Those were some of the main conclusions from a panel of national security and corruption experts at a Capitol Hill briefing Thursday. The briefing for Congressional and state department staff and NGO members was organized by two leading anti-corruption groups, the Publish What You Pay Coalition and Global Witness. “This systematic kleptocratic behavior has bled dry many of these countries,” said Simon Taylor, a co-founder of Global Witness.

It is often difficult for policy-makers and national security officials to understand the links between endemic corruption, which is often invisible, and the real world consequences of that corruption, said Sarah Chayes, a former U.S. military adviser in Afghanistan and author of “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.”

"Religious extremism is a reaction to the corruption that people are suffering from,” she explained. “Syria started out as a revolution against corruption. Migration is simply people fleeing the consequences of systemic corruption.”

This large-scale, government-run corruption is most often tied to the oil, gas and other extractive industries, a phenomenon known as “the resource curse.” “That’s where the money is,” said Daniel Kaufmann, head of the Natural Resource Governance Institute, and a former transparency expert at the World Bank.  Said Debra LaPrevotte, a former international corruption fighter with the FBI, “South Sudan has the third largest oil reserves in Africa. It is a poster child for violent kleptocracies.” Its soldiers are encouraged to “rape women in lieu of pay,” she said, and the country has 19,000 child soldiers.

In Nigeria, corrupt politicians looted the treasury of $6 billion--the equivalent of the country’s entire health budget for a year--in a corrupt 2011 oil rights deal with two high-profile international oil companies, Royal Dutch Shell and Italy’s ENI, according to a recent Global Witness investigation. “It is one of the biggest corruption cases in history,” said Olarenwaju Suraju, a Nigerian anti-corruption activist.

 What is to be done? Most of the panelists agreed that transparency is a key tool. In 2010, the U.S. Congress passed the Cardin-Lugar anti-corruption amendment, now Sec. 1504 of the Dodd-Frank legislation. It was sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar (R, Ind.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D, Md.)  It requires all U.S.-listed extractive industry companies to report annually their payments to governments.  Although Cardin-Lugar has not yet been implemented in this country, due to legal and political obstruction by the U.S. oil giants, it kick-started a global movement to require oil and gas companies to file public reports. The EU, Canada, and Norway, passed similar laws, and Australia and South Africa are considering their own versions.

“The U.S. showed real leadership here,” Taylor said. “What happened in Europe, what happened in Norway, what happened in Canada was all started by the U.S. It was once the leader and now it has become the laggard.”

Another key step would be to end the U.S. role as a hiding place for dirty money. “We shouldn’t be a safe haven, but we are,” said LaPrevotte. Billions of dollars flow into the U.S. to be laundered through shell companies and all-cash real estate transactions. Not only are third world thieves bringing their money here, but so are their developed-country accomplices, including Russians and Chinese, the panelists said.

There is currently a bipartisan groundswell in Congress for “beneficial ownership” legislation to require disclosure of the real owners of shell companies and limited liability companies, which crooks use to disguise their identity. The panel also urged stronger action through the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, including putting culprits in jail. “People commit crimes, not companies,” LaPrevotte said.

But perhaps the most important step is to get politicians and policy makers to put global corruption at the top of their priority lists because of its threat to national security, and to exert the political will to bring about real change. Said Chayes, “National security is about our system. Structural kleptocratic governance is the biggest threat to democracy worldwide.”