Negligent Homicide

The largest Iraq war contractor, the one most responsible for feeding and taking care of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, has committed "negligent homicide" according to an Army investigator. This investigator's report was leaked to the AP yesterday. KBR, a former division of Halliburton, was deemed responsible for the death of Green Beret Sgt. Ryan D. Maseth, who was electrocuted in Iraq while taking a showed in a KBR maintained shower. At first the death was declared "accidental" by the Army but Maseth's determined mother, Cheryl Harris, pressed the Army to find out the truth.

According to the New York Times, the Army has determined that at least 18 American personnel have been electrocuted in Iraq and that the shoddy electrical work has led to hundreds of fires in US military buildings around Iraq. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Army investigator found that KBR used unqualified electricians and plumbers in the barracks where Maseth was killed. An Army spokesman cautioned that this was not the final decision of the Army and that Army lawyers would have to make the determination of negligent homicide and decide if there would be a criminal prosecution.

I have spent the last five years looking at Iraq war contractors and thirty years looking at defense fraud, so sadly, I am not surprised at this tragic event. In my book, Betraying Our Troops: The Destructive Results of Privatizing War, I found many examples how the contractors, especially KBR, did what they pleased while running up huge costs. It still amazes me, however, that KBR, while billing the government half a billion dollars a month ($500,000,000) and spending over $26 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan so far, had the audacity to hire bad workers. They are literally betraying our troops and the military overseers of KBR have allowed it to happen. I hope that the Army has learned from the Pat Tillman case that hiding the truth only makes them more dishonorable and that they owe it to the troops to get to the truth on this and punish the contractor if appropriate.

But the military will never get control over these contractors until they get control over their lifeline: the money. As I outlined in my last Huffington Post blog, Unauditable, the Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have found that the money trail in the DOD has been out of control for decades. Now the GAO has released a report yesterday showing that the DOD is the worst at overseeing its contracts. When a contractor knows that the oversight is shoddy and the money trail is chaotic, they use it to excessively bill the government and make more money by hiring unqualified personnel. I found in my book that even though KBR had inexperienced personnel, a soldier overseeing the KBR at a base found that they were billing the government 12 hours a day, seven days a week for workers. This soldier said that many of the workers didn't have enough to do and sat around, even though the Army contract said to only bill the hours that the workers actually worked.

Just to give you an inkling on how strapped the overseers in Iraq are to find out information on KBR and other contractors, let me tell you what one Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) auditor told me about her attempt to get documents while investigating KBR in Iraq last year. Usually, this experienced auditor would go ask the government managers (DCMA) of the contractor to get them specific documents in an audit. The DCMA would then go and request the documents from the contractor and give them to the auditor. This auditor, however, was flabbergasted when the DCMA told her that they first had to go to a private contractor named Serco, who would then go to KBR, ask for the documents, review the documents themselves to deem if they were appropriate to the request, summarize the results, send the summary back to DCMA and then DCMA, after a delay, would give the summary to the auditor. All in a war zone. This is privatization of DOD oversight gone mad. The auditors are already understaffed and many inexperienced. They do not have the tools or resources to do their job.

Neither can the Department of Justice in prosecuting Iraq and Afghanistan war fraud. The DOJ and the US Attorneys have also been understaffed and not given the political capital to prosecute these cases. It has been reported that there are over 50 whistleblower (qui tam) Federal False Claims Act cases languishing in DOJ. By law, these cases are under secret seal while the government investigates but they don't have enough resources to do it so these cases remain under seal year after year while the Iraq and Afghanistan war contractors merrily keep running up the costs and fraud.

If the Obama Administration does not want this loss of money and lives to be imported to Afghanistan in larger and larger numbers as we move troops and the contractors to that new war zone, they need to make it a priority within the DOJ to give these cases priority and aggressively prosecute them. There have been calls to lift the secret seals on these cases but that would only help the contractors because the DOJ won't have made their case due to lack of investigation and the contractors will just run to the courts and get the cases thrown out. Instead, the DOJ needs resources and to be given the political backbone to put these cases first for the troops and the beleaguered taxpayer. There are billions of dollars out there to be recovered from over five years of war and, at the very least, we owe it to the troops for them not to lose their lives because some contractor is cutting corners to make more money. It is a dark spot on the DOD that can and must be remedied before this plague keeps getting imported to Afghanistan.