How Many Investigators Does It Take to Catch a Kleptocrat?

Since 2007, U.S. officials have been investigating the rampant corruption of Equatorial Guinea's dangerously debauched president-in-waiting. They haven't gotten far.

View a slide show of the surreal playboy life of Teodorin Obiang.

For the past four years, two U.S. government agencies have led a meandering investigation into charges of corruption and money-laundering involving Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, son of the oil-rich, Exxon-friendly dictator of Equatorial Guinea. As I reported in the most recent print edition of Foreign Policy, internal documents from a joint probe by the U.S. Justice Department and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency detail how Obiang has amassed an enormous fortune, despite earning an official salary as Equatorial Guinea's minister of agriculture and forestry of only about $5,000 per month.

And yet, federal investigators have displayed remarkably little enthusiasm for bringing a case against Obiang, who is known as Teodorin and has spent millions of dollars in the United States over the last decade living a life of Hollywood debauchery, according to exclusive interviews with his employees, federal investigators, and documents from several international probes I have reviewed. Indeed, U.S. investigators from the Justice Department and ICE have failed to locate or contact important potential witnesses. And recently, some investigators have suggested that they are frustrated with the case and are thinking about whether to shut it down this spring, sources familiar with the probe told me.

It is not as if the U.S. government is unaware of Teodorin's apparently ill-gotten gains. A Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report last year alleged that Teodorin has laundered more than $100 million into the United States. According to the report -- the subcommittee's second about the Obiang clan -- he used that money to buy a $30 million estate in Malibu, California, a $38 million private plane, and a fleet of luxury sports cars. Global Witness, the London-based anti-corruption group, recently reported that Teodorin had commissioned plans for a custom-built $380 million superyacht.

"The evidence of corruption in this case is overwhelming," said Jack Blum, a former Senate investigator who worked on major cases such as the Bank of Credit and Commerce International affair and is now a Washington attorney specializing in money-laundering and corruption. "We know that the money being tossed around by young Obiang is not coming out of his official salary, but the U.S. government isn't interested in taking him down because there's oil involved. You can't run a pretend investigation when the problems are this acute. It's outrageous."

Equatorial Guinea would be of little international consequence if it didn't have one thing: oil, and plenty of it. The country is sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest producer of oil after Nigeria and Angola, pumping around 346,000 barrels per day, and is both a major supplier to and reliable supporter of the United States. Energy revenues have flowed into the pockets of the country's elite, but virtually none has trickled down to its citizens, who by and large are desperately poor. Under the rule of his father, who has run the country for 32 years since taking power in a coup, Teodorin has been given his own fiefdom to exploit -- timber, the country's second most valuable resource. Justice Department and ICE documents I reviewed from the fall of 2007 noted that a large chunk of Teodorin's assets were likely derived from "extortion, theft of public funds, or other corrupt conduct" and that he made huge sums by imposing a large "revolutionary tax" on timber that went into his pocket.

The inquiry's goal, according to one ICE document, is to "identify, trace, freeze, and recover assets within the United States illicitly acquired through kleptocracy by Teodoro Obiang and his associates." Yet four years later, Teodorin still comes and goes into the United States -- plane records indicate that in late February he flew into Washington, D.C. (which a source confirms) on his private jet before heading to California and from there on to Rio de Janeiro to celebrate Carnival with his father -- and federal officials have taken no steps to seize his Malibu mansion.

Legal experts contend that Teodorin shouldn't have been allowed to enter the United States since 2004, when President George W. Bush issued Proclamation 7750, which bars corrupt foreign officials from receiving U.S. visas. President Barack Obama reaffirmed this message, pledging to "vigorously" enforce the proclamation and saying, "We have a responsibility to support those who act responsibly and to isolate those who don't." Meanwhile, as the investigation plods along, a source has informed me that Teodorin has arranged to ship his luxury cars and other assets out of the country.

The Justice Department and ICE declined to comment for this story, as did Teodorin (through Qorvis Communications, the Washington lobbying and public relations firm to which he pays $55,000 per month).

At many points, researchers and journalists have seemed to be several steps ahead of the federal investigators. It was only last year -- after they belatedly read a small item I wrote for the Harper's Magazine website -- that investigators apparently learned that former employees at Teodorin's Malibu estate were suing him for cheating them out of wages and that they possessed damaging information about his finances and personal lifestyle.

The investigators contacted the plaintiffs' attorney, Jim McDermott, but they haven't bothered going to Malibu to interview him or his clients. "They asked for stale information that they could have found on the web," McDermott told me by phone recently. "It looked like they just wanted to check off a box showing they had called me. Any law firm would fire a first-year associate for doing that level of work."

According to sources familiar with the probe, federal investigators have repeatedly complained in private that they are hamstrung because they need to prove that the wealth accumulated by Teodorin and his family is the fruit of corruption. But documentation about the nature and extent of the family's corrupt rule of Equatorial Guinea has been in the public domain for decades, at least since the 1990 publication of Robert Klitgaard's Tropical Gangsters, the seminal work on Equatorial Guinea's modern economy.

Klitgaard, who worked in Equatorial Guinea for the World Bank in the 1980s, described how the Obiang family plundered cocoa farms and other state resources after seizing power in 1979. In describing one confidential 1984 memo written by two members of an English cocoa-importing firm active in Equatorial Guinea, which detailed the company's corrupt deals with President Obiang, Klitgaard wrote, "Even though I had written a book about Third World corruption, seldom had I seen such blatant, almost casual evidence of graft."

Klitgaard also wrote about a World Bank project approved in 1983, which was to give credits to owners of cocoa farms: "And so in 1984 there were draconian nationalizations of farms.... Most had been owned by Spaniards and Portuguese; now government ministers held title to the choicest farms. The Prime Minister had a beauty near Luba, and the President himself seized nearly four thousand acres near the Malabo airport."

Tropical Gangsters contains many such details and leads, as well as the names of potential witnesses who could be located and interviewed. And yet, as of a few months ago, U.S. investigators had not sought to talk to Klitgaard -- nor did they appear to even know about his book. When they finally realized they should reach out to him, the investigators, I learned, struggled to locate his contact information even though it can be found with a two-second Google search.

Indeed, a great deal of information about Teodorin's disastrous and corrupt stewardship of the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry is easy to find online. Logging in Equatorial Guinea has declined in recent years, which the government attributes to its conservation efforts. More impartial observers say this decline stems from the fact that there are simply not that many trees left: Teodorin's ministry has facilitated the rapid depletion of forest resources in the country. "Enforcement of legal requirements is virtually non-existent regarding commercial logging," concluded a 2001 assessment by a group called World Rainforest Movement. In 2005, Allan Thornton, president of the Environmental Investigation Agency, testified before a U.S. House subcommittee that virtually all of Equatorial Guinea's timber exports to China were illegal.

Diligent investigators should be able to find evidence of how Teodorin operates. After my Foreign Policy story was published I was contacted by a foreign timber executive who lived in Equatorial Guinea in the 1990s, before oil revenues began pouring in and when the timber industry was still the country's primary cash cow. According to this person, even before Teodorin became the minister of agriculture and forestry, he had acquired a notorious reputation among the country's logging companies. He quickly earned the nickname "El Nino" from foreign timber executives, due to the storms that he would kick up when he flew back to Equatorial Guinea from lengthy vacations abroad. "He would call emergency meetings of all the logging company heads in which he would announce some new tax on logging operations," the source said.

This person also said that Teodorin slapped an extra "tax" -- payable directly to him -- on wood harvested from Equatorial Guinea. "Each company paid a royalty to the state treasury for each cubic meter of log shipped. This might be $100 per cubic meter," the source explained. "Above that, each company also had to pay an amount per cubic meter directly to Teodorin."

I later spoke with a French national named Jean Michel (he asked that I omit his last name) who worked for a French logging company that Teodorin seized. By his account, it was impossible for timber companies like the one he worked for to operate in Equatorial Guinea without paying off Teodorin. According to this person, it was when his firm refused to pay further bribes that Teodorin sent the military to shut down its operations and kick its employees out of the country.

Shakedowns like this aren't the exception. They're the rule -- and it's only gotten worse since the country happened upon a glut of offshore oil. Why Teodorin and his father's regime have thus far escaped sanction from U.S. authorities is a mystery.

Perhaps the U.S. federal investigators are making more progress than I am aware of, but that certainly doesn't appear to be the case. What accounts for their hapless investigation? Is it due to political interference from the Obama and Bush administrations in order to protect friendly relations with an American oil partner? Is it a result of ineptitude and incompetence? I'm not sure; but what certainly is clear is that the evidence is out there, and investigators seem largely uninterested in obtaining it, not to mention prosecuting the case against Teodorin.

Javier Espinosa/El Mundo


Anatomy of an Adoption Crisis

An exclusive investigation uncovers how State Department officials uncovered systemic corruption in the Vietnamese adoption system -- and how they struggled to do something about it.

It seemed like a nightmare right out of Kafka. In late 2007 and early 2008, Americans with their adopted babies in arms, or pictures of babies to come, were being stonewalled by faceless U.S. bureaucrats. The U.S. government refused to issue visas that would allow those babies to come home from Vietnam -- and wouldn't explain why.

Thirteen families, supported by dozens of other parents-to-be, desperately did what they could to attract publicity, calling in the New York Times, ABC News, and members of Congress. They launched campaigns on the web, sent petitions to friends and neighbors, and barraged the relevant offices with pleas for help. And still, for months, the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) refused to issue their babies the requisite visas -- for reasons that seemed irrelevant. One couple from Queens, New York, said they were told that the baby they had legally adopted in Vietnam would not be able to come home with them for what they called a "bewilderingly minute point": A Tam Ky Orphanage guard in Vietnam's Quang Nam province had failed to note the child's arrival in his logbook.

But inside their fog of secrecy, the faceless bureaucrats were also agonizing about the well-being of the children and their families. Based on hundreds of pages of documents received via Freedom of Information Act requests, this article gives a never-before-seen glimpse at how the State Department discovered what it believed to be a gray market in "adoptable" babies and debated what to do about it, trying each of its inadequate tools in turn.

According to these internal documents, the State Department was confident it had discovered systemic nationwide corruption in Vietnam -- a network of adoption agency representatives, village officials, orphanage directors, nurses, hospital administrators, police officers, and government officials who were profiting by paying for, defrauding, coercing, or even simply stealing Vietnamese children from their families to sell them to unsuspecting Americans. And yet, as these documents reveal, U.S. officials in Hanoi did not have the right tools to shut down the infant peddlers while allowing the truly needed adoptions to continue. Understanding how little the State Department and USCIS could do, despite how hard they tried, helps reveal what these U.S. government agencies need to respond more effectively in the current adoption hot spots, Nepal and Ethiopia -- and in whatever country might be struck by adoption profiteering next.

Adoption from Vietnam: the background

Between 2006 and 2009, Americans adopted 2,220 children from Vietnam. In 2007, USCIS and the State Department issued 800 adoption visas and attempted to deny only 20. And yet on Sept. 1, 2008, the United States felt it had no choice but to not renew the bilateral agreement that allowed Americans to adopt Vietnamese children, thereby shutting down American adoptions from Vietnam.

It wasn't the first time the State Department had been confronted by corrupt Vietnamese adoption practices. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Westerners were adopting thousands of Vietnamese-born children every year amid reports that children were being bought, coerced, defrauded, or even kidnapped from their birth families. Pressured by the West, the government of Vietnam tried to reform its system. It sharply curtailed adoptions -- the United States banned them from Vietnam entirely -- and eventually prosecuted, deported, and otherwise shut down some of the suspected perpetrators. Noting the progress, the United States signed a three-year bilateral agreement with Vietnam in 2005, complete with safeguards against corruption, so that adoptions between the two countries could again proceed.

But as soon as adoptions resumed, these documents reveal, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi noticed a suspicious uptick in "abandoned" infants in orphanages that had contracts with international adoption agencies. "Orphanages and hospitals throughout Vietnam all report that prior to 2005 there were very few abandonments at their facilities, today these facilities may have as many as 15 purported abandonments a month. These abandonments are shams designed to obscure the child's true origins," Ambassador Michael Michalak cabled back to Washington in January 2008. "At Hospital A in [redacted location] abandonments are now a weekly occurrence." Other orphanages continued to host their traditional complement of older and special needs children, with few or no infants and toddlers.

Unfortunately, by law, the U.S. government had only three imprecise tools to respond to its suspicions about Vietnamese adoptions. First, State Department and USCIS officers could personally investigate the circumstances behind Americans' applications for "orphan visas." But that was time-consuming, and it elicited vehement objections from the Vietnamese government. Second, U.S. consular officers and diplomats could pressure Vietnam to live up to the 2005 Memorandum of Agreement and crack down on unethical adoptions. But the U.S. Embassy came to believe that Vietnam would not take action. Third, the United States could stop accepting adoptions from Vietnam entirely. But that blunt tool would stop legal adoptions together with corrupt ones, and, these documents show, the United States hesitated to wield it.

Investigating one by one

The only legal authority that the United States had to oversee adoptions in Vietnam was through the limited tool of immigration law. In practice, this meant that, legally at least, the United States couldn't hold responsible the adoption agencies or the Vietnamese orphanages that may have actually done something wrong. Instead, the United States would have to wait until adopting Americans had filed applications for I-600 "orphan visas" before investigating any of the circumstances surrounding the adoptions. In essence, the U.S. authorities hold adopting Americans responsible for whether the child promised to them by an adoption agency is in fact a legitimate orphan, on the fiction that they have some independent knowledge about the child.

By that point, though, most Americans had already spent many months and tens of thousands of dollars pursuing the adoption and in some cases had already adopted the child under Vietnamese law. Many thought of the I-600 as the final formality in a long, emotionally fraught process. Few had any idea that their adoption agencies' actions had been essentially unsupervised until then -- or that the child might not in fact be free for adoption. And if the United States did find enough fraud in a visa application to try to prevent that adoption, not surprisingly, "the PAPs [prospective adoptive parents] are very often devastated," as one consular officer wrote. When the accuracy of their prospective child's visa application was challenged, a number of families saw no alternative to spending tens of thousands of dollars on immigration lawyers and camping out in Hanoi to fight the U.S. government -- rather than returning the child to an orphanage that, if the allegations were true, "had already proven it didn't care what happens to that child," as Mary Quigley, one North Carolina-based parent, put it. Monica DiGioacchino, another adoptive parent whose child's orphan visa application was at first denied, is still bitter about the use of immigration investigations in the State Department's campaign for honest adoptions from Vietnam, saying, "We were collateral damage."

A number of these released State Department documents report on investigations into particular cases, heavily redacted because of the U.S. Privacy Act of 1974. What's left are agonized conclusions like this: "government run clinics and orphanages are actively engaged in baby buying and are lying to birth mothers to secure children for international adoption... forcing witnesses and even birth mothers to recant the statements they gave to consular officers so that the adoptions can be completed." In one cable, the embassy reports that it "has discovered 'safe houses' ... where women are offered lodging, medical expenses and money to 'start a new life' in exchange for their child.... The women are required to sign agreements promising to relinquish their children before entering the safe houses and are often separated from their children immediately after birth. Tragically, in some instances these women were told that their children would be adopted domestically and that they would return home once they were 11 years old. Even worse, one hospital in [redacted location] essentially kidnapped infants from their parents by refusing to release the child until they paid their medical bills. When payment was not forthcoming, the hospital declared the children ‘abandoned' and placed them for adoption without the birth parents [sic] knowledge or consent." 

In another situation, U.S. investigators found that village officials offered two Hmong women 10 months' salary each to place their newborns in a "social sponsoring center" -- essentially an orphanage. (In many underdeveloped countries, children aren't abandoned at orphanages but placed there temporarily for food, shelter, education, or child care, which is what these women told U.S. investigators they thought they were doing.) After USCIS denied the adoption visas, the documents show that village officials summoned the two women to their offices, "criticized [them] for irresponsibly becoming pregnant," and forced them to sign relinquishment papers. The head of the Department for Intercountry Adoptions, Vu Duc Long, then ordered them to come see him in Hanoi. According to one State Department document, the birth mothers later "reported that they were so frightened about the trip that they became physically sick." Before USCIS spoke with the two mothers again, Vietnamese police officers stopped by to "remind" the women that they had "consented" to adoption. U.S. officials were so horrified by this incident that they refer to it often, both internally in these documents and in discussions with Vietnamese officials. Those two adoptions were successfully stopped -- but USCIS reportedly discovered that a third woman's child had, without her permission or understanding, already been adopted and brought to live in the United States.

Many Vietnamese officials objected furiously to Americans undertaking criminal investigations on their soil, so much so that investigators at times feared for their safety. Consider this report on a State Department attempt to investigate a child's suspicious "abandonment" in a  hospital in Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta near Vietnam's southern tip, where the investigator, Chris Brown, was refused entry:  "Ominously... the Vietnamese government says we have to give them the exact details in advance ‘in order to avoid problem as occurred in An Giang province on October 10, 2007 and to ensure the safety and smooth coordination for the delegations of the Consulate General traveling outside consular district.' I say ‘ominous' because that certainly could be read as a direct threat."

The documents reveal that Vietnamese officials blocked U.S. embassy investigators from researching orphans' origins in 17 of Vietnam's 63 provinces between 2007 and 2008, often with police or other Vietnamese officials physically blocking the U.S. employees from entering a building or ordering them to leave a province. These investigations were difficult, dangerous, time-consuming -- and worst of all, didn't necessarily stop wrongful adoptions. "Because the decisions of USCIS can be appealed -- ultimately to the federal court system -- denials must be extremely well documented with solid evidence," as one document explained. "Well-documented" means, in practice, that either a birth family has to ask for the child back or someone has to confess to having done something wrong, a highly unlikely occurrence because Vietnamese police themselves were involved in either soliciting or covering up the purchase and sale of children, according to both these documents and USCIS orphan visa appeals denials posted online. And so even when the embassy was all but certain that a child had been fraudulently taken from a birth family -- but did not have evidence strong enough to stand up against the necessary "preponderance of the evidence" standard in court -- it still at times had to allow an American family to bring home that child.

Applying diplomatic pressure

The State Department clearly believed that the Vietnamese government, not the United States, should be fixing the problem. If Vietnamese children were being wrongfully taken, it was Vietnamese families that were being harmed, usually by Vietnamese citizens on Vietnamese soil. These released documents detail how consular officials, two ambassadors, and an assistant secretary of state confronted Vietnamese officials at varying levels with evidence of document fraud, defrauded birth families, and provincial officials profiting from the purchase and sale of children for adoption. They were not satisfied with the responses.

U.S. officials also repeatedly demanded that Vietnam live up to the requirements of the 2005 Memorandum of Agreement, according to these documents. First, the State Department wanted Vietnam to issue a binding schedule of adoption fees, which would limit what orphanage officials could demand from U.S. agencies and American parents. That would restrict how profitable an adoption might be and reduce the incentive to "find" children wrongfully. It would also enable U.S. government officials to warn Americans not to pay more than the legal limit. Second, the State Department wanted Vietnam to investigate corrupt adoption activities or at least allow U.S. officials to investigate freely. Finally, U.S. officials pressed Vietnam to ratify and implement the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, the key international treaty regulating adoption. U.S. officials repeatedly offered technical assistance to help Vietnam draft and implement a Hague-compliant adoption law. But no matter how often the U.S. diplomatic corps offered evidence of criminal wrongdoing or pressured Vietnam to live up to its existing agreement with the United States, Vietnamese officials not only failed to pursue it, but -- in the embassy's view -- chose to help rather than prosecute the baby merchants.

This despite the fact that Vietnam had created an agency, the Department of International Adoptions (DIA), intended to combat corrupt adoption practices. Embassy officials say in internal memos that its director, Vu Duc Long, repeatedly explained that he could do nothing -- and that he saw nothing wrong. According to one U.S. Embassy cable, when asked directly about his agency's role in combating corruption, Long answered "that DIA will check to see who committed fraud, but that in his experience there has 'never been a case where DIA found problems with an adoption in Vietnam'."

In the same conversation, according to one cable, Long told U.S. officials that he had no authority to issue a binding schedule of fees and that he believed the real problem was that American agencies' contracts with the provincial authorities for "humanitarian donations" were really advance deposits on adoptable "orphans" -- and were thus putting pressure on the orphanages to "find" more adoptable babies. Long explained: "If the orphanage accepted a donation equal to 10 children, for example, but the orphanage only had 4 children to deliver, then the orphanage had to find additional children to meet its obligation."

In the American officials' view, adoption was supposed to be about finding new families for needy children. But Long was explaining that Vietnamese orphanages "produced" adoptable children to meet American demand. In that cable, the embassy commented to the secretary of state's office that Long's "revelation of [U.S. adoption agencies] making up front payments for 'future deliveries' is clearly of concern. It stands as further evidence that the problems we are seeing in Vietnam are serious and systemic."

In December 2007, the U.S. Embassy took advantage of Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty's visit to have her talk with senior Vietnamese officials about the adoption crisis, in which, according to one cable, she conveyed "forcefully that the Embassy has discovered clear patterns of child selling, emphasizing that this is something we cannot tolerate." But after meeting with a variety of high-level officials, Harty, Ambassador Michalak, and embassy staff concluded that nothing would soon change. Michalak cabled home his stark conclusion: "[Vietnamese] officials are clearly embarrassed by the information uncovered by our consular investigations, but would prefer to address this by preventing consular officials from doing their jobs rather than by addressing the core problems of corruption and child selling... This leaves us in an untenable position. We can not continue the current [Memorandum of Agreement] under these conditions."

Stopping all adoptions from Vietnam

Once the State Department had concluded that it could not in good conscience permit continued adoptions from Vietnam, its discussions began to focus on strategy.

The cutoff date was clear: the United States could decline to renew the Memorandum of Agreement, which was set to expire on September 1, 2008. But no one wanted to face the kind of outrage and political pressure that had been aimed at USCIS and the State Department when they'd stopped adoptions from Cambodia and Guatemala for similarly entrenched corruption. Hundreds of families had been trapped partway through the process, with hearts and wallets already fully invested in bringing home a particular child. Michalak wrote in a January 2008 cable, "We must be careful to make sure we are keeping prospective adoptive parents informed of our decisions ... in order to avoid a difficult and emotionally painful situation for families." The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi immediately posted a notice on its website, warning prospective parents not to start an adoption from Vietnam.

The other concern was educating Congress. Gerry Fuller of the State Department's Office of Children's Issues at one point emailed his colleagues that "Sean Moore of Sen. Boxer's office ... continues to push that it is only just to let these families go since they have been put through the [wringer] and we have no evidence that any mother is complaining that her baby was stolen ... [A colleague was] pressing hard for the [visas] to be issued based on concerns for the amount of suffering already endured and likely to be endured ... He is convinced these families have been caught in the middle of a change of policy." Unaware of why the State Department was convinced that "fraudulent documents are the rule rather than the exception in adoption cases," as the embassy cabled to Washington in March 2008, or unaware of evidence that Vietnamese families might not have willingly given away the children whose 'orphan visa' applications were being investigated, some members of Congress understandably wanted their constituents to be able to bring "their" babies home.

Unquestionably, those families were in heartbreakingly difficult straits. It has been "an emotional strain and a financial struggle," Tom Mills of Los Angeles told the New York Times in early 2008. "I came to Vietnam expecting to stay here for two, maybe three weeks, and now it's been five months." Those who were contesting their children's denied visa applications were told almost nothing of what was happening inside the foggy bureaucracy -- and came to disbelieve everything they were told. They didn't know what the embassy was doing while the denied families waited in Hanoi. They didn't know that Vietnamese officials were "blocking" the U.S. government's efforts to do its job by investigating the prospective children's "orphan status." They didn't know when the USCIS administrative appeals officer would issue rulings about their children's visa applications. Another California parent, Julie Carroll, told the Ventura County Star, "It is by far the most excruciating thing we have gone through. And the worst part of it is we are missing out on going on four months of our daughter's life, all of those milestones in her development."

Responding to the members of Congress who were being pressured to expedite the halted adoptions, the State Department and USCIS began coordinating to keep interested members of Congress informed - both about the status of those families-in-limbo, and about the Vietnamese families who were suffering as well, these documents show. the State Department organized and held a briefing session, inviting staff from the offices of Jim Webb, Mary Landrieu, Norm Coleman, Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, Richard Lugar, Lisa Murkowksi, Bob Corker, Dianne Feinstein, Hillary Clinton, John Warner, Robert Menendez, Frank Lautenberg, Zoe Lofgren, and Henry Waxman. The State Department followed up by writing and circulating among Congressional offices a document called "10 Disturbing Adoption Cases from Vietnam," illustrating vividly (minus identifying information) how profoundly corrupt Vietnamese adoptions had become.

In April 2008, the Vietnamese confirmed to U.S. officials that they had a plan for winding down adoptions so that no American would be trapped halfway through in September, when the adoption agreement between the two countries expired. The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi posted a detailed explanation of the problems it found in adoptions from Vietnam. In addition to providing examples from the "Ten Disturbing Adoption Cases" document, in an April posting, titled "Summary of Irregularities in Adoptions in Vietnam," the embassy publicized other details officials had uncovered about the extent of Vietnamese corruption: from the fact that adoption agencies had to pay bribes to receive their licenses in Vietnam, to reports that agencies were forced to take Long on shopping trips during his visits to the United States.

By Sept. 1, 2008, the illicit U.S.-Vietnamese trade in babies was closed. But so were the aboveboard adoptions -- and the opportunity to help needy Vietnamese children find American homes.

An end to "abandoned" babies

Today, the United States does not allow adoptions from Vietnam, though some other countries do. The Vietnamese National Assembly has recently debated a new, Hague-compliant adoption law, but there is no sign of imminent passage. In the nearly two years since the closure, Vietnam has begun prosecuting and jailing some baby sellers. For instance, in Nam Dinh, one of the suspect provinces, "sixteen Vietnamese doctors, nurses and officials sold 266 babies for overseas adoptions, a court heard on Tuesday," Britain's Telegraph reported in 2009.

Recently I spoke with Tracy Desserich of Indianapolis, who adopted an infant from Phu Tho in 2007 through ADOPPT of Wyoming, a now-defunct adoption agency that withdrew its application for Hague accreditation midway through a review of its practices. Desserich said that when she was first adopting from Phu Tho, she visited two orphanages that were "overflowing" with 60 to 80 healthy infants. But in 2010, she and another adoptive family hired a Vietnamese searcher to learn more about their babies' abandonments. The searcher reported that one of the two orphanages (which a number of agencies used to identify children for adoption, according to Desserich) had closed completely; the other had only a "handful" of babies and now housed mostly older and special-needs children. As Ambassador Michalak and his investigators had suspected, when the money stopped coming in, so did the supply of "abandoned" babies.

Like Vietnam, neither Ethiopia nor Nepal -- the two countries currently plagued by reports of corrupt adoptions -- have enacted the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. If there is indeed corruption in these countries' adoptions, the U.S. embassies in those countries still have very little power to respond -- except to increase investigations or close adoptions entirely, as happened in Vietnam. Choosing the latter may save hundreds of families from wrongfully losing their children, but it does so at the cost of preventing children who genuinely need new homes from finding them in the United States. Until U.S. laws, policies, and regulations change, the United States can turn the spigot on and off, but it cannot control the flow.

[1] U.S. Department of State officials in Vietnam met with the adoption agencies quarterly and tried to persuade them to police and end the worst practices. In one March 2008 email, Jonathan Aloisi, deputy chief of mission in the Hanoi embassy, reported to Michele Bond, deputy assistant secretary of state for overseas citizens affairs, about a meeting with the higher-level adoption agency representatives, including Tom DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services; Keith Wallace of Families Thru International Adoption; Carl Jenkins of World Child; and Robin Mauney of Holt International Children's Services. "They were a little shaken by my mention of the murder of four Vietnamese by kidnappers seeing fresh babies for the [adoption] trade," Aloisi said, but his primary impression was that agency representatives believed that the real problem was animus between the U.S. Embassy and the Vietnamese Department of International Adoptions (DIA), and that "the relationship has become counterproductive. In other words, we aren't willing to help them [DIA] improve. I explained the limitations of DIA's authority and the threats that Dr. Long had made to Maura Harty about the safety of our investigators. Nonetheless, we told the group, we deal with DIA on a weekly -- and often daily -- basis. Our frustration is that even information on cases of criminal activity are met with a 'not our business' response ... Members clearly believe we are being too active in trying to track down evidence."

[2] That gap was partly closed in April 2008, when the United States entered the Hague Convention on International Adoption, gaining some oversight of adoption agencies-but only for adoptions from other Hague signatory nations, as explained in an article, "The Baby Business," published in the Summer 2010 issue of the journal Democracy. Vietnam has not joined the Hague Convention, though its National Assembly is currently debating legislation toward that end -- and so even then, U.S. Hague protections didn't cover adoptions from Vietnam.

[3] "The adoptions cases we are getting are increasingly problematic, with strong indications of a return to 'baby buying' and worse. The paper trail for almost every case raises questions, and we find problems and further questions in virtually every case we investigate. Some of this is due to orphanages and others trying to discover ways to hide facts so that we can't get to the bottom of cases, but also cannot find smoking guns." -- Jonathan Aloisi, deputy chief of mission, U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, in an email to State Department colleagues on October 25, 2007.

[4] In a Jan. 31, 2008, cable to the State Department, the U.S. ambassador in Hanoi wrote: "These cases offer compelling proof that government run clinics and orphanages are actively engaged in baby buying and are lying to birth mothers to secure children for international adoption. Further, when wrongdoing is exposed, rather than investigating corrupt local officials, the police and the Department of International Adoptions are prepared to use their considerable power to 'correct the situation' by forcing witnesses and even birth mothers to recant the statements they gave to consular officers so that the adoptions can be completed. The moral of these cases is that once you accept help in exchange for placing a child in an orphanage, for the birth parents there is no going back. The challenge for the [U.S. government] is to find away to stop future abuses without endangering birth parents."

[5] In one report about Phu Tho, for example, "the team went to a medical center to speak with a child finder ... Upon arrival, they were physically blocked by local police officers who told them they were in the province illegally... The Vice Chairman of the People's Committee ... order[ed] them to leave the province immediately." 

[7] Consider what the U.S. embassy said about one case (two and a half pages are redacted, to protect the families under the 1974 Privacy Act): "The investigation showed a clear pattern of document fraud and corruption in this case, as well as a strong nexus with other cases of baby buying in Vietnam. However, as a result of the unwillingness of the DIA [Vietnam's Department of International Adoption] to seriously investigate, and our inability to locate the birth mother, or document a fraudulent abandonment, the case was issued." Here's what that means, translated from bureaucratese: Although the embassy was almost certain the child had been wrongfully taken from his Vietnamese family, its evidence didn't reach the standard of proof that would be required by the U.S. federal courts, if the case were appealed. An American family was allowed to take home that child. For more on the standard of proof, see Trish Maskew, "Child Trafficking and Intercountry Adoption: The Cambodian Experience," in Cumberland Law Review, Volume 35. 3, 2005.

[8]  In a cable sent  to the Secretary of State in Washington DC on Dec. 6, 2007 -- SUBJECT: A/S Harty Addresses the Challenges of Intercountry Adoption with Vietnam -- the U.S. embassy wrote: "regularly receives reports of [adoption agencies] instructing [adopting parents] to bring thousands of dollars in cash for donations. DIA has never taken action against this practice, although they have stated on occasion that it is illegal."

[9] "The U.S. Embassy has repeatedly shared info from field investigations with DIA [Vietnam's Department of International Adoptions] regarding violations of Vietnamese law and fraudulent abandonments, urging DIA to take action to punish those responsible. In response, DIA has repeatedly spring into action, not to punish wrongdoers, but to fix whatever 'paperwork problem' the Embassy has uncovered.... going so far as to pressure individuals who previously signed sworn consular affidavits to recant their stories." -- Ambassador Michael Michalak, U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, to the Secretary of State's office, Washington, D.C., in a cable sent Jan. 8, 2008.

[10] "The evidence collected during this visit to [redacted] province adds to the mounting body of evidence that in Vietnam there is a market on which children are being bought and sold, often against the express wishes of their biological parents. The practice has become so widespread in some parts of [redacted] that a market and a standard price per child has emerged ... Local, provincial, and central authorities all participated in the production and certification of documents that they knew were false. As a result we must conclude that these documents are unreliable and that no competent Vietnamese authority exists either to verify the facts in an adoption case or to protect children from being reduced to a commodity, and sadly, one worth less than a pig." -- Subject: Vietnam Adoptions: A Child For A Pig,  March 20, 2008.

[11] "75% of birth parents who were interviewed by a consular officer stated that in addition to payments for food, medical care and administrative expenses, they received payment from the orphanage in exchange for placing their child in the orphanage. On average this payment was six million Vietnamese Dong, which is the equivalent of 11 months salary at minimum wage in Vietnam."

[12] Email from Richard Klarberg, Council on Accreditation (COA), June 21, 2010: "EJ: This agency -- ADOPPT -- discontinued its efforts to become accredited prior to a determination being made by COA. Richard"

[13] In a cable from Jan. 8, 2008, Ambassador Michael Michalak wrote, "I am becoming increasingly concerned at the growing evidence of large-scale organized child buying in Vietnam ... a system under which unscrupulous orphanage directors and agency facilitators have turned infants into a commodity amidst rampant corruption ... Local officials are willing to create documents to cover 'discrepancies' in a case ... [T]he miraculous arrival of over 30 infant girls at Hanoi Center 1 within five months of the opening of that center for international adoptions is not an atypical trend in Vietnam. We have frequently seen that areas and orphanages not engaged in adoption only have older children and those with special needs. This is a clear illustration of the supply being created to meet demand."