As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, September 03, 2007

A Labor Day Ignominy

On Labor Day, we celebrate the American worker who quietly does his job without complaint. Nowhere have these men and women been more exploited than in Iraq. In a bombshell story by T. Christian Miller in the LA Times, new documents reveal that contractors continued to send supply convoys through Iraq in early 2004 despite full knowledge of the threat to worker's lives.

Company e-mails and other internal communications reveal that before KBR dispatched the convoy, a chorus of security advisors predicted an increase in roadside bombings and attacks on Iraq's highways. They recommended suspension of convoys.

"[I] think we will get people injured or killed tomorrow," warned KBR regional security chief George Seagle, citing "tons of intel." But in an e-mail sent a day before the convoy was dispatched, he also acknowledged: "Big politics and contract issues involved."

You can guess who prevailed.

KBR was charged with delivering supplies in the war zone as part of a multi-billion-dollar no-bid contract. They knew that more contracts would be on the way as a reward for a job well done. Thus the profit motive outweighed the risk to their employees, and they were sent to their deaths.

After consulting with military commanders, KBR's top managers decided to keep the convoys rolling. "If the [Army] pushes, then we push, too," wrote an aide to Craig Peterson, KBR's top official in Iraq [...]

Six American truck drivers and two U.S. soldiers were killed when the convoy rumbled into a five-mile gauntlet of weapons fire on April 9, 2004, making an emergency delivery of jet fuel to the airport. One soldier and a seventh trucker remain missing [...]

Recriminations began the same day.

"Can anyone explain to me why we put civilians in the middle of known ambush sites?" demanded one security advisor in an e-mail. "Maybe we should put body bags on the packing list for our drivers."

Another wrote, "I cannot believe this has happened; the ones responsible should be held accountable for this."

This article is a detailed look at those few days, when corporate interests trumped interests of safety. When you rely on civilian contractors to fight wars, different calculations are made to justify actions. The middle managers and security advisors understood the risks and danger at work here, but were unable to stop the forward motion. The truckers were just doing their job and following orders. They expected some level of contact with the enemy in a war zone, but did not expect to be sitting ducks.

This was one of the deadliest times for contract workers in Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites were rebelling in their respective regions and practically nowhere was safe. The White House was denying the existence of an insurgency while convoys were being hit with multiple mortars and IEDs and RPGs. But the military was dependent on private contractors like KBR to keep the war machine rolling.

KBR -- then part of Halliburton Co., the company once run by Vice President Dick Cheney -- delivered 80% to 90% of the military's fuel, according to one senior logistics officer.

That meant that if KBR didn't move, neither could the U.S. Army. Unlike soldiers, contractors don't have to follow orders.

"We had to get food to the soldiers. We had to get fuel to the soldiers," the officer said. "This was a war."

So convoys moved out to various bases. And got hit, one at a time. One KBR driver died on April 8, and 70 convoys had been attacked. Despite this, there was actually a debate over whether or not to roll out the next day.

Because the next day was a Shiite holiday as well as Good Friday, security advisors worried that sectarian violence might add to the danger. They were of one voice calling for suspension of convoys.

"I say we halt them for a day at least and consider it a safety/security stand-down, and mental health day," security chief Seagle wrote on April 8. "There is tons of intel stating tomorrow will be another bad day."

Trucking chief Richard agreed. "Another day like today and we will lose most of our drivers."

But only the general managers could stop convoy shipments. KBR reduced the number of people who could stop the trucking, likely because then it would be easier to keep things going. And those in charge of suspending shipments, who referred to the army as "the customer," were loath to stop the money train. After frantic emails back and forth, it was decided that the convoys should stand down on April 9 - for about 25 minutes.

In a message time-stamped 6:44 a.m. April 9 -- nearly an hour after Chambers' order -- Richard sent a message to all drivers: "No convoys are to move" between Anaconda and the military bases south of Baghdad.

The stand-down lasted only 25 minutes.

At 7:14 a.m. another message moved over the KBR communications system. It read:

"Per Keith Richards, project manager, all traffic is to proceed as normal. All . . . traffic lanes are open in all directions."

We know what happened next. The intel was right, the battle was fierce and the employees ended up dead. One particular ambush - the one which prompted the discovery of these emails, as the families are suing KBR - is chronicled in Iraq For Sale. But that's only one. In total, 122 convoys were sent out by KBR that day. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM was attacked.

KBR has blamed the Army for selecting the wrong convoy routes. The military blamed miscommunication internally about the danger of the roads. And the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the families of the 6 employees killed has been dismissed in District Court over jurisdictional issues. The families are appealing.

And the corporate subsidiary of Halliburton doesn't want any of this information spilling out.

Attorneys for KBR reacted angrily to inquiries about the documents. In a letter urging The Times to "refrain from publishing" material under court seal, attorney Michael L. Rice also warned that the paper might be subject to unspecified legal sanctions.

Bravo for T. Christian Miller and the LA Times for getting this message out. It's painful, on Labor Day, to see the rights of workers so blatantly thrown asunder, to see their lives so devalued, in favor of the almighty dollar.

UPDATE: Tied to this, somewhat, is the CPA's effort to destroy the labor movement within Iraq by maintaining union prohibitions from the Saddam era.

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