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By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/4/2010 6:59:33 PM ET 2010-08-04T22:59:33

A top national security aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai was arrested last week on bribery charges —then released the same day “at the direction of the palace,” a senior U.S. official tells NBC News.

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The handling of the case of Mohamed Zia Salehi, the chief administrator of Karzai’s national security council, has infuriated U.S. officials and raised new questions about Karzai’s commitment to cracking down on corruption within his government.

After the arrest and release of Salehi, Karzai retaliated by ordering an investigation of two U.S.-financed Afghan anti-corruption units, one of which had developed the case against the national security official. Karzai’s office said in a statement that he was concerned that the anti-corruption units – known as the Sensitive Investigation Unit and the Major Crimes Task Force – were violating “human rights principles.”

The case against Salehi was viewed as especially sensitive among U.S. officials because it reached directly into Karzai’s palace.

Months ago, sources tell NBC News, the Sensitive Investigations Unit, working with U.S. investigators, developed what U.S. officials considered “rock solid evidence” against Salehi. The national security aide was caught on secret wiretaps agreeing to accept a bribe from the deputy director of an Afghan financial company. In exchange, Salehi agreed to use his influence to help quash an investigation of an Afghan “hawala” dealer suspected of moving cash for drug traffickers.

Image: Afghan President Karzai after a news conference in Kabul
Ahmad Masood  /  Reuters file
Afghan President Hamid Karzai leaves after a news conference in Kabul on July 29.

U.S. law enforcement officials considered the case so important that top Obama administration officials – including U.S. Ambassador Karl Eickenberry and Attorney General Eric Holder— have pressed Afghan Attorney General Mohammed Isha Aloko to arrest Salehi. But when Holder visited Kabul last month, Aloko showed up 40 minutes late for their meeting and resisted moving against the Karzai aide, the official said.

Afterward, Holder was visibly disheartened, said the official. Aloko told NBC this week that he considers there to be “insufficient” evidence against Salehi but that the investigation remains open.

The case comes at a time that U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that corruption in Karzai's government is spiraling out of control.  President Barack Obama's special envoy Richard Holbrooke recently testified that up to 30 percent of Afghan police salaries — paid in cash and financed with U.S tax dollars — are being stolen by their superiors. Overall, as much $1 billion a year in cash, often stuffed in suitcases, is being flown out of Afghanistan and taken to Dubai, U.S. investigators say. 

The issue of corruption has become so sensitive that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed release of a major report on the problem Wednesday because of fears its publication could endanger the Afghan investigators who are making the cases against Karzai's aides, NBC News has learned.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Karzai caught turning blind eye to corruption?

  1. Transcript of: Karzai caught turning blind eye to corruption?

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: Overseas tonight, there is new evidence that America 's ally in Afghanistan , President Hamid Karzai , is turning a blind eye to blatant corruption while US troops are fighting and dying for his government's survival. We have exclusive details from NBC News national investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff in our Washington bureau. Michael , good evening.

    MICHAEL ISIKOFF reporting: Good evening, Lester . Sources tell NBC News an Afghan anti-corruption unit working with US investigators developed rock-solid evidence implicating a top Karzai national security aide in a bribery scheme. Mohamed Zia Salehi was caught on wiretaps agreeing to a bribe for helping squash a money laundering investigation. American officials pressed for Salehi to be arrested. He was, but he was released the same day, a US official tells NBC , quote, "at the direction of the palace." Karzai himself has now ordered an investigation of the Afghan anti-corruption unit. He said in a statement that US-backed corruption investigators are violating, quote, "human rights principles." The Senate Foreign Relations Committee today delayed releasing a major report on Afghan corruption because of fears its publication could endanger the lives

    of the Afghan investigators. Lester: Michael Isikoff . Good to have you on the broadcast. Thank you.

    HOLT:

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