Sustained Outrage

Oregon Rep. presses Pentagon on KBR contract

As Julie Sullivan at The Oregonian reported this week, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has succeeded in getting the Department of Defense to provide more information about Pentagon contracts with indemnification clauses, or “promises that taxpayers will pick up the tab in cases where military contractors incur liability while executing contracts,” as Blumenauer’s announcement puts it.

But the DoD still won’t declassify KBR’s Project RIO (short for Restore Iraqi Oil) contract, which has resulted in a handful of lawsuits by members of National Guard units exposed to the toxic chemical sodium dichromate (a form of hexavalent chromium) while stationed at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in 2003.

West Virginia and Oregon-based units are among those who have sued KBR. (See previous coverage here, here, here and here.)

Sullivan explains:

Who pays when a military contractor causes harm has become a key issue in an Oregon lawsuit in which 34 National Guard soldiers have sued KBR. They allege that while guarding KBR’s operations, they were exposed to a rust-fighter piled around the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in 2003. It contained the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, and soldiers say they suffer serious health problems from it.

KBR collected $2.5 billion in its no-bid contract to get Iraqi oil flowing.

A deposition filed last summer in U.S. District Court in Portland revealed that on the eve of the Iraq invasion, a KBR attorney won a secret clause ensuring that U.S. taxpayers, and not KBR, would pay in the event of any death or injury.

The Oregonian has obtained a letter dated Feb. 18, 2010 in which KBR managers indicate that potential total costs of soldiers’ claims against KBR could be more than $150 million, Sullivan wrote.

“KBR does not believe that the company is liable for any damages,” KBR’s Michael Morrow wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But he wrote that KBR continues to incur research and legal fees, and would bill the government for allowable costs not paid by insurance.

In a news release announcing that the Pentagon had provided details on 123 contracts with liability clauses, Blumenauer promised to keep pushing for answers on the terms of KBR’s contract.

“This is a victory for transparency in the military’s contracting process,” said Blumenauer. “By uncovering more than 120 military contracts that include taxpayer liability provisions, this inquiry has given taxpayers a broad picture of where their money is – and could be – going.”

The documents cover a range of military contracts for work conducted in the U.S. and in Iraq. They show taxpayer liability clauses in contracts granted to (among others) the makers of the anthrax and smallpox vaccines, firms operating hazardous materials facilities in the United States and a company tasked with recovering potential radioactive materials during the Iraq invasion.

Here’s a link to information provided by the DoD. The release continued:

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What we’re reading: Veterans Day edition

Today we join with the rest of the country in honoring the men and women who have served in the military, as well as those who continue to serve.

The number of women veterans who are homeless has doubled over the last decade to 6,500, NPR reported. Most of them are under the age of 35, an indication of how many women are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Re-acclimating to civilian life can be difficult, and sometimes female veterans are hesitant to turn to the male-dominated Veterans’ Administration for help. “The groups that [the VA] did have around the area were almost all men,” one female veteran told NPR. “And most of them did not believe that women were combat veterans. Most of them didn’t believe women were veterans period — that we don’t serve that much of a purpose in the military. And definitely in a combat zone.”

A year in Afghanistan spent detecting bombs has given members of Oregon Army National Guard’s 162nd Engineer Company a new appreciation of life, as this story in the Oregonian illustrates. On one day in March, two sergeants survived explosions from four separate improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Both Staff Sgt. Joe Seeger and Sgt. Brandon Bertilson were awarded the Bronze Star. The article notes: “Among the 222 awards members of the unit received were 62 Army Commendation Medals, four mechanics badges, five Purple Hearts and 14 Bronze Stars.”

Vanity Fair profiled Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since Vietnam, in its December issue. As a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, First Platoon, Battle Company, in Afghanistan in October 2007, Giunta saw two enemy combatants carrying off his close friend, Sgt. Josh Brennan. Giunta shot and killed one of the men and wounded the other, rescuing his friend, who had been hit eight times and died at a U.S. base the next day. Says Giunta: “Every single person that I’ve been with deserves to wear it, deserves to . . .They are just as much of me as I am. This isn’t a one-man show.”

Near the Kandahar Air Field, soldiers play hockey, substituting sneakers and a ball for skates and a puck, Stars and Stripes reported. The rink, which was completed in 2006 mostly by Canadian engineers, has a floor rather than ice, and has become a central park of non-combat life for many serving in Kandahar. There is now a Kandahar Hockey League, with two four-month seasons a year. Out of 24 teams, only one is made up of American soldiers, with most of the others composed of Canadians. But the rink and the league has attracted attention from the rest of the hockey world: Last spring, former National Hockey League players brought the Stanley Cup for a visit.

Oregon judge considers allowing KBR appeal

A civil lawsuit by members of the Oregon National Guard who were exposed to toxic chemicals at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in Iraq in 2003 against the civilian contractors overseeing the project is proceeding, even while a federal judge considers allowing the contractor to appeal his ruling.

As Julie Sullivan at The Oregonian reported, U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Papak told attorneys for both sides to prepare for trial, but did not rule out the possibility of allowing KBR to pursue its appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Attorneys for Kellogg, Brown and Root seek an unusual appeal of Papak’s early decisions. They claim that suing a battlefield contractor for the U.S. military raises “unprecedented” legal questions that should be decided by the higher court first. Other federal judges have ruled in KBR’s favor in suits in Indiana and West Virginia, saying their courts lack jurisdiction.

The Oregon judge twice has rejected those arguments.

If the 9th agrees to hear the case, the process could delay a trial for years — or end the case outright.

Oregon Army National Guard vets sued KBR last year, claiming the company downplayed or disregarded hexavalent chromium at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant. The soldiers say they were sickened by their exposure to the cancer-causing chemical.

Attorneys for the Oregon vets — about 34 are expected to be on the final case — say KBR is stalling.

“We just want to get these guys in court,” David Sugerman, of Portland, told the judge.

KBR attorney Jeffrey Eden, of Portland argued that “If we are correct and we end up in 24 months with a jury verdict and the 9th Circuit agrees with us, we have just wasted two years and countless resources.”

As I noted earlier, the West Virginia plaintiffs have joined a lawsuit in Texas, where KBR is headquartered. That case is scheduled to go to trial in May 2012.

You can read previous coverage of KBR and sodium dichromate exposure here, here, here and here. KBR has posted a factsheet here.

Homelessness a problem for Iraq and Afghanistan vets

In case our readers missed it, CBS News’ 60 Minutes aired a powerful segment yesterday (watch the video here, read the story here) on the growing ranks of homeless veterans in America. Correspondent Scott Pelley went to Stand Down, an annual gathering for veterans that started in 1988.

Back then, it was an emergency response to homelessness among Vietnam vets but, 23 years later, [co-found and soldier-turned-clinical psychologist Jon] Nachison is welcoming the generation from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stand Down is a three day campout that’s part job fair, part health clinic, part sobriety meeting. The name is a military term for the time when a solider can put down his weapon and stop fighting. The homeless go for a shot at redemption.

A few things really stand out from the piece.

— Two million Americans have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

— Of those, 800,000 have been deployed more than once.

— 250,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have asked for mental health treatment.

— The Veterans Administration told CBS that 9,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets are already homeless.

Interestingly, the latest figures from the Congressional Budget Office estimate that the cost of treating veterans will only grow by 45 to 75 percent by 2010, to between $65 and $89 billion.

Although veterans from recent conflicts will represent a fast-growing share of enrollments in VA health care over the next decade, the share of VA’s resources devoted to the care of those veterans is projected to remain small through 2020, in part because they are younger and healthier than other veterans served by VA.

The 60 Minutes piece also does a good job at showing how slippery the slope from barracks to homelessness can be. Every soldier has a different story, and I don’t mean to generalize, but it’s easy to see a recurring pattern. A soldier returns from combat experiences with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (possibly made worse by a concussive head wound, particularly prevalent in Iraq and Afghanistan), and has trouble acclimating to civilian life. He or she might try to self medicate with drugs and alcohol, and end up with a substance abuse problem, which in turn might result in problems holding down a job, money problems, and strained relationships with loved ones, all of which contribute to homelessness.

Stand Down, and its heroic efforts to help struggling veterans connect with much-needed avenues of support, is a reminder of how the men and women who have put themselves in harms way for our country deserve better treatment — medical and otherwise — when they get home. And as a society, we need to make sure we don’t criminalize veterans for behavior that really requires treatment, not punishment.

KBR update: W.Va. National Guard case pending in Texas

As a follow up to my last post about the deal between KBR and the Pentagon regarding the contractor’s liability stemming from Project RIO, or Restore Iraqi Oil, in which American and British soldiers and civilians were exposed to the toxic chemical sodium dichromate, I wanted to update the status of the lawsuits filed by West Virginia National Guardsmen.

While the cases were dismissed in August in federal court in West Virginia, the members of the West Virginia National Guard’s 1092nd Engineer Battalion have joined pending litigation in Texas (where KBR is headquartered) alongside members of the Indiana National Guard and the Royal Air Force’s Ground Regiment Gunners.

I’ve posted a copy of the lawsuit, provided by state Sen. Jeff Kessler, who represents a bunch of the West Virginia guardsmen, here. KBR’s general response to allegations relating to Qarmat Ali can be found here.

Here’s an excerpt from the lawsuit:

As stated by Lieutenant Colonel James Gentry, commanding officer of the Tell City, Indiana Guardsmen at Qarmat Ali, before his untimely death:

“I understand and accept there’s danger with my line of service, in my line of service. What’s very difficult for me to accept is if I’m working for KBR and they have knowledge of hazardous chemicals on the ground that can cause cancer and not share that knowledge, then that is putting my men at risk that is not necessary. I’m very upset over this . . . I feel like they should be ashamed that they did that.”

KBR’s secret deal with the Pentagon

I haven’t written anything about sodium dichromate in a while, in large part because it hasn’t been in the news in West Virginia very much since U.S. District Judge Frederick Stamp dismissed two lawsuits filed by West Virginia National Guardsmen against KBR in August, ruling that he lacked jurisdiction to preside over the cases.

A brief refresher: The guardsmen alleged that KBR, a former Halliburton subsidiary, negligently exposed them and other soldiers from Oregon and Indiana to the highly carcinogenic chemical as they provided security for civilian contractors at the Qarmat Ali water plant in 2003. On its part, KBR has maintained that it was not responsible for the presence of the chemical at the facility, and that American and British soldiers and contractors were not exposed to dangerous levels of the chemical, according to tests performed by the military and KBR. (You can read previous posts here, here, here and here.)

This week, The Oregonian published this story about how members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation have proposed legislation intended to keep the Pentagon from cutting secret deals with contractors — which stay hidden as the terms of the contract are classified — which indemnify the contractor and force taxpayers to pay for any damages.

Oregon Democrats on Wednesday moved to stop the Pentagon from cutting secret deals with war contractors and to keep taxpayers from bailing out negligent contractors.

U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader, and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, introduced a bill in both houses to boost Congressional oversight of defense contracts worth more than $1 million, revoke immunity for harm caused by a contractor’s misconduct, and limit immunity in future agreements.

The legislation is the strongest response yet to an Oregon lawsuit against Kellogg, Brown and Root, a former subsidiary of Halliburton. Twenty six Oregon Army National Guard veterans have sued KBR, saying managers downplayed or dismissed their exposure to a cancer-causing chemical early in the Iraq war. During depositions in U.S. District Court in Portland, a KBR attorney revealed he’d secured a secret agreement that requires taxpayers — not KBR — to pay for any death, injury or property damage during the Restore Iraqi Oil contract.

“We’re trying to come up with a ‘Never again’ policy,” Wyden said. “The private contractor who takes irresponsible risks with our soldiers is going to have to pay a price.”

(My emphasis.) So even if they are found legally responsible for the exposure of hundreds of soldiers and civilians to a highly toxic chemical, KBR won’t have to pay for it, taxpayers will. Because they cut a secret deal with the Pentagon. Julie Sullivan’s article continues:

Last week, Blumenauer redoubled his pressure on KBR. In a Sept. 23 letter, he again asked the Defense Department to declassify the entire KBR contract. And, he asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to list any contractors granted similar immunity. Earlier this summer, the Army insisted KBR’s agreement was unique. But Blumenauer said he has since learned some contractors may have similar protection under the 2003 Defense Appropriations Act or with other branches of the service.

“No company that has done wrong can be allowed to hide behind the government,” Blumenauer wrote. “No government agency can be allowed to hide behind a veil of secrecy.”

Blumenauer also released a research report of allegations against KBR and was troubled by the apparent lack of accountability.

He said he was responding to the plight of the Oregon soldiers who suffer breathing, skin and stomach problems from hexavalent chromium exposure. “For me, it’s keeping faith with the more than two dozen people whose lives were turned upside down.”

In 2003 before the invasion of Iraq, the Army Corps of Engineers signed a no-bid contract with KBR to restore oil production after combat ended. A key site was a Soviet-built plant at Qarmat Ali where water from the Tigris River was injected to drive oil in nearby fields to the surface. The water was treated with sodium dichromate, a rust fighter that contains hexavalent chromium, a well-documented carcinogen.

The Inspector General reported Sept. 17 that 977 men and women from Oregon, Indiana, West Virginia and South Carolina National Guard units and the Corps of Engineers served at the plant. Among them were 277 Oregon Guard between late April and July 2003.

But the troops didn’t know piles of fine orange powder that coated their uniforms was dangerous until 2008, when KBR employees testified of their own health problems at Senate hearings on contractor waste, fraud and abuse.

You can read more about the proposed legislation here, and you can join me in following the Oregonian’s coverage of the sodium dichromate issue here.

Another installment of some work that drew our attention this week.

In the wake of the publication of a staggering amount of classified information related to the war in Afghanistan by Wikileaks, talked to Neil Sheehan, the former New York Times reporter (and Pulitzer Prize winner for his book about Vietnam, A Bright Shining Lie) who was on the receiving end of the Pentagon Papers leak. Propublica also provided a reading list to help put the leak into context.

The Obama administration is looking to make it easier for the FBI to gain certain information about e-mails and Internet activity without a court order, the Washington Post reported. The agency currently uses what are called national security letters, which require the recipient to turn over certain information and to keep the request a secret, the article notes. If the words “electronic communication transactional records” are added to the list of things the FBI can ask for, then companies may be forced to turn over information regarding who an e-mail was sent to, a user’s browser history and the time and date it was sent, but not, government lawyers say, the contents of the e-mail.

One outcome of the recently passed financial reform legislation was exempting the Securities and Exchange Commission from almost all Freedom of Information Act requests, according to this story by Fox Business. Under the new law, the SEC would not have to disclose records or information resulting from “surveillance, risk assessments, or other regulatory and oversight activities.” “Given that the SEC is a regulatory body, the provision covers almost every action by the agency, lawyers say,” the article states. “Congress and federal agencies can request information, but the public cannot.”

Here’s this week’s installment of stories that made us take notice:

A police-led investigation into the shooting of an unarmed pastor in Georgia by members of a drug task force failed to uncover that one of the officers involved wasn’t properly certified to even carry a gun, writes’s Radley Balko. Three masked, undercover officers swarmed Jonathan Ayers after he used an ATM, and they shot him after he grazed an officer with his car as he tried to get away, thinking that he was being robbed. “[T]he aggressive and short-sighted apprehension of Jonathan Ayers that led to his death [is] bad enough. That a police officer untrained in the use of lethal force and unqualified to be holding a badge and gun was put on a narcotics task force, and then placed in a position where he was able to shoot and kill a non-suspect is worse,” Balko concluded. “But the kicker has to be that the subsequent police-led investigations of this high-profile case failed to turn up such a critical piece of information. It ought to cast more doubt on the already dubious notion that police shootings should only be investigated by other police officers.”

Atrocities committed by U.S.-led military forces in Afghanistan — and subsequent misinformation from official sources — are often unreported, unquestioned and unchallenged by a press corps that has become caught up in “embed culture,” says Jerome Starkey, who reports from Afghanistan for the Times of London, in this commentary published by Some reporters, constrained by security policies set in far-off newsrooms and dependent on their military hosts for food, shelter and protection, “prefer access to truth,” Starkey writes.

Parents’ cigarette smoke gives 15,000 kids asthma every year in the United Kingdom, according to a new report from the Royal College of Physicians. Even more develop chest infections and ear problems because of their parents’ second-hand smoke, the Guardian reports.

When veterans become criminal defendants

gavelflagA case from West Virginia is the starting off point for this article in the New York Times about how judges are considering military service when sentencing veterans who become criminal defendants.

Many veterans like Mr. Oldani have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq burdened by post-traumatic stress, drug dependency and other problems. As veterans find themselves skirmishing with the law, judges are increasingly finding ways to provide them with a measure of leniency.

“More and more courts are noticing and asserting, in a variety of ways, that there seems to be some relevance to military service, or history of wartime service, to our country,” said Douglas A. Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University and an expert on sentencing.

At the federal level, judges are bucking guidelines that focus more on the nature of the crime than on the qualities of the person who committed it. States, too, are forming special courts to ensure that veterans in court receive the treatment their service entitles them to.

Per capita, West Virginia has a disproportionately high number of veterans. According to these figures from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, almost one in ten (or 9.6 percent) of the Mountain State’s population served in the military, compared with 7.7 percent nationally.

As the article notes, many veterans are coming home from the Middle East with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

While veterans are not considered to be more likely to be arrested than the rest of the population, estimates released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2008 found 229,000 veterans in local jails and state and federal prisons, with 400,000 on probation and 75,000 on parole.

There are about 1 million veterans of the two current wars in the Veterans Affairs system so far, said Jim McGuire, a health care administrator at the agency. He cited statistics suggesting that 27 percent of active-duty veterans returning to civilian life “were at risk for mental health problems” including post-traumatic stress syndrome.

In February 2009, Timothy Oldani, of Scott Depot, pleaded guilty to selling night vision optics that his brother, Joseph Oldani, stole while serving at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina. U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers, who presides in Huntington, not Charleston, as the Times bylined its story, gave Joseph Oldani 21 months in prison, while Timothy Oldani received a five-month prison sentence.

According to a Gazette brief from June 2009, Chambers told Timothy Oldani during his sentencing hearing: “You were an excellent soldier. You served with honor and bravery, but that is not a free pass to probation.”

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Sodium dichromate update

As I reported earlier, the Department of Veterans Affairs has promised careful medical monitoring for soldiers (including members of the West Virginia National Guard’s 1092nd Engineer Battalion) who were exposed to the toxic chemical as they guarded the Qarmat Ali water plant in Iraq in 2003.

I promised earlier to post links to‘s investigation into what happened at Qarmat Ali. You can read No Contractor Left Behind Part III: “Just Suck It Up and Move On” here and Part IV: Congress’s Powerless Probe here.

Also, NPR picked up a piece by West Virginia Public Broadcasting‘s Keri Brown, titled Soldiers Blame Contractor For Exposure To Chemical, and aired it during All Things Considered. You can listen to audio here.