NY Fed's $40 Billion Iraqi Money Trail
CNBC Washington Reporter
It has been called the largest airborne transfer of currency in the history of the world. But finding out what happened to all the money involved has become one of the biggest financial mysteries of all time.
Beginning in the very earliest days of the war in Iraq, the New York Federal Reserve shipped billions of dollars in physical cash to Baghdad to pay for the reopening of the government and restoration of basic services.
The money was packed onto pallets inside a heavily guarded New York Federal Reserve compound in East Rutherford, New Jersey, trucked to Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, and flown by military aircraft to Baghdad International Airport.
By one account, the New York Fed shipped about $40 billion in cash between 2003 and 2008. In just the first two years, the shipments included more than 281 million individual bills weighing a total of 363 tons. But soon after the money arrived in the chaos of war-torn Baghdad, the paper trail documenting who controlled it all began to go cold.
Since then, investigators have spent years trying to trace what happened to the enormous amount of money shipped in the frantic days of the occupation of Iraq. Although there have been hundreds of pages of reports, Congressional hearings, and inquiries from Washington to Baghdad, no one in Congress, a special inspector general’s office, the Department of Defense or the Iraqi government itself can say with certainty what exactly happened to all of that money.
Much of it may have been spent on the things it was intended for—but billions of dollars may have simply been stolen. The thefts likely ranged from complicated contracting schemes to brazen appropriations of billions in cash still in their New York Fed plastic wrappers.
To find out what happened, a special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction has focused on the chain of custody—who was responsible for the money, minute by minute, as it made its way to Baghdad.
And although the money was handled by a variety of trained American officials and military officers in the first legs of its trip halfway around the world, CNBC has learned that something unusual happened on the Baghdad side of the transaction: Each of the money flights to Baghdad was met at the airport in Iraq by the same man.
The previously unknown Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) official was tasked with picking up the bales of billions as they were unloaded from C-17s and arranging for them to get to the Central Bank of Iraq in downtown Baghdad. It was a perilous journey of about seven miles over a road the U.S. military called “Route Irish” through territory often controlled by insurgents. Travelers faced the threat of rocket propelled grenades, mortars, car bombs and IEDs.
Transit was so dangerous that returning American GI’s often posted YouTube videos of their trips on Route Irish, just for the bragging rights of having been there.
The CPA official was a stocky, middle-aged naturalized American citizen of Lebanese descent who was born in Saudi Arabia. His first name is Basel. At his request, CNBC has agreed to withhold his last name from this story. Basel ferried cash in Baghdad for the CPA and the American embassy from 2003 until 2008—all told handling, he said, about $40 billion in cash.
His job made him the very last American to see that money before it disappeared into the vaults at the Central Bank of Iraq. And it may have made him the only person in the history of the world to oversee the movement of $40 billion in a combat zone.
It doesn’t seem that anyone in the US government planned ahead of time to put so much responsibility—and temptation—into the hands of just one man. Former Republican Connecticut Congressman Christopher Shays co-chaired the Commission on Wartime Contracting, digging into waste, fraud and abuse in Iraq. He has traveled to Iraq scores of times to oversee US efforts there. Shays did a double take when CNBC told him how much money Basel said he handled in Iraq.
“Wait, one person?” Shays asked. “One person received $40 billion?”
Asked what he thinks about that, Shays said, “It just blows you away.”
Moving Billions Began In The Federal Reserve Compund, East Rutherford, NJ
The enormous undertaking of moving the billions began in the heavily guarded Federal Reserve compound on 100 Orchard Street in East Rutherford, NJ. There, carefully screened employees loaded pallets of cash into tractor-trailers for their journey down I-95 toward Washington, DC. The money came from an account held at the New York Fed called the “Development Fund for Iraq” which was made up of billions of dollars in Saddam Hussein’s financial assets that had been frozen under various US and global sanctions regimes. They weren’t taxpayer dollars, but the US government was responsible for making sure they got where they were going.