Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Supporting the Troops Through No-Bid Contracts

Previously, I've discussed the government's commitment to supporting the troops by failing to test their body armor and equipment. Now comes more indication that, not only was the wiring in some US facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan an electrocution risk, but the government was informed of the risk and did nothing.

James Risen writes that as early as 2004, the Army warned its commanders that soldiers were at risk of electric shock due to faulty wiring installed by everyone's favorite Halliburton spin-off, KBR, which, of course, was granted no-bid contracts to do the work. Of equal clarity is that its being a subsidiary of Dick Cheney's old company is pure coincidence and the contract was awarded on merit alone. Without competition.

"We've had several shocks in showers and near misses here in Baghdad, as well as in other parts of the country," Frank Trent, an expert with the Army Corps of Engineers, wrote in the bulletin [entitled "The Unexpected Killer," {and} issued after the deaths of two soldiers.] "As we install temporary and permanent power on our projects, we must ensure that we require contractors to properly ground electrical systems."

Since that warning, at least two American soldiers have been electrocuted in similar incidents. In all, at least a dozen American military personnel have been electrocuted in Iraq, according to the Pentagon and congressional investigators.

KBR has had no shortage of warnings regarding its death traps:

American electricians who worked for KBR, the Houston-based defense contractor that is responsible for maintaining American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, said they repeatedly warned company managers and military officials about unsafe electrical work, which often was performed by poorly trained Iraqis and Afghans paid just a few dollars a day.

One electrician warned his KBR bosses in his 2005 letter of resignation that unsafe electrical work was "a disaster waiting to happen."

Another said he witnessed an American soldier in Afghanistan receiving a potentially lethal shock. A third provided e-mail messages and other documents showing he had complained to KBR and the government that logs were created to make it appear that nonexistent electrical safety systems were properly functioning.

KBR's commitment to under-paying its laborers and accepting shoddy work as a trade-off is nothing new, having avoided nearly $500 million dollars in payroll taxes by hiring its employees through shell companies. But who needs shell companies when there's ample cheap labor and no regulations in Iraq and Afghanistan?

And lest we think that the warnings were just the work of a few disgruntled ex-employees:

KBR itself told the Pentagon in early 2007 about unsafe electrical wiring at a base near the Baghdad airport, but no repairs were made. Less than a year later, a soldier was electrocuted in a shower there.

So, if you're keeping up with the timeline, KBR and army commanders were aware of a problem by late 2004 (at least), it took until early 2007 for them to admit it, and having done nothing to rectify the problem allow another soldier to die.

Aside from the fraudulent, no-bid contracts granted to a company connected to the Vice President, contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan are only minimally accountable to the US government. Or any government, for that matter. Essentially, they answer to no one, as proven by Blackwater's seeming immunity, even in the face of massacring innocent, unarmed civilians.

As in the case of sending untested body armor to combat troops, allowing work that is known to be faulty and dangerous to go un-rectified does not mesh with the mantra of 'supporting the troops.' Rhetorical flourish aside, when it comes time to perform a duty to protect American soldiers from harm, and you fail, you no longer can hide behind the flag. KBR was warned, did nothing, and soldiers continued to die. KBR executives can slap a yellow ribbon on--or a flag pin--but it won't wash American blood off their hands.

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