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Friday, December 05, 2008

KBR, a Typical Privatization Story

Today, our service men and women continue to inspire and strengthen our Nation, going above and beyond the call of duty as part of the greatest military the world has ever known. Americans are grateful to all those who have put on our Nation's uniform and to their families, and we will always remember their service and sacrifice for our freedoms.
- George W. Bush, Prayer for Peace, Memorial Day, 2008

There's "above and beyond" and then there's "above and way beyond." Bush, in his "prayer for peace," neglects to tell us just what America's fighting forces are expected to face. We know about the nuts with guns and RPG rounds. We know about the roadside bombs and sectarian violence. We even know about the heat. What we don't get a lot of coverage of is how they're expected to live. Turns out, that's a really big story. And, despite having broken yesterday, it's still not getting a lot of press.

Military Times:

A Georgia man has filed a lawsuit against contractor KBR and its former parent company, Halliburton, saying the companies exposed everyone at Joint Base Balad in Iraq to unsafe water, food and hazardous fumes from the burn pit there.

Joshua Eller, who worked as a civilian computer-aided drafting technician with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, said military personnel, contractors and third-country nationals may have been sickened by contamination at the largest U.S. installation in Iraq, home to more than 30,000 service members, Defense Department civilians and contractors.

“Defendants promised the United States government that they would supply safe water for hygienic and recreational uses, safe food supplies and properly operate base incinerators to dispose of medical waste safely,” according to the lawsuit, filed Nov. 26 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. “Defendants utterly failed to perform their promised duties.”

The details are horrific.We're told about suffering from "skin lesions that subsequently spread, filled with fluid and burst," about "vomiting, cramping and diarrhea," about "severe abdominal pain." Worse, the lawsuit tells the story of "a wild dog running around base with a human arm in its mouth. The human arm had been dumped on the open air burn pit by KBR."

KBR also reused ice from mortuary trucks. Troops were served ice that "still had traces of body fluids and putrefied remains in them..." That's above and beyond the call of duty. That's way beyond anything that should be expected of anyone.

While the lawsuit was filed by a single service member, the Times was able to provide some backup to the claims. "Military Times has received more than 100 letters from troops saying they were sickened by fumes from the burn pits, which burned plastics, petroleum products, rubber, dining-facility waste and batteries," we're told.

KBR has become the world's worst military contractor in the years since they were granted a no-bid contract by a Bush administration intent on providing business to their cronies. KBR's connection to parent company Halliburton had more to do with the contract than anything. Vice President Dick Cheney used to head up Halliburton.

KBR's actions were discovered by the military when they were "were attempting to improperly dispose of medical waste at an open-air burn pit by backing a truck full of medical waste up to the pit and emptying the contents onto the fire." The truck caught fire.

Sadly, this is nothing new. KBR's performance in Iraq has been absolutely criminal. Among the problems with the company is troops being electrocuted in showers, because of shoddy wiring in KBR constructed buildings. The pentagon knew this, but covered it up. KBR knew it, but did likewise. Neocons did what neocons do -- approached the problem as a public relations problem. If you don't know there's a problem, then there is no problem.

There was a time when the military built their own buildings, when they served their own food. But the Republican push to privatize everything under the sun succeeded and those days are gone. The reasoning -- which only works with people who are hopelessly bad at math -- tells us that private companies can always do things cheaper and more efficiently than government, so private companies should do everything government does.

But if there are X resources allocated to government, government can use it all. Private companies only have X-Y to work with, with Y equal to profit. This means cutting corners, which privatization moonies call "efficiency." Saner people call it negligence and fraud.

Worse, since these companies are all about profit, corners are cut acutely. For instance, KBR is accused of a crime that's either false imprisonment or slavery -- you make the call.

McClatchy Newspapers:

About 1,000 Asian men who were hired by a Kuwaiti subcontractor to the U.S. military have been confined for as long as three months in windowless warehouses near the Baghdad airport without money or a place to work.

Najlaa International Catering Services, a subcontractor to KBR, an engineering, construction and services company, hired the men, who're from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. On Tuesday, they staged a march outside their compound to protest their living conditions....

The laborers said they paid middlemen more than $2,000 to get to Iraq for jobs that they were told would earn them $600 to $800 a month. Some of the men took out loans to cover the fees.

According to the report, "The men live in three warehouses with long rows of bunk beds crammed tightly together. Reporters who tried to get a better glimpse inside were ushered away by armed guards." The workers had to pay for the privilege of being imprisoned in a warehouse in Iraq. Now that's profit.

How long are we going to let the privatization moonies pull this crap? We have all the evidence we'll ever need that the whole idea is deeply, deeply flawed. It doesn't work, it encourages fraud and other crimes, and it produces really crappy service. Like the free market moonyism that's been dealt a tremendous blow by the market meltdown, privatization moonyism should be reeling as well.

But the corporate media has been laying down on the job here. They'll report these things, sure -- but then they go away. We're freaking out about bailouts and the celebrity scandal of the week, while soldiers in Iraq are being poisoned and electrocuted, while people are being enslaved, while we're all being ripped off. Every one of these stories should be a huge scandal on the scale of the response to Hurricane Katrina (another failure of privatization, by the way) but they come and go like yesterday's weather report. The stories are reported and then forgotten.

I guess the moral of this story is that if government can do something for itself, then it should. I think the Armed Forces of the United States are probably capable of running a goddam kitchen. I think they can probably throw stuff into a fire as well as anyone else. In fact, as each of these examples demonstrate, they can do it better -- because they couldn't possibly do it worse.

Meanwhile, maybe we can get KBR execs to run a prison kitchen -- personally, while they serve their sentences. Dick Cheney can make the freedom fries.