KBR, Iraq and the Cost to Vets and the US


Respectfully submitted by Lawrence E. Rafferty (rafflaw)-Guest Blogger

I guess it should not come as a surprise to me anymore. However, it still upsets me to see a military defense contractor trying to deflect blame for the damages its negligence caused to members of our military while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.  In a news item that I didn’t notice until a few days after it broke, Huffington Post reported that the defense contractor, KBR, was found negligent and responsible for the poisoning of a dozen soldiers in Iraq in 2003.  Over 800 members of both regular and reserve units were stationed at an Iraqi water treatment plant to secure it and they were exposed regularly to a dangerous carcinogen called Sodium Dichromate.  The impact on the soldiers and Guardsmen’s negligent exposure to that “extreme carcinogen” was both devastating and deadly.

“Sodium dichromate is an orange-yellowish substance containing hexavalent chromium, an anti-corrosion chemical. To Lt. Col. James Gentry of the Indiana National Guard, who was stationed at the Qarmat Ali water treatment center in Iraq just after the 2003 U.S. invasion, it was “just different-colored sand.” In their first few months at the base, soldiers were told by KBR contractors running the facility the substance was no worse than a mild irritant.  Gentry was one of approximately 830 service members, including active-duty soldiers and members of the National Guard and reserve units from Indiana, South Carolina, West Virginia and Oregon, assigned to secure the water treatment plant, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sodium dichromate is not a mild irritant. It is an extreme carcinogen. In November 2009, at age 52, Gentry died of cancer. The VA affirmed two months later that his death was service-related.  In November, a jury found KBR, the military’s largest contractor, guilty of negligence in the poisoning of a dozen soldiers, and ordered the company to pay $85 million in damages. Jurors found KBR knew both of the presence and toxicity of the chemical. Other lawsuits against KBR are pending.” Huffington Post  

If you thought that the news was all good and that this negligent defense contractor is being held responsible for its negligence, you may be wrong.  It is now being claimed by KBR in its appeal from the aforementioned judgment that its contract with the Pentagon included an indemnity agreement that allegedly requires the Federal Government to pay any and all claims against it, as well as any legal costs to defend the claims!  Those alleged legal costs alone amount to the princely sum of $15 Million dollars, in addition to the verdict award amount of $85 Million dollars.  If the indemnity agreement claim is upheld by an appeals court, the taxpayers will have to pay for KBR’s grievous negligence that has caused sickness and death to members of our military.

I would love to be able to say “let’s look at the language in the agreement” and determine for ourselves if KBR has a leg to stand on in its appeal on indemnification grounds.  However, that would be too easy because the indemnification language in the defense contract is classified.  You read that right.  The language in the contract that could determine if KBR is responsible to pay for its own severe negligence and its own legal fees is classified and you and I can’t look at it!

Now, I realize that there are good faith reasons at the time of contracting for defense contractors during a time of hostile operations, for some issues to be classified to protect our service members.  If the danger involved in working in war zones is a contributing cause of the negligence and subsequent damages, I can understand a need for some secrecy about the hostile actions that were involved at the time.  Should that veil of secrecy include the legal terms of the contract itself?  Shouldn’t  KBR’s reliance on the alleged indemnity language necessitate that the language be a visible part of the trial and appeal record so that the taxpayers can see for themselves who is fleecing whom?

Of course, the military claims that the indemnity language does not protect KBR.  “A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracting officer told KBR in November 2011 that litigation costs “are not covered by the indemnity agreement.  “The public doesn’t know what the indemnity agreement actually says because the military considers it classified. Until recently, the veterans exposed to the toxin couldn’t know either, nor could attorneys at the Department of Justice, who were left battling the contract in the dark, according to a source there.

Michael Doyle, a Houston-based lawyer who helped the successful suit against KBR, told The Huffington Post the military declassified the indemnification agreement on Dec. 21 and gave it to him under a protective order that banned him from sharing the language to parties not involved in the case. John A. Elolf, a spokesman for KBR, confirmed the declassification of the agreement and said the contractor also was prevented from providing a copy. HuffPost has requested the document under the Freedom of Information Act from the Corps of Engineers.”  Huffington Post

The Huffington Post article details the damage KBR’s negligence wrought on our military, and explains how KBR was allowed to allegedly receive an open-ended indemnification agreement.  “It’s unclear how many defense contractors have secret indemnification agreements with the military. Under the law, most government agencies are banned from entering open-ended indemnification agreements, but the Pentagon and a handful of other agencies were exempted in an executive order signed by President Richard Nixon in 1971.”  Just what other defense contractors have the ability to claim that they are indemnified for any and all of their negligence under military contracts?  Are there any current KBR contracts with the Pentagon that still include this alleged indemnification language?  If so, can they be amended or terminated?

There may be some hope for the future because a provision in the recent National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 requires that indemnification language must be disclosed and presented to Congress for review.  We can thank Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon for that language.  My question is who in Congress has to review it and will the public be allowed to see for themselves what companies like KBR are allowed to get away with?  What else should be added to the language to make sure that companies like KBR are not getting away with causing the death and injuries of American personnel without any accountability?  Should KBR be allowed to contract on any military contracts in the future?  Are there any Department of Defense officials who should be questioned how this alleged language was agreed upon?

Now that we know that the Big Banks are too big to jail, are defense contractors too big to make them pay for their negligence?  Military members who fought and answered the call to service can survive the hostile action only to find out that they are slowly dying from a for-profit company’s greed and negligence.  Just who wins these wars when the veterans are getting ill and dying years after the conflict due to a contractors negligence?

Additional references:  Sodium Dichromate;  National Defense Authorization Act of 2013; AlterNet

36 thoughts on “KBR, Iraq and the Cost to Vets and the US

  1. Defense contractor have been avoiding liability for poisoning and killing our service men and women for years. Indemnity agreements and the government contractor defense have been two of the nasty open secrets that have bloomed with the privatizing of core government functions. Theses contractors see no risk in negligence, gross negligence or out right fraud that kills or injures.. My feeling is that these contractors should not only have to pay damages to those injured but also fines, big ones and their CEOs should be tried for treason. Every time a service member is electrocuted by faulty wiring, poisoned by hazardous materials in their food, water or environment paced there by a contractor aid and comfort is given to the enemy. It is time to paint these people what they are war profiteers whose conduct should be punished. The sad thing is that contractors who behave this way continue to be hired. Many contractors don’t even pay their taxes yet they are awarded big contracts. This must stop.

  2. Raft,

    This is enormous….. I had not read about this before you posted it here…. I presume that the US could have contracted this away…. But, how can you contract away gross negligence? If you think of it in terms of strict liability…. No way…..

    If this claim is successful…. I bet it will be used in other areas of corporate negligence…. Such as if they obtained FDA approval before issuing a drug known to cause injury…… Or a drunk driver escaping liability….. I know the last is a stretch….. But….it’d be an area I’d look at…..

    This morning I was reading an article about reduction of the ready reserve and regular army….. Why, when they will pay mercenaries such as KBR, Blackwater and its ilk….. Exorbitant rates…..and just increase that side of he equation….

    Thanks…. Excellent post…..

  3. AY,
    you are right that at the least there must be other contractors that have similar language. Plus, I think there is over 100 other suits against KBR and other contracots that could be impacted by this appeal. The fact that Wyden got the language added to the NDAA makes me think that the language is in there and may be enforceable against the government. Just a guess.
    Mike S.,
    KBR which used to be a subsidiary of Halliburton is just one piece of the MI complex puzzle.

  4. I think there was such a haste to get mercenaries and contractors to Iraq quickly that the US Gov’t would have signed just about anything. Now we are experiencing here the long term effect of such practices.

    I became very dubious of some of these practices when I saw a news expose about 9 years ago on the cost a particular contractor was assessing (and the only word that can be properly used is) AGAINST the government for providing meal services for service members at a large base in Iraq.

    It’s been too many years for me to remember the names of those involved but when the reporter over there began digging up information, he was met by a great amount of stonewalling and resistence by the company. They even went so far to assign a PR woman to shuttle the reporter around and the non verbal and verbal communiction she was granting him was one of deception and denial. The essence of their claim was that they could not provide any details on costs per meal because there were so many variables it wasn’t possible. Some of the reporting was that the evidence suggested it was many times what was reasonable.

    To provide contrast, the reporter in what appeared to be a rather impromptu interview with a command level officer asked the officer what the meal services were like there. The officer said something to the effect of pretty good meals that give the soldiers something to remind them of home. The reporter then asked “how much does it cost per meal?” and the officer, without any hesitation, gave an average price to the exact penny. (it was between five and six dollars a meal if I remember correctly)

    It became very obvious to me at that time some of these contractors were fleecing the American Public. I know that economic costs have intelligence value to the enemy but there comes a time and place where full disclosure is in the interest of the public. But then again, I considered an offer to work over there and the pay was fantastic. So I guess everyone has their motivations. It’s the cover-up that is the issue.

    IT would be interesting to see if KBR continues to receive funding from the US goverment

  5. Darren,
    Don’t forget the wounded veterans being charged for their care until the media caught wind! Fleecing is too nice a term!

  6. Its too bad they can’t criminally charge the people responsible for this.

    So much evil is unleashed when we loose the dogs of war and nobody seems to consider that. The unnecessary deaths, the unconscionable suffering and the grift and graft of military contractor.

    Its too late to stop all this now. We, if we are to be human, have to do everything in our power to help those that have suffered including these soldiers. More importantly we need to keep these things in mind the next time our king demands a war. Instead of joining the parade and raising the war whoop we should think about what we are doing.

  7. No disclosure? No FOIA? This is a job for ANONYMOUS!

    Time for the hackers to release all these defense contract documents.

    (snarking here, snoopers, just kidding)

  8. No surprise here. Is it any wonder that US contractors would treat our men and women in service any better than our US government does? We have mentally and physically injured vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan war, and they can’t find a job, receive less benefits than a full-time Walmart cashier, and some come home to live on the streets (not by choice). We are one of the few ‘developed countries’ who treat our vets so poorly (and I am not talking about those who stay in active duty for 20 years to receive the full pension/beneifts; according to this vet hospital here in STL, 75-80% of those who enlist in service stay-or survive-the full 20 years to get their retirement benefits). And now we-Obama Administration and Congress-want to (and have been by cutting funding from programs that have helped veterans) cut the budget of the military and entitlment programs.

  9. Frankly,
    Well said. It is especially horrific to consider the US decided the timing of the war in Iraq and did not have to rush into it. Corporate greed had a lot to do with the rush to arms in Iraq.

  10. RWL.
    the military cuts are not a problem if they go after the waste and unneccessary programs, but any significant cuts to veterans benefits is a problem. By the way, what veterans programs have been cut by the Obama Administration?

  11. Nixon, KBR, it’s affiliate Dresser Industries. All three have ties to the murder of JFK in Dallas and the subsequent meteoric rise of Texas and the Bush Crime Family and one of its chief capos, the traitor and draft-dodger, Dick Cheney.
    There is no hell that can provide the level of anguish and suffering that these people deserve for what they’ve wrought on this country.

  12. RWL,
    I looked at your links and there is nothing to state that premiums or benefits have cut. I couldn’t find anything that evidences an actual increase or loss of benefits. Do you have a citation to the VA hospital you are referencing?

  13. The singular phrase uttered by Ike (on his last day) that has held currency is: The Military Industrial Complex.

  14. I understand the concern about US soldiers being exposed to deadly chemicals. Personally, I have no earthy idea why anybody would enlist in Uncle Sam’s military to do the killing for defense contractor and bankster profits.

    That said, I rarely hear Americans complain about what we do to folks in foreign nations and we dump a ton of toxic and deadly chemicals on foreigners. Americans don’t even care about all the depleted uranium that’s been dumped in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

    To think that the Evil Empire of Murder should have a conscious really is silly. What the Empire does to others, it will eventually do to it’s own.

  15. Nothing new here for America. We exposed poor housing developments to toxic gas in St. Louis, we inoculated poor blacks with syphilis and denied antibiotics both here and in Latin America, we let Pharma do drug tests on third world children, etc etc etc.
    We are freakin’ disgusting, what we let our government do without consequences.

    Good comment Judy, depleted uranium will cause human misery for generations without end.

  16. Raff,

    KBR is the successor to the Texas Oil firm Brown and Root. This firm was the political backer of Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. Rayburn was LBJ’s mentor and sponsor. Their tentacles go deep into the MIC and their support is bi -partisan.

  17. KBR, as all Contract Companies on US Government funded contracts overseas, is also provided a license to kill under the Defense Base Act. The Defense Base Act is a workers’ comp scheme funded by the US taxpayer to cover all contract employees, foreign and US alike. The US Taxpayer pays the inflated premiums to private insurance companies who are in in turn reimbursed for all claims and expenses caused by a War Hazard.
    The Act includes an exclusive remedy clause which relieves the contract coompany of all liability for any reason. This liability exclusion is extended to the private insurance companies, AIG carrying the most, so that they can deny medical and lost wages with absolutely NO legal recourse.
    The Act also relieves them of any requirement to provide as safe a workplace as possible.
    KBR also poisoned many civilian contractors. Americans, TCN’s, and local nationals.
    Burn Pits, Hexavalent Chromium, sending convoys out to be ambushed with the full knowledge that it was likely (emails for proof) are all unaccountable despite how irresponsible and deadly.
    The cost of these indemnities both financial and in terms of human life and suffering is unconscionable.

  18. For those of you who don’t know much about this kind of war-related contractors and the ways they act and fleece the tax payers, follow Ms. Sparky’s Blog at:
    She has a great statement I relish every time I visit her blog: “I strive to live my life in such a way that when my feet hit the floor in the morning corrupt defense contractors shudder and say ‘OH SHIT…SHE’S AWAKE!'” ~ Ms Sparky™
    She is a former KBR employee if I remember correctly.
    What the for-profit and war-related businesses do will make your blood boil; happy to share in that feeling with some new folks!

  19. Help!
    I don’t know how to register a link on this blog! I have the mssparky.com as a great resource mentioned in my initial comment on this issue but don’t know how to turn it into a link one can click on to immediately view the blog.
    Someone please help me figure this out. I am not savvy when it comes to these things.

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