KBR shouldn’t be able to sue government, Oregon members of Congress tell the Pentagon
Six Oregon members of Congress released a letter to the Pentagon Saturday urging it resist efforts by defense contractor KBR to have American taxpayers pick up the estimated $100 million bill after a federal court judgement last month in favor of 12 soldiers from the Oregon National Guard.
“Contractors that put our servicemen and women, as well as innocent civilians, at risk should be held accountable,” says the letter to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of defense. “At the very least, U.S. taxpayers must not be the ones paying for their mistakes. We are eager to see this case resolved and to hold accountable those that negligently expose our troops to toxic chemicals.”
The letter was signed by Ron Wyden, Jeff Merkley, Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader. Wyden, Bonamicici and Schrader released the letter at a news conference Saturday. They were joined by about 20 of the Oregon National Guard veterans and their family who were part of the lawsuit against KBR.
The federal jury in Portland ordered KBR to pay $85 million to the 12 Oregon soldiers who were exposed to the carcinogen hexavalent chromium while in Iraq in 2003.
Under a once-classified indemnification clause in the contract, KBR subsequently sued the Army Corps of Engineers to cover about $100 million in damages and legal costs.
Last week, Wyden inserted an amendment into the defense authorization that requires the Pentagon to disclose when it enters into indemnification agreements with contractors like KBR.
– The Oregonian
Taxpayers may not be on the hook for KBR’s legal costs in sodium dichromate suits
It’s not clear who’s going to pay legal costs for defense contractor KBR Inc., which is being sued by National Guard soldiers who accuse the company of knowingly exposing them to a carcinogen.
While the company persuaded the Army Corps of Engineers to write an indemnification clause into its 2003 contract to restore the flow of Iraq’s oil, the Corps has twice refused KBR’s request to cover its costs in the two lawsuits proceeding against it in Oregon and Texas.
Lawyers for KBR say they believe the company is entitled to have its expenses covered by taxpayers but is proceeding through the litigation in the meantime at its own risk and expense, said Geoffrey Harrison of the Houston firm of Susman, Godfrey. The company expects to challenge the Corps’ denial “maybe at the end of the case,” he said.
The indemnification clause was classified, but its existence has emerged in the course of depositions and filings in the lawsuits brought by Oregon and Indiana soldiers. Last month, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to investigate KBR’s “excessive” expenses and the terms under which the Pentagon had provided it “a blank check.”
In 2003, the soldiers from Oregon, Indiana, the United Kingdom and elsewhere were sent to Qarmat Ali in southern Iraq to provide security for KBR’s contractors, who were charged with repairing a water treatment plant. One of the chemicals stored at the plant was sodium dichromate, a powder that contains hexavalent chromium, a potent carcinogen. Some of the chemical compound was loose and drifting at the site and had stained the soil. Soldiers said later they suffered a variety of maladies, from nosebleeds to breathing difficulties, that they believe were caused by exposure to the chemical.
KBR has denied knowingly exposing the soldiers to the carcinogen and suggests that their ailments may have been caused by the harsh conditions of the desert.
A Nov. 18, 2011, letter from a Corps of Engineers contracting officer to a KBR official posted on the website of the Project on Government Oversight spells out the reasons the Corps denied KBR’s request for financial protection.
“It remains my opinion that this clause does not extend to the chemical and industrial hazards resulting in the alleged exposure of U.S. National Guard and British Military Personel who provided site security at Qarmat Ali to sodium dichromate,” wrote John Rodgers for the Corps. “KBR, as the subject matter expert in oil field issues, was responsible for assessing conditions at each site to which it was sent and taking appropriate action to prevent exposure of any personnel at the site to industrial and environmental hazards.”
Further, wrote Rodgers, the Corps disputes KBR’s assertion that the Army “failed to provide benign conditions” the contract called for.
“Both parties to the contract fully understood the conditions in Iraq and the Army interpretation of this provision,” he wrote. “It was not until well after this litigation had been filed that KBR complained that the Army had failed to provide benign conditions.”
Rodgers further noted that the Army has decided to “remain neutral” in the lawsuits against KBR.
Celia Balli, KBR’s senior counsel, noted last week that the government has the ability to step in and assume the defense in the cases against KBR, but has decided not to do so.
When asked if KBR has considered settling the soldiers’ cases, Harrison said no.
“The company is not at all interested in paying any money to settle claims brought by these plaintiffs’ lawyers,” he said.
U.S. Commandos’ New Landlord in Afghanistan: Blackwater
A U.S. Special Forces soldier trains on his MK-12 sniper rifle in Iraq, 2007. Photo: U.S. Navy via Wikimedia
Updated 7:50 a.m.
U.S. Special Operations Forces have a brand new home in Afghanistan. It’s owned and operated by the security company formerly known as Blackwater, thanks to a no-bid deal worth $22 million.
You might think that Blackwater, now called Academi, was banished into some bureaucratic exile after its operatives in Afghanistan stole guns from U.S. weapons depots and killed Afghan civilians. Wrong. Academi’s private 10-acre compound outside Kabul, called Camp Integrity, is the new headquarters for perhaps the most important special operations unit in Afghanistan.
That would be the Special Operations Joint Task Force–Afghanistan, created on July 1 to unite and oversee the three major spec-ops “tribes” throughout Afghanistan, which command some 7,000 elite troops in all. It’s run by Army Maj. Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas, a former deputy commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, and is already tasked with reforming how those elite forces train Afghan villagers to fight the Taliban. And its role is only going to grow in Afghanistan, as regular U.S. forces withdraw by 2014 and the commandos take over the residual task of fighting al-Qaida and its allies. Perhaps that’s why Academi’s no-bid contract runs through May 2015.
Academi spokeswoman Kelley Gannon declined to comment for this story. But it’s highly unusual for U.S. military forces to take up official residence on a privately owned facility. According to Lt. Col. Tom Bryant, the spokesman for Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, it’s only supposed to be temporary, as the command plans to move to Bagram Air Field by summer 2013. But Camp Integrity is already shaping up to be a crucial location for an Afghanistan war that’s rapidly changing.
Peter Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who’s closely studied the private security industry, finds the spec ops’ private HQ unsurprising. “We’ve seen these kind of close, intertwined relationships in the field between the public and private forces before,” he says. “The U.S. military and the CIA, reportedly, have hired these companies to do everything from building bases, running the facilities and logistics, to serving as the guard forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. You get to a certain point where you wonder where the U.S. military and private military roles begin and end. But to me, the interesting question is what have we actually learned from these past experiences?” (Full disclosure: Danger Room editor Noah Shachtman works with Singer at Brookings’ 21 Century Defense Initiative.)
The uber-special ops command’s birth at Camp Integrity apparently occurred for a simple, mundane reason: overcrowding.
In March, the U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees all commando units around the world, instructed a local unit in Afghanistan to prep for the creation of a new force that would encompass all American special operations forces there. The problem was, there wasn’t sufficient space at existing spec-ops facilities to house the 217 additional personnel that made up the initial complement of the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan. “We were forced to look for a temporary home until we were ready to consolidate our operations” at Bagram, Bryant says. So it turned to Academi.
Through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had an existing contract with Academi for operations at Camp Integrity, the commandos awarded Academi a no-bid deal worth $6.6 million in its first year. They jointly determined that “no other vendor” could have accommodated Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan by the July 1 deadline for the command’s establishment, particularly as it needed secure facilities. A deal was reached with Academi for use of Camp Integrity on May 15.
“Meeting the deadline of May 15, 2012 was vital for U.S. national security interests and organic Afghan capabilities of local security and governance,” according to an announcement of the basing deal quietly released this week — over six months after Academi began moving the command into its privately-owned home. Without explanation, the contract further states that failing to set up the new special-ops command on time could have jeopardized the U.S. troop drawdown, thereby imposing “insurmountable costs” for keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan longer.
Academi’s contract for providing the “life support services” to the task force is worth $22.3 million. If all options on the contract are exercised, and the planned move to Bagram takes longer than the command anticipates, it will last until May 2015 — an indication that the special operators’ counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan will continue after most U.S. forces come home after 2014. Last month, Gen. Joseph Dunford, President Obama’s nominee to take over command of the war, said “counterterrorism” would be among the missions of a post-2014 force.
U.S. and Afghan negotiators recently began discussions over the scope of that residual presence, and a big factor in that debate will concern which Afghan bases will host American troops. But it’s less clear what authority U.S. diplomats and Afghan bureaucrats have over a privately-owned base like Camp Integrity, although Academi’s operations are already certified by Afghan authorities.
Academi won’t talk much about Camp Integrity. A spokesman, John Procter, told Danger Room in March that it contains a “24/7 operations center, fueling stations, vehicle maintenance facility, lodging, office and conference space and a fortified armory.” His colleague Gannon declined to elaborate for this story. According to its contract, Academi will provide everything from food to tech support to “armed security services” for the mega-spec ops command at Camp Integrity.
But the commandos won’t be the only U.S. military tenants at Camp Integrity. A Pentagon agency called the Counter-Narcoterrorism Program Office also uses Camp Integrity as a base of operations to aid in its war on Afghanistan’s drug lords. Academi provides the office’s small Kabul cell with, among other things, “a secure armory and weapons maintenance service.”
Academi’s old incarnation, Blackwater, had deep ties to the secretive U.S. special operations community. Founder Erik Prince was a Navy SEAL, and the firm aided the Joint Special Operations Command with counterterrorism targeting and “snatch and grab” operations in Pakistan. But while the new ownership of the rebranded Academi has previously emphasized its differences with the old Blackwater regime, some continuities are on display — like how the military’s newly expanded spy service will rely on Academi for self-defense training.
Bryant, the spokesman for the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, says the command intends to complete a move to Bagram Air Field, one of the major logistical and command hubs of the war, by summer 2013. (Use of Bagram beyond 2014 is likely to be an issue in the U.S.-Afghan negotiations for a residual force.) While the exact date for the move is still “fluid,” Bryant says the move to Bagram should “favorably posture our headquarters for the next 25 months and beyond.” For the time being, the heart of the enduring commando mission in the U.S.’ longest war can be found at the headquarters of its most infamous private security company.