Aid to Ukraine is an important priority for the United States, and that’s why there must be congressional oversight of it, the former chief of international humanitarian assistance during the Trump administration says.
“The response to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, by USAID and the rest of the U.S. government, is too important to screw up,” John Barsa, who was acting administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, told The Daily Signal.
But he added, “Nobody or no cause should get a pass” when it comes to scrutiny of how tax dollars are spent.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, the United States has given $113 billion in humanitarian and military assistance to Ukraine. On Tuesday, the House Armed Services Committee and the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense held separate hearings into how the money is being spent.
The current USAID administrator, Samantha Power, said in a CNN town hall event on Sunday: “We don’t provide resources unless we see the receipt for the expenditure, and up to this point, we don’t have any evidence that U.S. assistance is being misused or misspent.”
But the fastest way for executive branch spending to lose support in Congress and with the American people is lack of accountability in how taxpayer dollars are being used, Barsa said, noting that when he led USAID, “I not only accepted congressional oversight, I welcomed it.”
“From today’s bare-knuckled geopolitics, to longer-term issues, such as the support for democracy and a rules-based international system, there are lots of very important reasons we should be supporting Ukraine,” Barsa said in an email response to questions. “That being said, too often, an un-checked knee-jerk government response to a crisis or challenge is to cite the nobility of a cause and just throw money at it.”
Lots of money being spent means lots of opportunities to fund ineffective programs, or worse, social justice and other programs not “on-mission.” The rule of thumb is, or should be, “the more that is spent, the more that oversight is needed.”
Former Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko recently warned about the need for more oversight in Ukraine. In Afghanistan, a massive amount of taxpayer dollars to the U.S.-allied government in Kabul was found to have been diverted to corrupt causes.
Although Ukraine has a history of corruption, Barsa doesn’t think it’s comparable to Afghanistan. Ukraine was growing more democratic and addressing corruption issues, he said. By contrast, there was no illusion, going back to 2001, that Afghanistan was improving.
“One of the main reasons behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was that the example of an increasingly less corrupt, more responsive, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine was, and remains, an existential threat to Vladimir Putin,” Barsa said. “The more the Russian people could view the successful democratic trajectory of Ukraine, the more they would realize that they had, and still have, much better options than living under Putin’s autocratic rule.”
Barsa was formerly a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration and later in the administration of President Donald Trump. He was the special assistant to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly during the first year of the Trump administration before he became a principal deputy assistant secretary in the department.
From there, he moved to USAID, a division of the State Department, first serving as assistant administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2019, he became acting deputy administrator of the agency, and the acting administrator in 2020.
Supporting Ukraine is important to the U.S. national interest and is also a noble cause, Barsa said.
“But that does not mean that anything labeled ‘Ukraine response’ should be exempt from investigation by Congress. Congress must have intense oversight over all expenditures and operations regarding Ukraine,” he said, adding:
No one can ask U.S. citizens to continue to bear the burden of paying for the support for Ukraine without being able to look them in the eye and assure them the money isn’t being misspent.
The only way that can happen is by having detailed oversight by Congress over expenditures and operations at USAID and the rest of government. “Just trust us, man” isn’t going to cut it.
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