An Incredible Tale of Corruption, Greed and War Profiteering

Back in the Sixties, I read an article in Ramparts Magazine detailing the links between then-President Lyndon Johnson and a Texas company named Brown & Root. The story traced their parallel paths, showing how they rose to power and riches by helping each other out over the years.protest

Apparently, this obviously illegal alliance was no secret. You can read all about it today in Wikipedia. But you won’t find what Paul Harvey used to call the rest of the story; that’s still unfolding. And it is not easy to trace because the Houston company has spread like a virus all over the world, and has morphed into many different shapes with many different names.

The bottom line is that for decades, Brown & Root in its various manifestations has maintained close ties with powerful politicians and in return has grown fat on the spoils of war. Back in the Vietnam era, protesters vilified it as “Burn & Loot” on their placards. But that’s not really how Brown & Root makes its money. The company’s services to the military usually comprise such operations as doing the laundry and feeding and housing the troops. I’ll let you guess how the company ends up with these lucrative contracts, and I’ll give you a clue.

Brown & Root (which morphed into Kellogg, Brown & Root LLC and later into KBR Inc.) was until recently a wholly owned subsidiary of Halliburton. And you know who used to be Halliburton’s CEO, don’t you? That’s right: Dick Cheney. As Secretary of Defense in the first Bush administration, Cheney made sure that Brown & Root was looked after, so it was not surprising that he went from public life into a cushy job at Halliburton, which had acquired the Texas company in 1962.

cheneyWhen Cheney (photo at left) retired from Halliburton to run for Vice President, he got a severance package worth $36 million. And he received hundreds of thousands more in “deferred compensation” from Halliburton while Vice President. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Halliburton and its subsidiary, KBR Inc., ended up as possibly the greatest beneficiaries of the Iraq war, which was primarily instigated by Cheney and resulted in the loss of so many American and Iraqi lives.

To make the story even more sordid, the work done by Halliburton and its myriad subcontractors and sub-subcontractors was often shoddy, and in some cases even dangerous. An electrical inspector hired by the Army to help review U.S.-run facilities in Iraq testified that 90 percent of KBR’s wiring in newly constructed buildings in Iraq was not done properly, putting the troops at risk. Thirteen members of the U.S. forces in Iraq reportedly were electrocuted because of faulty wiring in their showers.

Along the way, Halliburton subsidiaries have been involved in one scandal after another. Examples include not only widespread financial hanky-panky but also the gang rape of a female contractor in Iraq, the bribery of Nigerian politicians, and the kidnapping of African workers for military service.

KBR is back in the news today. The Associated Press reveals that a new government report charges “the Defense Department has failed to provide adequate oversight over tens of billions of dollars in contracts to support military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The report, to be presented to the House Oversight and Government Reform’s national security subcommittee on Wednesday, includes a long list of abuses by contractors such as KBR Inc. As the primary contractor in Iraq, KBR has been paid nearly $32 billion since 2001, and, according to the report, “billions of dollars of that amount ended up wasted due to poorly defined work orders, inadequate oversight and contractor inefficiencies.”

The bipartisan commission reports that U.S. reliance on private sector employees has grown to “unprecedented proportions,” yet the government has no central database of who all these contractors are, what they do or how much they’re paid.

That’s news? Way back in February 2007, congressional auditors found billions of dollars of waste in the reconstruction program for Iraq. According to that report, the auditors blamed “layers of subcontractors, poor documentation, and a lack of strong contract management.”

Incompetence? Perhaps. But it’s more probable that the confusion and obfuscation is a deliberately contrived cover for looters. When billions of war dollars are spent without adequate accountability, millions fall between the cracks. And there will always be well-connected vultures stepping over the corpses to collect their share. I am left wondering whether the Iraq War was deliberately started to provide an opportunity for profiteering… Would anyone do something as horrible as that?