Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Requiem for KBR and Blackwater

Incompetence knows no barriers of time or place.
— Laurence J. Peter, Why Things Go Wrong: The Peter Principle Revisited

KBR’s Heather Browne just got some news. It wasn’t good. Blackwater just got some news. It wasn’t good. Both probably rue the day George Bush walked out of the White House and Dick Cheney was wheeled away. They would never have stood for what’s happened to these faithful servants since they left town.

KBR has done more things wrong in Iraq than most people can hope to keep track of but not so many that George and Dick couldn’t find it in their hearts to forgive it its errant ways. KBR had a food service contract to feed the troops in Iraq and charged millions for food it never served. It was paid $75.7 million for building a pipeline it didn’t build. It failed to deliver safe water for hygiene uses. Since Mr. Bush invaded Iraq KBR has been paid more than $40 billion and has 40,000 employees in Iraq. Iraq has been a gold mine for the company and a black hole for U.S. taxpayers.

The last time Heather Browne was in the news was when she was discussing KBR’s electrical work in Iraq. One of the places KBR worked was Radwaniya Palace Complex. (RPC) where it was engaged in repairing and upgrading the buildings. Among other things, it was responsible for upgrading the electrical work in that complex. In February 2007 KBR notified the Defense Contract Management Agency that it had safety concerns about one of the buildings in the complex that was housing the Fifth Special Forces Group. Specifically it was worried about the grounding and wiring in one of the buildings. Its concern did not translate into action by either it or the Pentagon. Instead it translated into the death of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, a Green Beret from Pennsylvania. On January 2, 2009, he started to take a shower and was electrocuted instead.

Ingrid Harrison, an official with the Defense Contract Management Agencytold the New York Times that: “KBR has been at RPC for over four years and was fully aware of the safety hazards, violations and concerns regarding the soldiers’ housing.” She said KBR “chose to ignore the known unsafe conditions.” Electricians formerly employed by KBR said their repeated warning to superiors about unsafe electrical conditions were ignored. KBR told CNN that its contract did not require “fixing potential hazards.” A potential electrical problem would only demonstrate its potential when it caused a fire or someone was electrocuted. There were 283 fires between August 2006 and January 2007 and 6 electrocutions including that of Sergeant Maseth.

Heather Browne did not agree that KBR was in any way responsible for Sgt. Maseth’s death. She said the company found no link between its work and the electrocutions. She’s now heard from an official source that her analysis was wanting. January 23, 2009, it was reported that Sgt. Maseth’s death was not an accident. On December 16, 2008, an army investigator sent Sgt. Maseth’s mother an e-mail in which she said “credible information” had been discovered that KBR’s negligence and that of two of its supervisors led to her son’s death. She said that the army had changed the cause of death from “accidental” to “negligent homicide” for purposes of the ongoing investigation. Heather Browne was unimpressed. She said that “KBR’s investigation has produced no evidence that KBR was responsible for Sergeant’ Maseth’s death. We have cooperated fully with all government agencies investigating this matter and will do so in the future.” KBR will be given an opportunity to cooperate fully in the criminal trial of its employees.

Blackwater didn’t electrocute anyone. A congressional report found that Blackwater guards were involved in almost 200 shootings in Iraq between 2005 and 2007. According to the Washington Post, on December 24, 2006, a drunk guard shot a guard who worked for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. In September 2007 its guards were involved in a shooting spree that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead. Five of the guards have been charged with manslaughter in the United States and have pleaded not guilty. According to the New York Times, following the September 2007 shooting Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was upset and demanded that Blackwater leave the country. Although as Prime Minister he thought he had some authority George Bush disagreed and showed his disagreement by extending Blackwater’s contract for another year.

George and Dick have left Washington and Blackwater will soon leave Iraq. In explaining why Blackwater is being forced to leave Iraq, Alaa Al-Taia, an Interior Ministry official said: “There are many marks against this company, specifically that they have a bad history and have been involved in the killing of so many civilians.” Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Blackwater, told the Washington Post that Blackwater had received no official notification of the future of the company’s work in Iraq. She’ll probably be getting it in the not too distant future.