President Bush addresses the media in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008. President Bush announced the formation of an Advisory Council on Financial Literacy. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)
Study: False statements preceded war
By Douglass K. Daniel, Associated Press Writer, January 23, 2008
WASHINGTON—A study by two nonprofit journalism organizations found that President Bush and top administration officials issued hundreds of false statements about the national security threat from Iraq in the two years following the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The study concluded that the statements "were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses."
The study was posted Tuesday on the Web site of the Center for Public Integrity, which worked with the Fund for Independence in Journalism.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel did not comment on the merits of the study Tuesday night but reiterated the administration's position that the world community viewed Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, as a threat.
"The actions taken in 2003 were based on the collective judgment of intelligence agencies around the world," Stanzel said.
The study counted 935 false statements in the two-year period. It found that in speeches, briefings, interviews and other venues, Bush and administration officials stated unequivocally on at least 532 occasions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or was trying to produce or obtain them or had links to al-Qaida or both.
"It is now beyond dispute that Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction or have meaningful ties to al-Qaida," according to Charles Lewis and Mark Reading-Smith of the Fund for Independence in Journalism staff members, writing an overview of the study. "In short, the Bush administration led the nation to war on the basis of erroneous information that it methodically propagated and that culminated in military action against Iraq on March 19, 2003."
Named in the study along with Bush were top officials of the administration during the period studied: Vice President Dick Cheney, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and White House press secretaries Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan.
Bush led with 259 false statements, 231 about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and 28 about Iraq's links to al-Qaida, the study found. That was second only to Powell's 244 false statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and 10 about Iraq and al-Qaida.
The center said the study was based on a database created with public statements over the two years beginning on Sept. 11, 2001, and information from more than 25 government reports, books, articles, speeches and interviews.
"The cumulative effect of these false statements -- amplified by thousands of news stories and broadcasts -- was massive, with the media coverage creating an almost impenetrable din for several critical months in the run-up to war," the study concluded.
"Some journalists -- indeed, even some entire news organizations -- have since acknowledged that their coverage during those prewar months was far too deferential and uncritical. These mea culpas notwithstanding, much of the wall-to-wall media coverage provided additional, 'independent' validation of the Bush administration's false statements about Iraq," it said.
Center For Public Integrity: www.publicintegrity.org/default.aspx
Fund For Independence in Journalism: www.tfij.org
"Top Iraq contractor skirts US taxes offshore: Shell companies in Cayman Islands allow KBR to avoid Medicare, Social Security deductions"
By Farah Stockman, (Boston) Globe Staff, March 6, 2008
CAYMAN ISLANDS - Kellogg Brown & Root, the nation's top Iraq war contractor and until last year a subsidiary of Halliburton Corp., has avoided paying hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Medicare and Social Security taxes by hiring workers through shell companies based in this tropical tax haven.
More than 21,000 people working for KBR in Iraq - including about 10,500 Americans - are listed as employees of two companies that exist in a computer file on the fourth floor of a building on a palm-studded boulevard here in the Caribbean. Neither company has an office or phone number in the Cayman Islands.
The Defense Department has known since at least 2004 that KBR was avoiding taxes by declaring its American workers as employees of Cayman Islands shell companies, and officials said the move allowed KBR to perform the work more cheaply, saving Defense dollars.
But the use of the loophole results in a significantly greater loss of revenue to the government as a whole, particularly to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. And the creation of shell companies in places such as the Cayman Islands to avoid taxes has long been attacked by members of Congress.
A Globe survey found that the practice is unusual enough that only one other ma jor contractor in Iraq said it does something similar.
"Failing to contribute to Social Security and Medicare thousands of times over isn't shielding the taxpayers they claim to protect, it's costing our citizens in the name of short-term corporate greed," said Senator John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee who has introduced legislation to close loopholes for companies registering overseas.
With an estimated $16 billion in contracts, KBR is by far the largest contractor in Iraq, with eight times the work of its nearest competitor.
The no-bid contract it received in 2002 to rebuild Iraq's oil infrastructure and a multibillion-dollar contract to provide support services to troops have long drawn scrutiny because Vice President Dick Cheney was Halliburton's chief executive from 1995 until he joined the Republican ticket with President Bush in 2000.
The largest of the Cayman Islands shell companies - called Service Employers International Inc., which is now listed as having more than 20,000 workers in Iraq, according to KBR - was created two years before Cheney became Halliburton's chief executive. But a second Cayman Islands company called Overseas Administrative Services, which now is listed as the employer of 1,020 mostly managerial workers in Iraq, was established two months after Cheney's appointment.
Cheney's office at the White House referred questions to his personal lawyer, who did not return phone calls.
Heather Browne, a spokeswoman for KBR, acknowledged via e-mail that the two Cayman Islands companies were set up "in order to allow us to reduce certain tax obligations of the company and its employees."
Social Security and Medicare taxes amount to 15.3 percent of each employees' salary, split evenly between the worker and the employer. While KBR's use of the shell companies saves workers their half of the taxes, it deprives them of future retirement benefits.
In addition, the practice enables KBR to avoid paying unemployment taxes in Texas, where the company is registered, amounting to between $20 and $559 per American employee per year, depending on the company's rate of turnover.
As a result, workers hired through the Cayman Island companies cannot receive unemployment assistance should they lose their jobs.
In interviews with more than a dozen KBR workers registered through the Cayman Islands companies, most said they did not realize that they had been employed by a foreign firm until they arrived in Iraq and were told by their foremen, or until they returned home and applied for unemployment benefits.
"They never explained it to us," said Arthur Faust, 57, who got a job loading convoys in Iraq in 2004 after putting his resume on KBRcareers.com and going to orientation with KBR officials in Houston.
But there is one circumstance in which KBR does claim the workers as its own: when it comes to receiving the legal immunity extended to employers working in Iraq.
In one previously unreported case, a group of Service Employers International workers accused KBR of knowingly exposing them to cancer-causing chemicals at an Iraqi water treatment plant. Under the Defense Base Act of 1941, a federal workers compensation law, employers working with the military have immunity in most cases from such employee lawsuits.
So when KBR lawyers argued that the workers were KBR employees, lawyers for the men objected; the case remains in arbitration.
"When it benefits them, KBR takes the position that these men really are employees," said Michael Doyle, the lawyer for nine American men who were allegedly exposed to the dangerous chemicals. "You don't get to take both positions."
Founded by two brothers in Texas in 1919, the construction firm of Brown & Root quickly became associated with some of the largest public-works projects of the early 20th century, from oil platforms to warships to dams that provided electricity to rural areas.
Its political clout, particularly with fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson, was legendary, and it became a major overseas contractor, building roads and ports during the Vietnam war.
Halliburton, a Houston-based oil conglomerate, acquired Brown & Root in 1962. And after the Vietnam cease-fire agreement in 1973, it all but stopped doing overseas military work for two decades.
But in 1991, during the Gulf War, Halliburton decided to try to revive its military business. The next year, Brown & Root won a $3.9 million contract from the Defense Department under Secretary Dick Cheney to develop contingency plans to support, feed, house, and maintain the US military in 13 hot spots around the world.
That small contract soon grew into a massive logistical-support contract under which the company did everything from building military camps to cooking meals and providing transportation for troops. Under the contract, the military agreed to reimburse Brown & Root for all expenses, and to pay a profit of between 1 and 9 percent, depending on performance.
In Somalia, starting in December 1992, Brown & Root employees helped US soldiers and UN workers dig wells and collect garbage, among many other tasks. The company quickly became the largest civilian employer in the country, with about 2,500 people on its payroll. Its headquarters in Texas had a "war room," where executives would get daily updates about events in Mogadishu.
Later the company would play similar roles supporting US troops in Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan.
As its military work increased, Brown & Root sent more American workers overseas. Americans working and living abroad receive significant breaks on their income tax, but still must pay Social Security and Medicare taxes if they work for an American company. The reasoning is that such workers are likely to return to the United States and collect benefits, so they and their employers ought to help pay for them.
But the taxes drive up costs. A former Halliburton executive who was in a senior position at the company in the early 1990s said construction companies that avoid taxes by setting up foreign subsidiaries have obvious advantages in bidding for military contracts.
Payroll taxes can be a significant cost, he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "If you are bidding against [rival construction firms] Fluor and Bechtel, it might give you a competitive advantage."
Service Employers International was set up in 1993, as Brown & Root was ramping up its roster of overseas workers. Two years later, the company set up Overseas Administrative Services, which serves more senior workers and provides a pension plan.
The parent company became Kellogg Brown & Root in 1998, when it joined with the oil-pipe manufacturer, M. W. Kellogg.
Around that time, KBR lost its exclusive contract to provide logistical support to the US military. But in 2001 it outbid DynCorp to win it back, by agreeing to a maximum profit of 3 percent of costs.
Then, in 2002, the firm received a secret contract to draw up plans to restore Iraq's oil production after the US-led invasion of Iraq. The Defense Department has said the firm was chosen mainly for its assets and expertise, not its ability to control costs.
Nonetheless, KBR's top competitors in Iraq do not appear to have gone to the same lengths to avoid taxes. Other top Iraq war contractors - including Bechtel, Parsons, Washington Group International, L-3 Communications, Perini, and Fluor - told the Globe that they pay Social Security and Medicare taxes for their American workers.
"It has been Fluor Corporation's policy to compensate our employees who are US citizens the same as if they worked in the geographic United States," said Keith Stephens, Fluor's director of global media relations. "With the exception of hardship and danger pay additives for work performed in Iraq, they receive the same benefits as their US-based colleagues, and Fluor pays or remits all required US taxes and payroll burdens, including FICA payments and unemployment insurance."
Only one other top contractor, the construction and logistics firm IAP Worldwide Services Inc., said it employs a "limited number" of Americans through an offshore subsidiary.
Officials at DynCorp, the company that KBR outbid for the logistics contract, did not return numerous calls.
KBR is now widely believed to be the largest private employer of foreigners in Iraq, and it hires twice as many workers through its Cayman Island subsidiaries as it does by direct hires. Service Employers International alone employs more than 20,000 truck drivers, electricians, accountants, and engineers, roughly half of whom are American, according to Browne, the KBR spokeswoman.
KBR declined to release salary information. But workers interviewed by the Globe who served in a range of jobs said they earned between $48,000 and $85,000 per year. If KBR's American workers averaged even as much as $63,000 per year, they and KBR would have owed more than $100 million per year in Social Security and Medicare taxes, split evenly between them. Over the course of the five-year war, their tax bill would have been more than $500 million.
In 2004, auditors with the Pentagon's Defense Contract Audit Agency questioned KBR about the two Cayman Island companies but ultimately made no complaint. The auditors told the Globe in an email exchange facilitated by Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Brian Maka that any tax savings resulting from the offshore subsidiaries "are passed on" to the US military.
Browne, the KBR spokeswoman, said the loss to Social Security could eventually be offset by the fact that the workers will receive less money when they retire, since benefits are generally based on how much workers and their companies have paid into the system.
Medicare, however, does not reduce benefits for workers who don't contribute, and Browne acknowledged that KBR has not calculated the impact of its tax practices on the government as a whole.
She said KBR does not save money from the practice, since its contracts allow for its labor expenses to be reimbursed by the US military. But the practice gives KBR a competitive advantage over other contractors who pay their share of employment taxes.
And critics of tax loopholes note that the use of offshore shell companies to avoid payroll taxes places a greater burden on other taxpayers.
"The argument that by not paying taxes they are saving the government money is just absurd," said Robert McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice, a Washington advocacy group.
To the people listed as its workers, Service Employers International Inc. - known to them as SEII - remains something of a mystery.
"Does anybody know what or where in the Grand Cayman Islands SEII is located?" a recently returned worker wrote in a complaint about the company on JobVent.com, an employment website. He speculated that the office in the Cayman Islands must be "the size of a jail cell . . . with only a desk and chair."
In fact, the address on file at the Registry of Companies in the Cayman Islands leads to a nondescript building in the Grand Cayman business district that houses Trident Trust, one of the Caymans' largest offshore registered agents. Trident Trust collects $1,000 a year to forward mail and serve as KBR's representative on the island.
The real managers of Service Employers International work out of KBR's office in Dubai. KBR and Halliburton, which also moved to Dubai, severed ties last year.
Both KBR and the US military appear to regard Service Employers International and KBR interchangeably, except for tax purposes. According to the Defense Contract Auditing Agency, KBR bills the Service Employers workers as "direct labor costs," and charges almost the same amount for them as for direct hires.
The contract that workers sign in Houston before traveling to Iraq commits workers to abide by KBR's code of ethics and dispute-resolution mechanisms but states that the agreement is with Service Employers International.
Some workers said they were told that Service Employers International was just KBR's payroll company. Others mistook the name as a reference to the well-known, large union, Service Employees International.
Henry Bunting, a Houston man who served as a procurement officer for a KBR project in Iraq in 2003, said he first found out that he was working for a foreign subsidiary when he looked closely at his paycheck.
"Their whole mindset was deceit," Bunting said. He said that he wrote to KBR several times asking for a W-2 form so he could file his taxes, but that KBR never responded.
David Boiles, a truck driver in Iraq from 2004 to 2006, said that he realized he was working for Service Employers International when he arrived in Iraq and his foreman told him he was not a KBR employee, despite the fact that his military-issued identification card said "KBR."
"At first, I didn't believe him," Boiles said.
Danny Langford, a Texas pipe-fitter who was sent to work in a water treatment plant in southern Iraq in July 2003, said he, too, initially believed that he was an employee of KBR.
But when he allegedly got ill from chemicals at the plant and was terminated that fall, he said, his application for unemployment compensation was rejected because he worked for a foreign company.
"Now, I don't know who I was working for," he said in a telephone interview.
For decades Congress has sought to crack down on corporations that use offshore subsidiaries to lower their taxes, but most of the debates have focused on schemes that reduce corporate income taxes, not payroll taxes. Last year a Senate subcommittee estimated that US corporations avoid paying $30 and $60 billion annually in income taxes by using offshore tax havens.
Senators Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat; Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat; and Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, are trying to pass the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, which would give the US Treasury Department the authority to take special measures against foreign jurisdictions that impede US tax enforcement.
American companies that evade payroll taxes face fines or other criminal penalties. The use of foreign subsidiaries to avoid payroll taxes, while allowed by the Defense Department, may still be subject to challenge by the Internal Revenue Service, according to Eric Toder, a former director of the office of research for the IRS.
Toder said the IRS could try to take action against a firm if the sole purpose of setting up an offshore subsidiary was to reduce tax liability. The practice could become a more costly problem in the future, Toder said, as an increasing number of American companies register subsidiaries overseas and bring American employees to work abroad.
"It obviously looks unseemly where you have a situation where, if you did it in a straightforward way, they would pay payroll taxes," Toder said. "If this becomes the norm, and other companies do that as well, it could further erode the tax base."
Peter Singer, a specialist in the outsourcing of military functions at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, said the practice will probably attract more scrutiny in the future, as the military expands its outsourcing and as workplaces become increasingly global.
"It is fascinating and troubling at the same time," Singer said. "If you are an executive in a company, you are thinking: 'Wow. Cash savings and a potential loophole from certain domestic laws, lawsuits, and taxes. It's win-win.' But if you are a US taxpayer, it is not a positive synergy."
Globe correspondents Stephanie Vallejo and Matt Negrin contributed to this report.
A Boston GLOBE EDITORIAL
"War profiteering by tax dodge"
March 7, 2008
FOR YEARS, companies more interested in profits than patriotism have registered overseas or used foreign subsidiaries to avoid US taxes. Now a major Pentagon contractor once managed by Vice President Dick Cheney is using Cayman Islands shell companies to help it and its workers escape US payroll taxes.
KBR, the largest private contractor for the Pentagon in Iraq, has two shell companies in the Caymans, that, for bookkeeping purposes, employ about 10,500 Americans in Iraq. Because the companies are offshore, neither KBR nor the workers must pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, allowing the company and its workers to avoid paying about $100 million a year, according to Globe reporter Farah Stockman.
The revelation should give impetus to bills, including one sponsored by Senator John F. Kerry, that would close loopholes for companies registering overseas. "Failing to contribute to Social Security and Medicare thousands of times over isn't shielding the taxpayers they claim to protect," Kerry said. "It's costing our citizens in the name of short-term corporate greed."
The principal losers in KBR's tax dodge are US taxpayers. Even though KBR and the workers do not pay Medicare taxes, the employees still will be eligible for benefits eventually, hastening the predicted depletion of the Medicare fund. The workers themselves stand to lose out if they are laid off. Through its shell companies, KBR also avoids unemployment taxes in Texas, where it is registered, and its employees get no unemployment benefits.
When KBR set up the second of its two shells in the Caymans, it was still owned by Halliburton. Halliburton's chief executive then was Cheney. His office referred inquiries into the matter to Cheney's personal lawyer, who has not replied to inquiries from the Globe.
A KBR spokeswoman said the company does not save money by avoiding the taxes, because its contracts call for the Pentagon to reimburse it for all its employee costs. But evading the payroll taxes gives KBR a competitive edge when it bids against other contractors in Iraq. KBR cannot claim that everyone is doing it. Stockman could identify just one other major contractor among the 10 leading ones in Iraq that has set up a foreign subsidiary in this way.
The Pentagon has known of the KBR loophole, but has not complained about it, on the grounds that the savings are passed on to the military. This is a short-sighted view. The Pentagon should not be encouraging contractors to work tax angles that damage the fiscal well-being of the country, even if they provide short-term savings to the military.
Ultimately, though, it is up to Congress to protect the country from these Benedict Arnold CEOs, in Kerry's phrase, by ending all overseas tax havens.
"Iraq contractor fights suit over toxic exposure: Tax loophole may subject construction firm to damages"
By Farah Stockman, Boston Globe Staff, March 25, 2008
WASHINGTON - When the American team arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2003 to repair the Qarmat Ali water injection plant, supervisors told them the orange, sand-like substance strewn around the looted facility was just a "mild irritant," workers recall.
The workers got it on their hands and clothing every day while racing for 2 1/2 months to meet a deadline to get the plant, a crucial part of Iraq's oil infrastructure, up and running.
But the chemical turned out to be sodium dichromate, a substance so dangerous that even limited exposure greatly increases the risk of cancer. Soon, many of the 22 Americans and 100-plus Iraqis began to complain of nosebleeds, ulcers, and shortness of breath. Within weeks, nearly 60 percent exhibited symptoms of exposure, according to the minutes of a meeting of project managers from KBR, the Houston-based construction company in charge of the repairs.
Now, nine Americans are accusing KBR, then a subsidiary of the oil conglomerate Halliburton, of knowingly exposing them to the deadly substance and failing to provide them with the protective equipment needed to keep them safe.
But the workers, like all employees injured in Iraq, face an uphill struggle in their quest for damages. Under a World War II-era federal workers compensation law, employers are generally protected from employee lawsuits, except in rare cases in which it can be proven that the company intentionally harmed its employees or committed outright fraud.
KBR is citing the law, called the Defense Base Act, as grounds to reject the workers' request for damages.
But the company's own actions have undermined its case: To avoid payroll taxes for its American employees, KBR hired the workers through two subsidiaries registered in the Cayman Islands, part of a strategy that has allowed KBR to dodge hundreds of millions of dollars in Social Security and Medicare taxes.
That gives the workers' lawyer, Mike Doyle of Houston, a chance to argue to an arbitration board that KBR is not an employer protected by federal law, but a third-party that can be sued.
KBR's lawyers argued in a legal brief that the workers should be considered employees of KBR because they were part of a corporate subsidiary that was working on a KBR team. The company's spokeswoman, Heather Browne, pointed out that the company's projects in Iraq take place in a "dangerous, unpredictable environment," but said the firm maintains an "unwavering commitment to safety."
Like domestic workers' compensation plans, the Defense Base Act entitles employees in Iraq to medical care, disability, and death benefits, regardless of who is at fault for the injury. In exchange, it generally prohibits employees from seeking any further compensation, even if the employer is at fault.
For this reason, fewer than 10 high-profile lawsuits have been filed against contractors in Iraq. So far, none has been decided in favor of the employees, lawyers say, although some cases are ongoing.
But the law - approved in 1941, a year when few defense contractors were engaged on the front lines - is coming under increasing criticism from Iraq war workers.
"In Iraq, there is so much more at stake," said Marc Miles, a lawyer for the relatives of four men working for the security company Blackwater USA, who were killed by a mob in 2004. "If the employer is negligent, the employee doesn't just slip and fall and hurt his back. The employee could be killed or dismembered."
Yet in almost all cases, if an employer puts profit over safety in Iraq, an injured employee has no right to collect anything beyond medical care and a portion of his or her salary while out of work, Miles said.
"If [companies] are looking at their bottom line, and looking at profit, they would tend to cut the services and equipment that might be necessary to protect the employees' lives, because there would be no recourse for doing so," he said.
The workers at the Qarmat Ali plant now say KBR's managers discouraged them from raising safety concerns about the chemical and were slow to take action to mitigate health risks because they didn't want to miss their deadline for finishing the work.
"What was done to us, I believe, it's criminal," said Danny Langford , a motor specialist from Texas who worked in the most contaminated room in the facility. "I think it was deliberate. They wanted this six month job - get you in, get you out, and send you on your way, and 10 years later you start dying of cancer."
The job at Qarmat Ali began shortly after the US-led invasion of Iraq. In the run-up to the war, KBR signed a secret, no-bid contract to revive Iraq's oil fields after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The Qarmat Ali plant was a crucial part of that project, responsible for pumping water through the desert and into the oil fields to provide the pressure necessary to pump oil from the ground. Sodium dichromate was mixed into the water to prevent the oil pipes from rusting. The chemical contains the most toxic form of chromium, the substance responsible for poisoning people in Hinkley, Calif., in a case highlighted by the movie "Erin Brockovich."
Max Costa, an expert witness in the Hinkley case who is chairman of the Department of Environmental Medicine at New York University Medical Center, said the chemical is damaging, even in very small doses.
"You cannot be exposed," he said. "It gets into your cells, damages your DNA, depresses your immune system, and down the road, it causes cancer."
KBR managers knew as early as June 22 that the chemical was sodium dichromate, according to a KBR safety log from Qarmat Ali submitted to the arbitration board in Doyle's case.
But little was done to mitigate the harm, according to interviews with four former workers. One worker, who decided not to join Langford's complaint for fear of retaliation, said a supervisor and a chemical engineer assured him the chemical was harmless. "They said, 'No, it's safe, everything's fine,' so we continued to work," he recalled. "We had it all over us."
Then Edward Blacke, a health and safety representative on the project employed by one of KBR's Cayman Island subsidiaries, began to do his own Web research.
"I discovered that it was a real bad actor," Blacke said in a telephone interview from his home in Arizona. "It was fatal to swallow. Very harmful on contact with skin, respiratory tract burns, anything that dealt with a mucus membrane." He also learned that it attacks the liver and kidneys and increases the risk of cancer.
Blacke said he tried to raise safety concerns about it to his supervisors, but "the response was, 'Don't get involved. This is not your area,' " he said. "They said that I was blowing this thing out of proportion."
At the end of July, after a chemical specialist based in Kuwait who had just visited the plant wrote an e-mail to KBR project managers urging that they warn workers of the health hazards, the managers authorized warning signs to be displayed, according to copies of e-mails written by KBR staff.
But Blacke, who resigned from the project that August, felt more needed to be done. Workers were complaining of nosebleeds, eye problems, and inexplicable shortness of breath.
"We didn't know what it was," Langford said. "I kept going to the [Human Resources] department when we went back to Kuwait. They kept giving me pills. They said that maybe we were allergic to the sand. I said, 'I have been around sand all my life, and I have never been allergic to it.' "
After a series of worker complaints, two KBR staff members visited the site Aug. 9 and took air and soil samples. A memo about their trip described "piles of dark orange crystalline material" around the plant, noting that it was "most likely pure sodium dichromate."
The memo also said Iraqi workers with the state-owned Southern Oil Co. were observed eating their lunches on the floor next to the chemical tanks, and that one worker who had been shoveling contaminated sludge into a wheelbarrow without protection showed them ulcers on his chest and abdomen.
At the end of August, KBR managers announced that the air samples showed just negligible amounts of sodium dichromate in the air. But technicians at A & B Environmental Services, the Houston lab that tested the air samples, told the Globe that the method used to collect the air samples was not suitable for detecting the toxic substance. Around the same time, KBR workers persuaded their managers to test their blood for contamination.
The results showed "elevated chromium levels" in the men's blood, according to Michael Kilpatrick, the military's deputy director of Force Health Protection and Readiness, who was briefed on the situation at Qarmat Ali because some US soldiers had contact with the plant.
Although the blood tests were not sophisticated enough to conclusively prove that the chromium in their blood came from the toxic form present at Qarmat Ali, a senior KBR project manager in the Middle East called workers together and announced that he planned to clean up the site.
"They got up in front of us and said, 'We got the blood samples back, and y'all do have some exposure to chromium in your blood,' " Langford said, adding that the most senior manager told the workers they would be wasting their time to file a lawsuit. "He said, 'It's a war zone. Things happen like this.' "
KBR managers mandated that personal protective gear be used at the site, but when the crew arrived in September to help clean up the contamination, there was not enough gear to go around, according to a memo to KBR managers from a safety representative.
Kilpatrick confirmed that the impetus for mitigating the risk of the chemical "came from the workers themselves." He said he had no information about why KBR waited until mid-August to take action. "There may have been issues of not understanding what perhaps people were at risk from," he said.
Now Langford and his former co-workers face uncertain medical futures. When Langford returned to the United States, he underwent a time-consuming blood-filtering treatment, which KBR's insurance company paid for. But none of the other men interviewed by the Globe had taken such a step, and it is unclear whether the treatment mitigates the risk of cancer.
Bobby Boycher, 43, an electrician from Leesville, La., who installed electrical equipment at Qarmat Ali, has no health insurance now. "It's totally terrified me," Boycher said. "It's changed my life."
If any of the men do develop cancer, they can present evidence of the link to their time at Qarmat Ali and attempt to get their medical treatment paid for by Defense Base Act insurance, according to Chris Winans, a spokesman for AIG, KBR's provider of Defense Base Act insurance. But Winans acknowledged that the more time that passes, the harder it will be to prove a link.
Blacke said that the firm should do more to ensure that the workers do not have to fight for medical treatment if they get sick, and that KBR should pay damages for putting workers' health at risk. "I'm hoping that KBR will step up and say, 'We made a mistake,' " Blacke said.
So far, that looks unlikely. But Doyle hopes the arbitration board will be persuaded that his clients were not KBR employees - because they were hired through the company's Cayman Islands subsidiaries - and therefore allow him to hold KBR accountable for putting the workers' lives at risk.
"I wouldn't be doing this if at the end of the day I didn't think I could do something for the people I'm representing," said Doyle. "But the reality is, so far, they have pretty much been able to escape scot-free."
"The Iraq wars: Confused by the war in Iraq? No wonder. There isn't just one, there are three."
By Juan Cole, The Boston Globe, IDEAS, Sunday, April 13, 2008
AT LAST WEEK'S Iraq hearings on Capitol Hill, amid the talk of progress, withdrawal timetables, and casualty numbers, one crucial question was largely ignored: How much of Iraq can American troops really expect to fix?
American leaders and media tend to focus on the insurgency in Baghdad and its environs, but that's only a small part of the total picture. When the United States toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, it engendered a series of power struggles around the country.
Today Iraq is embroiled in three separate civil wars, only one of which has involved US troops in a significant way. These three conflicts have generated most of the country's violence, and are intensively reported on in the Iraqi press, which I follow closely.
The next president will inherit these ongoing Iraqi and regional conflicts - and the vexing question of how, and whether, America can address them. Amid the high-level generalizations about the Iraq war, these are the conflicts the candidates - and the country - really need to be considering.
The chief news of the past two weeks has come from Basra, where Iraq's central government mounted a major military push against the supporters of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The sudden campaign surprised many observers, but shouldn't have: Even before the recent fighting, Basra was divided by an armed power struggle among al-Sadr and two other fundamentalist Shia parties.
Basra, which abuts Iran, is crucial to Iraq's economy. Not only does it produce 80 percent of Iraq's oil, but most of the country's imports and exports travel through the ports of this Persian Gulf province. The region is largely Shi'ite, and its elected provincial council is divided almost evenly between the fundamentalist Islamic Virtue Party and the fundamentalist Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by pro-Iranian cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. Both organizations have their own militias. So does al-Sadr, the nationalist cleric who lives in Najaf but has been growing in power and popularity here, especially in the slums.
The various factions have engaged in repeated turf wars, seeking rights to gasoline and kerosene smuggling, which is worth billions of dollars a year. The lawlessness is compounded by tribal mafias formed by clans displaced from the marshes by Saddam Hussein, which also compete for oil smuggling rights and protection rackets.
There are only about 500 US troops in the Basra area. Britain, the chief Western power here, has drawn down to only 4,700 troops, stationed out at the airport.
On March 24, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki came down to Basra to oversee an Iraqi military push to disarm al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army. US fighter-bombers gave the division close air support and some special operations forces joined the fighting, But the Mahdi Army militiamen fought back successfully with rocket propelled grenades and intensive sniper fire, stopping the Iraqi 14th Division in its tracks. At least a thousand, and perhaps a few thousand, government officers and troops deserted their posts. Some of them, along with members of local police, defected to the Mahdi Army.
The government needs the receipts from Basra's petroleum and other exports to function, so if security here cannot be restored, the survival of the central government in Baghdad could be endangered.
The Kurds of northern Iraq have long resisted being governed by Baghdad at all. Sunni Muslims for the most part, they speak an Indo-European language related to English, and they feel a stronger kinship with Kurdish speakers in nearby Iran, Syria, and Turkey than they do with the Iraqi government. They were ruthlessly oppressed by Saddam Hussein, and after the first Gulf War the United States established a no-fly zone to protect them. The Iraqi Kurds established their own autonomous government, the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Kurdish leaders want to annex the oil-rich Kirkuk Province, which neighbors the zone they control. An Iraqi Kurdistan that owned the Kirkuk oil fields could emerge as a regional powerhouse. This would threaten not only Iraq's government, but also its neighbors - especially Turkey, which has a restless Kurdish minority of its own.
Worried about a more powerful Kurdistan, Turkish officials have warned that they would go to war rather than let the Iraqi Kurdish government have Kirkuk. Moreover, Kirkuk is a mixed province inhabited by many Arabs and Turkmen, who are violently opposed to being annexed by the Kurds. In addition, the Kurdish zone within Iraq appears to be giving safe harbor to guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which had waged an ugly campaign of terrorism in eastern Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s, and which met with an equally brutal response from the Turkish military. In the past seven months, the border with Turkey has heated up: PKK guerrillas have slipped from Iraq into Turkey to kill dozens of Turkish troops; Turkey has responded by bombing border villages in Iraq where the guerrillas hole up, and even crossing the Iraqi border to attack the PKK in Iraq.
The Kirkuk and PKK issues make northern Iraq one of the world's most dangerous powder kegs. And the US finds itself caught between two allies, the Kurds who resisted Saddam and the Turks who represent America's closest ally in the Muslim world. There are almost no US troops in the far north of Iraq, limiting the ability to intervene.
The best-case scenario is that the Kurds back off their expansionist goals. At worst, a Kurdish conflict with other Iraqis could break out at the same time Turkey invaded, destabilizing the entire eastern Mediterranean.
When Americans think of the war in Iraq, they're mostly thinking about the fight for control of the capital. This is where most US troops are stationed. Baghdad also sits on the country's cultural and religious fault line: It is where the Shi'ite south meets the largely Sunni west and center.
Saddam Hussein made Baghdad his power base and an axis of Arab nationalism, capitalizing on its reputation as an ancient hub of Islamic civilization. Today, whoever controls the capital can hope to control the whole country.
After the fall of Saddam, the formerly elite Sunni Arabs who disproportionately populated his Baath Party were pushed out of government jobs and lost their positions in the officer corps. The majority Shi'ites, traditionally disadvantaged, won control of the government in elections - which is especially important here because the government now provides most of the employment in Baghdad. The current Iraqi government, and thus much of Baghdad, is run by Shi'ites for Shi'ites.
Groups of disadvantaged Sunnis are waging an armed insurgency against this government and the US troops supporting it. They are also engaged in a subterranean war with the Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps, the two most powerful Shi'ite militias, which now dominate the capital.
In 2006, Sunni Arabs bombed an important Shia shrine, the Golden Dome in Samarra, setting off a sectarian civil war in Baghdad and surrounding provinces in which as many as 2,500 were killed each month. This massive bloodletting triggered the 2007 US surge.
The Shi'ites were winning the sectarian war even in 2006. Under the cover of the surge, in which the United States began by disarming Sunni Arab insurgents, leaving those neighborhoods defenseless, the Shi'ite militias swept in at night and ethnically cleansed the Sunnis. When the United States took Baghdad in 2003, it was about half Sunni and half Shi'ite. In January 2007, Baghdad was 65 percent Shi'ite. By summer of 2007 it was 75 percent Shi'ite. Hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs were displaced to Syria.
By now, Baghdad is very largely a Shi'ite city, a humiliating blow to Sunni Arab nationalism. This creates a deeply unstable situation: Sunni Iraqis are highly unlikely to accept this defeat, and they have wealthy backers and many have military experience. When the displaced Sunnis run out of money and come back from Syria - or are expelled by Syria as an insupportable financial burden - the fragile capital could see a second round of civil war, threatening any stability the country of Iraq has managed to achieve.
Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan and author, most recently, of "Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East."
"3 Mass. congressmen want UN to replace US troops in Iraq"
By Bryan Bender, (Boston) Globe Staff, June 26, 2008
WASHINGTON - Three Massachusetts congressmen called for a United Nations security force to replace American troops in Iraq as part of a phased plan for withdrawing US soldiers after a new president takes office in January.
Yesterday's proposal, sponsored by Representatives James P. McGovern, John F. Tierney, and William D. Delahunt, calls for an end to ongoing talks between the United States and Iraq on a long-term security agreement. Instead, according to the proposal, US authorities should immediately start negotiations with the UN on a mandate to govern the "internationalization of responsibility for aid and support to Iraq."
The current UN mandate, under which American forces legally operate in the country, expires on Dec. 31. The US and Iraqi governments have no plans to seek its renewal and are drawing up a bilateral agreement that could keep US forces in the country indefinitely.
McGovern, a Democrat from Worcester, said such an agreement "will lead to a US commitment to endless war." Congress, he said, must help the next president chart an alternative.
"For those of us who opposed the war, it is not enough to say the war was a mistake and we should immediately withdraw," McGovern told reporters in a conference call by the Project on Defense Alternatives at the Commonwealth Institute, a Cambridge-based independent research center that helped draft the report. "Every time we try to bring up the issue of withdrawal, the [Bush] administration shouts 'bloodbath.' They make it seem as if there is no choice but to stay. The fact is there are alternatives."
Those alternatives include normalizing relations with neighboring Syria and seeking a rapprochement with Iran, two nations that have been blamed for fomenting some of the civil strife within Iraq, according to the 30-page report. The plan also calls for "vigorous diplomatic steps" to stop the flow of arms into the country.
The report calls for the United States to stop arming the Iraqi security forces until the UN can independently screen them for members of sectarian militias.
An "international support group" made up of the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Iraq's six neighboring states could help promote reconciliation among the various armed groups in Iraq - with the exception of Al Qaeda terrorists - and begin to address the refugee, food, and other humanitarian problems, according to the report. But the plan hinges on the eventual establishment of "a blue-helmeted peacekeeping force" and calls on the United States to "support the UN in organizing and funding it."
Although McGovern acknowledged that persuading the UN to replace American combat troops "is going to take some serious diplomacy," he insisted that "too much of the discussion in Washington is how to continue the war. Very little, if any, discussion is focused on how best to leave."
"This is a starting point; a blueprint that is subject to discussion and review," Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat, said in an interview.
Tierney, a Salem Democrat, said he hopes the report, which was provided to Congress, "will cause others to fully debate it."
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.
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