasty of China saw the proliferation of so-called “elegant bribery,” through which gifts of artwork, snuff bottles, and sumptuous calligraphy came to adorn the homes of the freshly greased. In our own time, disgraced public officials have shown a willingness to accept yachts, mortgage payments, car services, and prostitutes in exchange for the use of their offices. And that’s just from the file on Duke Cunningham.

But the face of venality will always be Judas Iscariot. The money handler of the Apostles, he is commonly depicted in Passion plays as receiving his silver pieces in a purse. Even if his grasp on Christian virtue left something to be desired, Judas was an exceptional bag man because he possessed an early understanding of both the usefulness of hard currency and the desirability of a stylish tote. To this day, the Iscariot Special prevails over every other type of subornment. It’s endlessly versatile, liquid, and difficult to trace. There is the problem of inflation, though—you couldn’t buy a notary public these days for thirty coins, let alone the betrayal of God’s son. How do you deliver enough tribute to be influential, but remain discreet?

The medium really is the message when it comes to the art of the cash gift. One can’t simply wheel around a pushcart of bills like some victim of Weimar hyperinflation, after all. There exists a hierarchy of stature and sophistication among the diverse modes of delivery. For instance, as the parliamentary coalition of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh looked poised to crumble over the 2008 Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, “two chests containing cash,” reportedly around $2.5 million in rupees, were used to secure the loyalty of defecting MPs—a rather unwieldy manner of transport that suggests an unprofessional reliance on low-denomination bills.

This is among the many reasons that, as a monetary receptacle, the suitcase knows no rival. When no less a gangster than the late Hugo Chavez sought to boost the chances of his preferred presidential candidate in Argentina, eventual winner Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, he allegedly sent a suitcase with $800,000 of his finest petrodollars to her campaign. As a purveyor of Third-World greed, though, Chavez can’t hope to compete with Viktor Kozeny, a colorful investor nicknamed “The Pirate of Prague.” In 1997, Kozeny conspired with handbag kingpin Frederic Bourke to furnish certain members of the Azerbaijani government with “suitcases stuffed with cash”—in press accounts, such money seems always to be stuffed into things, never placed or put—in exchange for control of a state-run oil company. The scam was just far-fetched enough to work, but one of their fleeced investors was the former Senator George Mitchell. Some crimes are too brazen to go unnoticed, even when concealed behind the worldly refinement of the suitcase.

Even firmer limitations apply to the lowly envelope. Its middle-man status is a double-edged sword: Less cumbersome and—dare I say it?—clichéd than the suitcase, it still retains a little more formal cachet than the plastic shopping bag full of dough; falling short of the classic appeal of the former, however, it also lacks the trashy verve of the latter. There is something unmistakably Junior Varsity about the envelope, a whiff of the paltry. What’s the fun of seducing an elected official away from his duties if, in so doing, you yourself end up looking like a pettifogging postal clerk? The method may be undergoing a renaissance as the preferred conveyance of the would-be fixers of the New York City mayoral race, and of course holds the benefit of being very inconspicuous. As a form of bribery, however, it will always be defined by the Greek system of fakelaki (“little envelopes”), a tradition of minor payoffs to doctors and civil servants so piddling and ubiquitous that it is rarely treated as a crime.

Finally we reach the simple sack. Unashamed, unpretentious, unevolved since the time of Judas, it is the calling card of thwarted, low-level bureaucrats from the outer suburbs. An attaché case of dirty money will buy a fleet of German submarines; a grocery bag of the same might not even get you a few taxi licenses. Attempting to rig an election, or purchase drilling rights, or supply a revolutionary militia out of canvas satchels would be like bidding on the Mona Lisa with fives and tens. Sure, you could offer it, but what self-respecting vendor would accept? And yet there must be a bribe, and a bag, for every man, no matter how inconsequential. There is something fitting about the Pentagon’s firefighting potentate in Afghanistan being bought off with a backpack—something just.

Though the Times repeatedly uses the phrase "bags of cash"—perhaps for its lovely assonance—the disbursements made to Karzai and friends were actually delivered in suitcases, backpacks, and even, yes, plastic bags. In other words, we alternately treated our Afghan clients like international financiers, conflict-zone tourists, and sweaty aldermen. This, too, is fitting. Why should our greasing of palms be any more consistent than our other adventures in Afghanistan?