Here’s a surprise. Congressional hearings can be enlightening, the caliber of the participants notwithstanding.
In mid-September a Senate Democratic policy committee heard testimony from two truckers about what happened to them while working for KBR. KBR, like Dick Cheney, is a subsidiary of Halliburton. KBR has been in the news a lot since the Iraq invasion began. The invasion did not take place because Mr. Cheney as invasion enthusiast anticipated that his former employer would get millions and millions in contracts that it would incompetently perform. He thought the invading forces would be greeted as liberators and there would be no need for massive reconstruction. He was wrong. Mr. Bush destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure thus creating opportunity for Mr. Cheney’s former employer and proving that even though things may not come out as you anticipate, they may nonetheless have a happy outcome. The war has been a boon for KBR if less so for the Iraqis.
Notwithstanding its great financial good fortune early in the war, KBR suffered lots of bad press because of its post war activities. It overcharged the military by $27.4 million for meals. Two of its employees took kickbacks from a Kuwaiti subcontractor who was providing services to troops in Kuwait. Any relief Halliburton felt that its offspring had stayed out of the headlines for a few months came to an end with reports of the senate testimony of the two KBR truckers.
The truck drivers described for the senators how KBR had sent them and an entire convoy of fuel tankers stretching for many miles, into a known combat zone with inadequately armored accompaniments notwithstanding warnings from the truck drivers that the area was unsafe. The men’s warnings proved well founded. The convoy was attacked and seven civilian drivers and two soldiers were killed. (The truck drivers sued KBR saying KBR knew the proposed route was unsafe since a battle was in progress. The drivers’ suit was thrown out by a Texas judge who said it was the military’s responsibility to protect the trucks and he couldn’t second-guess its decision to send the trucks into dangerous terrain. The lawyer for the truck drivers says he will appeal.)
KBR was not the only company up for an encore performance of incompetence. Parsons too, gave an encore, albeit in a different venue.
Parsons’ first failed performance became public in May and June of 2006 and involved a $243 million contract for construction of 150 health clinics in Iraq awarded to Parsons. Though successful in spending the money, it completed only 20 of the facilities. That proved to be no anomaly. Parsons was given a $99.1 million contract to build the Khan Bani Saad Correctional Facility North of Baghdad by June 2006. In that month it was announced that it could not complete the project before 2008 and the project would cost $13.5 million more than the amount it bid. Its contract was canceled.
Commenting on those episodes that looked to the outsider like incompetence run amuck, Erin Kuhlman, a spokeswoman for Parsons said: ” Parsons performed our work in Iraq in conformance with the contract terms and the directions given to us by the U.S. government. We’re extremely proud of our dedicated employees who have performed very well under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances.”
If Ms. Kuhlman was proud of Parsons in July, her buttons would have popped off after September hearings before a House committee with the amusing name of House Government Reform Committee. In that hearing it was disclosed by a federal inspector that, including the foregoing examples, 13 of 14 major projects built by Parsons were substandard. (The 14th was the Correctional Facility described above.)
Parsons’ greatest triumph among the thirteen, if incompetence is the measure, was the $72 million police college in Baghdad. After the building was completed it turned out its occupants should not have flushed the toilets. Here is how they found that out. After a few weeks of flushing, the connections on the pipes came loose and urine and fecal matter leaked from the ceilings into the student barracks. One part of the barracks had such bad leaks it was called the “rain forest” although what was dripping was not rain. According to reports parts of the facility were irreparably damaged and will have to be destroyed.
Earnest O. Robbins II, a Parsons vice president was asked to explain how such massive failures could occur. He said: “I have some conjectures and that’s all it would be, and that is, it took a while of use for this to manifest itself, for the fittings to come loose or whatever.” To that a dispirited populace can only respond, “whatever”.