The Campaign for America’s Future hosted a premier screening of a new film at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Monday night, alleging profiteering and gross mismanagement of the War in Iraq by corporate contractors and their conservative cronies in Congress. The film, “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers,” directed by acclaimed filmmaker Robert Greenwald, was released in conjunction with a news conference held by Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Greenwald, calling for a “Truman-style commission” to investigate the misuse of American tax dollars by contractors in Iraq.
The film chronicles the lives of several families with ties to corporate contracts, and their pain and conscientious anguish at the way the Iraq War has been run. Many former employees of companies granted military and reconstruction contracts — such as Halliburton/KBR, Blackwater, Titan Corp., and CACI — gave inside perspectives on ways these corporations dangerously cut costs, overcharged the American government and its taxpayers, and held a general distain for American values over the past three and a half years.
Before the viewing, Co-Director of the Campaign for America’s Future Robert Borsage gave an introduction, followed by a preface by Virginia Senatorial candidate Jim Webb. Webb, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, decorated Vietnam War veteran and former Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan Administration, touted the movie for raising important and under-debated issues of oversight in delegating government responsibilities to corporations during wartime.
While the issue of corporate contracts granted during the Iraq war is common knowledge — Halliburton has become a household name due to the multi-billion dollar, no-contest contracts awarded to the company, as well as its affiliation with former CEO and current stock holder Dick Cheney — the extent to which companies have abused these grants is still little understood.
Yet it takes a simple Internet search to return thousands of results on the scope and quality of these contracts. The lack of public knowledge about the widespread use and abuse of the contracts is baffling to many.
The director sets the tone of the film by following the story of two young men hired by Blackwater USA, a corporation that received a government grant to form a private security force to protect former head of the Coalition Provincial Authority in Iraq, among other duties.
Scott Helvenston and Jerry Zovko were two of four Blackwater employees killed in ambush in April of 2004 in Falluja. Americans may remember the gruesome fashion in which the two men were murdered, burned and paraded through town, then hanged from a bridge in the town center.
What the families of the victims have today, more strongly than the notion that their kin died pursuing a democratic Iraq, is an incomplete account of what went wrong that afternoon.
Reports show that the four security personnel, divided between two Humvees, were drastically under-equipped. In order to cut costs, Blackwater broke standard protocol, sending the men out without standard vehicle armor, rear turret guns, or even a map of surrounding area, a section of Iraq the men had never visited before.
Additionally, each vehicle was required to have four Blackwater employees: two to drive and navigate, and two to man the unequipped guns in the back and survey for hostile forces. This final broken protocol severely diminished the crew’s chances of survival, with no lookouts to anticipate enemy fire.
The Helvenston and Zovko families’ grief was compounded by the course Blackwater took after the attack. According to Chris Lehane, a business crisis communications expert, Blackwater chose to follow corporate protocol this time around: their first action was to deploy lobbyists to Washington, D.C. through the Alexander Strategy Group (ASG) to protect the corporation’s finances, and assure it would be involved in future government contracts.
ASG was a smart choice. Ed Buckman, the group’s chairman, was former Chief of Staff for Rep. Tom DeLay, and used his relationships on the Hill to influence conservative officials in charge of oversight. Through its lobbying arm, Blackwater proceeded by contacting members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the Senate Committee on Finance, and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Senators John Warner (R-Va.), and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca.), who are all featured in the film denouncing any intensive investigation into the incident.
In lieu of penalizing the company, the United States government afforded Blackwater over $200 million in new government contracts since the deaths of their four employees.
The most recognizable names in the corporate contract world are Halliburton and its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR). Halliburton was contracted to provide numerous services to the U.S. military such as transporting gasoline from Kuwaiti refineries to military bases, while KBR provided services to U.S. military personnel, including mess halls, shower facilities, dining halls, and lodgings.
Edward Sanchez, Bill Peterson, and Shane Ratliff, three former Halliburton/KBR truck drivers, were interviewed for the film. They said they took jobs with the company, like many other Americans, not only for the high wages, but for their country, and to help rebuild the Iraqi nation. What they discovered by the end of their tenure in Iraq was that their employers were interested primarily in the money they stood to gain.
With war being waged in the background, Halliburton employees were forced to drive on red and black roads (those restricted from civilian use or closed due to enemy presence), burn $75,000 trucks because they were unequipped to replace flat tires, and watch as their co-workers were killed by enemy fire and explosive gasoline.
The KBR subsidiary, according to former employees such as Ben Carter, was guilty of similarly egregious abuses. Carter, a water purification specialist in Iraq, attempted to report that water used in military shower facilities was highly contaminated. He says he was told by his superiors that “the military is none of [your concern].”
Other accounts showed that KBR charged the government $45 for a six pack of Coke produced in the Middle East, and $100 for each bag of laundry they washed. The company billed the U.S. government at the rate of 42,000 meals a day for one base, when they were only serving 14,000. It refused to run 24 hour food service because they could save money having set hours, causing lines that wrapped around outside the facilities. Over $1.8 billion in unreported costs are still looming.
These abuses stem from a policy called “cost-plus,” where the U.S. government pledges in advance to reimburse the companies for any costs they incur, or at least report, plus an agreed upon fee. In part because they knew they would be reimbursed, no matter what, KBR/Halliburton’s higher level employees were staying in plush villas on American tax dollars.
James Logson, former KBR/Halliburton employee, recounted his experiences watching satellite TV, using wave runners, and going to barbeques courtesy of his company. Other employees were told, “Don’t question it, enjoy it.”
The film also chronicles the Titan (now owned by L-3 Communications) and CACI corporations, which provided hundreds of Arabic interpreters to the U.S. military. Former employees and military personnel have repeatedly alleged that these interpreters were untrained, under prepared, and over authorized. Titan interpreters, specifically, were named in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in 2004.
Despite questions about their qualifications to be in even in only clerical functions involving interpreting, dozens of accounts corroborate that they were often the agents giving orders to U.S. military personnel in the prison. Former prisoners have referred to Americans “in civilian clothes” who barked orders.
Further confusing the chain of command was the fact that these interpreters often made four to six times the amount of the average armed services employee, typically more than six figures annually. One former military interrogator at Abu Ghraib, Joshua Casteel, discussed on film the effect this had on the prison hierarchy:
“There was a little phrase that we threw around, ‘Food for Freedom.’ That if you wanted to get paid more you should start eating more so you’d get booted out for being overweight. And it’s an honorable discharge and it would boost your pay, your net worth by about five times…and it worked.”
While U.S. soldiers slept in tents provided by KBR, corporate contractors were given their own air conditioned, private quarters, and, in many cases, are given personal use of brand-new Hummers and Cadillac Escalades. Meanwhile, the CEOs of CACI and Titan reaped their own benefits, bringing home a combined $67 million salary over two years of corporate profits, largely spurred by government contracts.
The lack of government oversight on the quality of corporate performance is one of the major criticisms of the way the Iraq War has been waged.
This relates not only to the quality of the services provided by corporations, but to the questionable procedure of handing, as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) iterated, “inherently governmental functions” over to corporate entities.
For example, the film asserts that while U.S. military personnel would receive a court marshal if they were suspected of killing or torturing civilians, contractors would simply be brought home. Contractors hold no specific allegiance to the U.S. government, and are not constrained by any agreements or protocols of the Geneva Conventions.
Much of the insider dealings between corporations and the government is not publicized. The immense power and responsibility of individuals holding government office, whether in the legislative or executive branch, is increasingly compromised by the ability to acquire vast sums of wealth in the private, corporate world.
Increasingly, government officials who “scratch the back” of a particular business will later be granted high ranking and lucrative positions within those companies. This revolving door effect compromises the idea of increased cooperation between business and government in the war industry. Competition is neglected, and the corporations with the right connections receive the spoils of war.
Bunnatine Greenhouse, former chief contracting officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has created a stir by exposing secret, no-bid contracts to Halliburton and its subsidiary company KBR. Greenhouse called the contracting process "the most blatant and improper contract abuse I have witnessed during the course of my professional career." Shortly after her whistleblowing, Greenhouse was demoted from her position. The Washington Post reported in 2005 that Vice President Cheney once cursed at a U.S. senator for mentioning her accusations.
The concept of and procedure for granting government contracts to corporations are prone to abuse and neglect. Efforts by members of Congress, particularly in the Democratic Party, to offer legislation and amendments demanding oversight of these corporations have been rejected on party-line votes. Representatives have, whether intentionally or unintentionally, shortchanged American troops at the benefit of American business. (Halliburton’s stock, at the time the movie was produced, had more than quadrupled over the course of only a few years).
At the root of corporate abuse and neglect, is the money. The list of corporate-government connections goes on ad nauseum: Titan’s founding CEO is the former Air for Chief of Staff; CACI’s lobbying arm is headed by former House Appropriations Committee chairman and Speaker of the House Bob Livingston; former Halliburton CEO Thomas Cruikshank has donated lavishly to Dick Cheney’s Political Action Committee.
Without major campaign finance reform, the chances for oversight are slim, considering the vast amounts of campaign dollars these corporations pack into re-election funds, and on a very partisan basis. “Iraq for Sale” makes the point that those most adversely affected by this process are not nameless individuals, but tangible, patriotic American citizens.