Category Archives: ProPublica

State Dept refused to name its SGEs because of reasons #1, #2, #3, #4 and … oh right, the Privacy Act of 1974

– Domani Spero

Last week, ProPublica posted this: Who Are State Dept’s 100 “Special Government Employees”? It Won’t Say.  We blogged about it here: Who Are State Dept’s 100 “Special Government Employees”? Dunno But Is Non-Disclosure For Public Good? Today, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has more on the subject. And after months of giving one reason or another to the reporters pursuing this case, the State Department is down to its Captain America shield  – the Privacy Act of 1974.

Below excerpted from POGO: State Dept. Won’t Name Advisers Already in Government’s Public Database:

They’ve all been selected to advise the State Department on foreign policy issues. Their names are listed on the State Department’s website.

So why won’t the Department disclose that these individuals are special government employees (SGEs)?

For four months, State has refused to name its SGEs, ProPublica reported last week, leaving the public to guess which outside experts are advising the Department on matters that affect the public’s interest.

Yet, the Project On Government Oversight was able to find more than 100 of the advisers identified as SGEs in an online government database. In other words, some of the information that State has been refusing to provide is hiding in plain sight.
[...]
State has refused to identify any of its special employees, even though most agencies contacted by ProPublica were easily able to provide a list of their SGEs.

First, a State spokeswoman told ProPublica her agency “does not disclose employee information of this nature.”

When ProPublica filed a request seeking the list of names under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), it was told the agency doesn’t keep such a list, and State’s FOIA office refused to track down the information because it would require “extensive research.”

In September, ProPublica told State it planned to report that the Department was refusing to provide a list of names. In response, State said the FOIA request “was being reopened” and that the records would be provided “in a few weeks,” according to ProPublica.

“The State Department has since pushed back the delivery date three times and still hasn’t provided any list,” ProPublica reported last week. “It has been four months since we filed the original request.”

On Friday, a State official told The Washington Post that the Department is “diligently working to resolve” the FOIA request. The official cited concerns about “maintaining employee protections of privacy.”

State’s posture over the past several months is at odds with POGO’s finding: why can’t the Department give the press the same information it already supplied to a public database?

“Disclosure of certain employee information is subject to the Privacy Act of 1974,” Alec Gerlach, a State spokesperson, told POGO. “That some information may already be publicly available does not absolve the Department of Privacy Act requirements. Whether someone is an SGE is Privacy Act-protected information that we would not release except through the FOIA process.”

However, one of the authors of ProPublica’s story questioned why State hasn’t turned over the requested records. “I think anytime a government agency won’t reveal information, it raises questions about why they aren’t,” Liz Day, ProPublica’s Director of Research, told POGO.

Holy mother of god of distraught spoxes!  Okay, please, try not to laugh. It is disturbing to watch this type of contortion, and it seems to be coming regularly these days from Foggy Bottom.

Seriously.  If this is about the Privacy Act of 1974, why wasn’t ProPublica told of this restriction four months ago? And does that mean that all other agencies who released their SGE names were in violation of the Privacy Act of 1974?

Also, State/OIG was told that “The number of special government employee filers was given as 100.”  A State Department spokeswoman told ProPublica that there are “about 100” such employees.  But what do you know?  The Project On Government Oversight was able to find more than 100 of the advisers (excel download file) identified as SGEs in an online government database. Are there more? How many more?

The list does not include the more famous SGEs of the State Department previously identified in news report.

New message from Mission Command:  “Good morning, Mr. Hunt (or whoever is available). Your mission, should you choose to accept it, involves the retrieval of very Special Government Employee (SGE) names. There are more than a hundred names but no one knows how many more.  They are padlocked in the Privacy Act of 1974 vault, guarded by a monstrous fire-breathing creature from Asia Minor. PA1974 vault location is currently in Foggy Bottom.  As always, should you or any member of your team be caught or killed, everybody with a badge will disavow all knowledge of your actions. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.  If not, well, find a match and burn.”

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Filed under Huh? News, Leaks|Controversies, People, Privacy, ProPublica, Public Service, Questions, State Department

What Is the Keystone XL Pipeline — and Why Is It So Controversial?

Official portrait of Secretary of State Hillar...          Image via Wikipedia

by Lois Beckett ProPublica, Oct. 14, 2011, 12:41 p.m.

By the end of this year, the State Department will decide whether to give a Canadian company permission to construct a 1,700-mile, $7 billion pipeline that would transport crude oil from Canada to refineries in Texas.

The project has sparked major environmental concerns, particularly in Nebraska, where the pipeline would pass over an aquifer that provides drinking water and irrigation to much of the Midwest. It has also drawn scrutiny because of the company’s political connections and conflicts of interest. A key lobbyist for TransCanada, which would build the pipeline, also worked for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton [1] on her presidential campaign. And the company that conducted the project’s environmental impact report had financial ties to TransCanada.

The debate over the pipeline is both complicated and fierce [2], and it crosses party lines, with much sparring over the potential environmental and economic impacts of the project. More than 1,000 arrests were made during protests of the pipeline [3] last summer in Washington, D.C.

Here’s our breakdown of the controversy, including the benefits and risks of the project, and the concerns about the State Department’s role.

Potential benefits — energy security and jobs for Americans — and how they’re disputed
Proponents of the project point to two main benefits for Americans. First, it would improve America’s energy security [4], because it would bring in more oil from friendly Canada and reduce our dependence on volatile countries in South America and the Middle East. Secondly, the pipeline would create well-paying construction jobs and provide a broader economic boost to the American economy. Labor unions have supported the project [5].

TransCanada estimates that the project would directly create 20,000 construction and manufacturing jobs for Americans [6]. A study paid for by TransCanada [7] also estimated the economic impact over the life of the pipeline at about $20 billion in total spending.
But a report by Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute [8] questioned those numbers, noting that the project would “create no more than 2,500-4,650 temporary direct construction jobs for two years, according to TransCanada’s own data supplied to the State Department.”

Critics of the project have also questioned whether the pipeline’s oil, once processed in American refineries on the Gulf Coast, would actually be sold to Americans rather than being exported for sale elsewhere [9]. As a New York Times editorial opposing the pipeline noted, five of the six companies [9] that have already contracted for much of the pipeline’s oil are foreign companies — and the sixth focuses on exporting oil.

The Washington Post, which editorialized in favor of the pipeline [4], said this should not be a major objection. “The bottom line remains: The more American refineries source their low-grade crude via pipeline from Canada and not from tankers out of the Middle East or Venezuela, the better, even if not every refined barrel stays in the country,” the Post editorial stated.

Cozy relationships with the State Department — and a compromised environmental report
Because the project crosses the U.S. border, it requires a permit from the State Department. As part of that process, the State Department did an environmental impact report [10]. The study concluded that, if operated correctly, the pipeline would have “limited adverse environmental impacts.” But a New York Times investigation found that the company that the government hired to conduct the study had significant financial ties to TransCanada [11] — and that this conflict of interest “flouted the intent of a federal law” requiring federal agencies to select contractors that have no potential interest in the outcome of the project being evaluated.

Environmental groups have also scrutinized the relationship between State Department officials and TransCanada’s representative in Washington. Paul Elliott, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, was actively lobbying the State Department and Congress [12] about the project for a year and a half before he officially registered as a lobbyist, according to State Department email messages made public by the environmental group Friends of the Earth [13]. Elliott did not comment on the emails, but a TransCanada spokesperson said he was simply doing his job as a lobbyist.

The emails showed a friendly relationship between Elliott and his State Department contact, who wrote “Go Paul!” [12] when Elliott secured the support of a key congressman for the Keystone project.

The State Department has said that it will consider the merits of the pipeline proposal impartially [2].

As the news organization Mother Jones pointed out [12], the emails also revealed “an apparent understanding between the State Department and TransCanada that the company would later seek to raise the pressure used to pump oil through the pipeline — even though the company said publicly it would do the opposite [14].”

TransCanada had originally sought permission to use a higher-than-usual pressure in its pipeline [15] but publicly backed away from the request in response to the concerns of citizens and politicians that higher pressure might increase the risk of leaks and environmental damage.

A WikiLeaks cable also revealed that a different U.S. diplomat had given PR tips to Canadian officials about the project. As the Los Angeles Times noted, the diplomat “had instructed them in improving ‘oil sands messaging,’ [16] including ‘increasing visibility and accessibility of more positive news stories.’”

Concerns about water contamination across the Great Plains
The proposed route of the pipeline passes over the Sandhills wetland of Nebraska — and over the most important aquifer in the nation, the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking water and irrigation to a large swathe of Midwestern states [17].

This has prompted opposition from Nebraska politicians. The state’s Republican governor wrote a letter [18] to President Obama asking him not to approve the project, and state legislators are considering legislation [19] limiting where the pipeline can be located.
“Clearly, the contamination of groundwater is the top concern,” State Sen. Mike Flood told reporters [20].

Opposition to the pipeline is so broad in Nebraska [21] that a TransCanada-sponsored video that was perceived as supporting the pipeline was booed at a University of Nebraska football game [22], which resulted in the Cornhuskers athletic department ending a TransCanada sponsorship deal [22].

But at least one scientist with significant experience with the Ogallala Aquifer said fears about contamination from the pipeline are overblown [23].

James Goeke, a hydrogeologist and professor emeritus [24] at the University of Nebraska, wrote on The New York Times’ website that the geography of the aquifer — there’d be clay between the pipeline and the water, and much of the aquifer is uphill from the pipeline’s proposed location — means that a leak in the pipeline “would pose a minimal risk to the aquifer as a whole.” He suggested the government “require TransCanada to post a bond for any cleanup in the event of a spill,” and noted that in particularly vulnerable areas, TransCanada has promised to encase the pipeline in cement.

Leaks and spills
The Keystone XL pipeline would carry a diluted form of tar sands, a type of natural petroleum deposit. Environmentalists argue that the tar sands, or “dilbit,” mixture that the pipeline would transport [25] is more corrosive than typical crude oil, and thus might cause more leaks in the pipeline.

These fears were heightened by an oil spill in Michigan [26] that leaked roughly 800,000 gallons of tar sands into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in July 2010. The spill came within 80 miles of Lake Michigan, and a year later, the Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Enbridge, the energy company responsible for the spill, to conduct further cleanup, citing pockets of submerged oil covering about 200 acres [27] of the river’s path.
The Christian Science Monitor has a good, brief summary of spills [3] on TransCanada’s existing U.S. pipeline, and notes that according to the State Department estimate, “the maximum the Keystone XL could potentially spill would be 2.8 million gallons along an area of 1.7 miles [3].”

Concerns about eminent domain
Some property owners whose land the pipeline would cross have spoken out against the company’s approach [2], particularly the fact that a Canadian company is able to use eminent domain to acquire the use of private land.

The issue has struck a nerve across the political spectrum and has helped bring together Tea Party and environmental activists in Texas [28] to oppose the project.

TransCanada says it is compensating landowners fairly, and notes that, “Our permit does allow us to use eminent domain [6] to acquire an easement and provide compensation for the landowner. Keystone XL always prefers to avoid the use of eminent domain, and if we cannot reach an agreement, then we turn to the independent processes/hearings that are established in Texas and other U.S. states.”

Broader environmental concerns
Environmentalists also object not just to the pipeline itself but to the start-to-finish process of refining tar sands, which has a heavy impact on the environment, including global warming. As a Stanford University professor wrote [29] on The New York Times’ website:

Available evidence suggests that oil sands, on a “well-to-wheels” basis, have 15 to 20 percent higher greenhouse emissions than conventional oil. This is because of increased energy demand during extraction and the use of high-carbon fuels like petroleum coke. Also, water pollution concerns plague mining-based projects that produce large volumes of tailings (a contaminated, watery waste product).

Critics of the project [8] argue that approving Keystone XL could have a “chilling effect” on efforts to create green jobs, and that it would demonstrate that the U.S. is not serious about its climate change leadership — and that Canada is not serious about trying to reach its Kyoto targets.

But as many have noted, denying approval to Keystone XL wouldn’t stop tar sands production. As the Heritage Foundation’s David Kreutzer argued [30]: “Block the XL pipeline if you think the environment will be better served by shipping Canadian oil an extra 6,000 miles across the Pacific in oil-consuming super tankers and then refining it in less-regulated Chinese refineries.”

 
 
 
 

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$6 Billion Later, Afghan Cops Aren’t Ready to Serve

by T. Christian Miller, ProPublica, Mark Hosenball and Ron Moreau, Newsweek – March 20, 2010 6:00 am EDT | This story was co-published [1] with Newsweek. Reprinted under Creative Commons

Mohammad Moqim watches in despair as his men struggle with their AK-47 automatic rifles, doing their best to hit man-size targets 50 meters away. A few of the police trainees lying prone in the mud are decent shots, but the rest shoot clumsily, and fumble as they try to reload their weapons. The Afghan National Police (ANP) captain sighs as he dismisses one group of trainees and orders 25 more to take their places on the firing line. “We are still at zero,” says Captain Moqim, 35, an eight-year veteran of the force. “They don’t listen, are undisciplined, and will never be real policemen.”

Afghan National Police (ANP) trainees prepare
for a riot control exercise at the Central Training Center.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sarah Brown/RELEASED)

Poor marksmanship is the least of it. Worse, crooked Afghan cops supply much of the ammunition used by the Taliban, according to Saleh Mohammed, an insurgent commander in Helmand province. The bullets and rocket-propelled grenades sold by the cops are cheaper and of better quality than the ammo at local markets, he says. It’s easy for local cops to concoct credible excuses for using so much ammunition, especially because their supervisors try to avoid areas where the Taliban are active. Mohammed says local police sometimes even stage fake firefights so that if higher-ups question their outsize orders for ammo, villagers will say they’ve heard fighting.

America has spent more than $6 billion since 2002 in an effort to create an effective Afghan police force, buying weapons, building police academies, and hiring defense contractors to train the recruits—but the program has been a disaster. More than $322 million worth of invoices for police training were approved even though the funds were poorly accounted for, according to a government audit, and fewer than 12 percent of the country’s police units are capable of operating on their own. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the State Department’s top representative in the region, has publicly called the Afghan police “an inadequate organization, riddled with corruption.” During the Obama administration’s review of Afghanistan policy last year, “this issue received more attention than any other except for the question of U.S. troop levels,” Holbrooke later told NEWSWEEK. “We drilled down deep into this.”

The worst of it is that the police are central to Washington’s plans for getting out of Afghanistan. The U.S.-backed government in Kabul will never have popular support if it can’t keep people safe in their own homes and streets. Yet in a United Nations poll last fall, more than half the Afghan respondents said the police are corrupt. Police commanders have been implicated in drug trafficking, and when U.S. Marines moved into the town of Aynak last summer, villagers accused the local police force of extortion, assault, and rape.

The public’s distrust of the cops is palpable in the former insurgent stronghold of Marja. Village elders welcomed the U.S. Marines who recently drove out the Taliban, but told the Americans flatly they don’t want the ANP to return. “The people of Marja will tell you that one of their greatest fears was the police coming back,” says Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who took over in November as chief of the U.S. program to expand and improve Afghanistan’s security forces. “You constantly hear these stories about who was worse: the Afghan police that were there or the Taliban.” The success of America’s counterinsurgency strategy depends on the cops, who have greater contact with local communities than the Army does. “This is not about seizing land or holding terrain; it’s about the people,” says Caldwell. “You have to have a police force that the people accept, believe in, and trust.”

More than a year after Barack Obama took office, the president is still discovering how bad things are. At a March 12 briefing on Afghanistan with his senior advisers, he asked whether the police will be ready when America’s scheduled drawdown begins in July 2011, according to a senior official who was in the room. “It’s inconceivable, but in fact for eight years we weren’t training the police,” replied Caldwell, taking part in the meeting via video link from Afghanistan. “We just never trained them before. All we did was give them a uniform.” The president looked stunned. “Eight years,” he said. “And we didn’t train police? It’s mind-boggling.” The room was silent.

Efforts to build a post-Taliban police force have been plagued from the start by unrealistic goals, poor oversight, and slapdash hiring. Patrolmen were recruited locally, issued weapons, and placed on the beat with little or no formal training. Most of their techniques have been picked up on the job—including plenty of ugly habits. Even now, Caldwell says, barely a quarter of the 98,000-member force has received any formal instruction. The people who oversaw much of the training that did take place were contractors—many of them former American cops or sheriffs. They themselves had little proper direction, and the government officials overseeing their activities did not bother to examine most expenses under $3,000, leaving room for abuse. Amazingly, no single agency or individual ever had control of the training program for long, so lines of accountability were blurred.

Coalition efforts to build an Afghan police force were painfully slow at first. By 2003 the U.S. State Department decided to speed things up by deploying the Virginia-based defense contractor DynCorp International, which had held previous contracts to train police officers in Kosovo and Haiti. The company began setting up a string of training centers across the country. After the Defense Department took a role in overseeing that work in 2005, it squabbled constantly with State over whether the training should emphasize police work or counterinsurgency.

Neither the State Department nor DynCorp was prepared for the job they faced. Most of the recruits are rural villagers who have never been inside a classroom. Roughly 15 percent test positive for drugs, primarily hashish. Few know how to use a toothbrush or drive, and nearly 90 percent are illiterate. In 2005 DynCorp opened a new police academy on the outskirts of Jalalabad, and within a few months the academy’s drains backed up. Maintenance workers discovered that the septic tanks were full of smooth stones—a toilet-paper substitute used by many rural Afghans. DynCorp had to bring in backhoes to repair the problem, and the company had to add two days of classes in basic hygiene.

The ANP still takes just about anyone who applies. “Our recruits are unemployed youth with no education and no prospects,” says Police Col. Mohammad Hashim Babakarkhil, deputy commander of Kabul’s central police-training center. Since January 2007, upwards of 2,000 police have been killed in action—more than twice the figure for Afghan Army soldiers. U.S. officers say as many as half the police casualties were a result of firearms accidents and traffic collisions.

It’s practically impossible to produce competent police officers in a program of only eight weeks, says a former senior DynCorp executive, requesting anonymity because he continues to work in the industry. But that was the time frame State and Defense set for the course. “They were not going to be trained police officers. We knew that. They knew that,” the former executive says. “It was a numbers game.” In fact, the course has now been cut from eight weeks to six in order to squeeze in more trainees. (“We believe the training is appropriate under the circumstances,” says Assistant Secretary of State David Johnson. DynCorp spokesman Douglas Ebner says the basic-training course is part of a more extensive 40-week program, and is supported by further “field monitoring, mentoring, and advising.” Training hours have been extended to make up for the lost weeks, he says. DynCorp does “not make the policies, recruit the police candidates, or design the program,” he adds, saying the company has “fully met” its objective of providing highly qualified police trainers.)

Whether or not recruits have mastered their subjects, almost everyone graduates. Even if they fail the firearms test, they’re issued a weapon and put on the street. Only the Interior Ministry can flunk a candidate, and that rarely happens. “There were a lot of Afghans who seemed to have some patriotism and wanted to make their country better,” recalls Tracy Jeansonne, a former deputy sheriff from Louisiana who worked for DynCorp from May 2006 to June 2008. “But a lot of the police officers wanted to be able to extort money from locals. If we caught them, we’d suggest they be removed. But we couldn’t fire anybody. We could only make suggestions.”

A former midlevel DynCorp official calls the program “dysfunctional.” Requesting anonymity because he doesn’t want problems with his former employer, he displays dozens of weekly reports sent to State and military officials; almost all include some mention of an Afghan police officer or commander as “corrupt.” Yet of the 170,000 or so Afghans trained under the program since its inception, only about 30,000 remain on the force, according to State and Defense officials. “In terms of retention and attrition, we can say there’s a problem,” says Steve Kraft, who oversees the program for the State Department. The cops’ base salary and hazardous-duty pay were recently raised to match Afghan Army levels, but no one knows if those changes are really helping. “Once they leave the training center, we currently don’t know whether they stay with the force or quit,” Kraft says. “The bottom line is, we just don’t know.”

And what has become of all the billions of dollars this program has cost America? Government investigators aren’t entirely sure. Fundamental questions are raised in an audit of the Afghan police-training program released in February by the State and Defense departments’ inspectors general. When State finally sent an “invoice-reconciliation team” to review expense receipts submitted under one particular contract, it discovered that $322 million in invoices had been “approved even though they were not allowable, allocable, or reasonable.” What’s more, the auditors said, half those invoices included errors.

The lapses don’t stop there. The audit says State Department officials “did not conduct adequate surveillance for two task orders in excess of $1 billion.” According to the auditors, State’s contract supervisors didn’t adequately oversee the use of government-owned property, failed to maintain contract files properly, and sometimes neglected to “match goods to receiving reports”—meaning, evidently, that they didn’t verify that the U.S. government had actually received the goods it had paid for. (DynCorp’s Ebner responds: “We are fully engaged with the Department of State to ensure complete and thorough reconciliation of all invoices, and recognize and welcome the emphasis on sufficient oversight personnel to complete this process.”)

Those failures should have been no surprise. The audit also found that State routinely short-staffed its contract-monitoring office in Afghanistan. At one point, only three contract officers were on the ground overseeing DynCorp’s $1.7 billion training contract. A former DynCorp official who worked in Afghanistan, asking not to be named because he remains in the government contracting business, says he asked the State Department repeatedly for concrete goals for the police contract but never got firm answers. “I’d ask them: ‘Please explain to me what a successful training program was. What are the standards you want us to apply?’ There was no vision for the future.” (Assistant Secretary Johnson says, “From the start, our training program was based on a clear, professionally developed curriculum … A simple head count of the number of individuals on the ground ignores the substantial back-office support our contract oversight personnel had from Washington.”)

A new set of difficulties arose last summer. Caldwell’s predecessor, Gen. Richard Formica, decided that Defense should take direct control of the training contract. To avoid a lengthy bidding competition, he suggested folding the police-training mission into an existing anti-drug and counterterrorism program overseen by the U.S. Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command. Bids were limited to companies already under contract to the missile command, effectively shutting out DynCorp. In the end, only two firms wound up bidding: Northrop Grumman and Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater.

DynCorp fought back. In December the company filed a formal protest to block the Defense Department from seizing control of the contract. Last week the Government Accountability Office upheld DynCorp’s complaint and suggested that the competition be open to all comers, including DynCorp as well as Xe and Northrop. DynCorp’s CEO, William Ballhaus, recently told investors that the company’s contract had been extended until July in any case; now it seems the new bidding process will take much longer.

At Kabul’s police training center, a team of 35 Italian carabinieri recently arrived to supplement DynCorp’s efforts. Before the Italians showed up at the end of January for a one-year tour, the recruits were posting miserable scores on the firing range. But the Italians soon discovered that poor marksmanship wasn’t the only reason: the sights of the AK-47 and M-16 rifles the recruits were using were badly out of line. “We zeroed all their weapons,” says Lt. Rolando Tommasini. “It’s a very important thing, but no one had done this in the past. I don’t know why.”

The Italians also had a different way of teaching the recruits to shoot. DynCorp’s instructors started their firearms training with 20-round clips at 50 meters; the recruits couldn’t be sure at first if they were even hitting the target. Instead the carabinieri started them off with just three bullets each and a target only seven meters away. The recruits would shoot, check the target, and be issued three more rounds. When they began gaining confidence, the distance was gradually increased to 15, then 30, and then 50 meters. On a recent day on the firing range only one of 73 recruits failed the shooting test. The Italians say that’s a huge improvement. (DynCorp says its civilian police advisers are “highly qualified”; the average trainer has more than a decade of law-enforcement experience.)

Caldwell also says it’s just easier to work with paramilitary police units, such as the Italians and the French gendarmerie, than with contractors. Active-duty police units have a coherent and disciplined chain of command, Caldwell says. “When I bring in a contractor unit I’m getting a different group of folks,” he says. “It may be someone who was a state patrolman, a local sheriff, or a policeman from New York City, each operating under different standards and with different backgrounds.” Everything has to be negotiated. “If I say to my contractor that I want to make a change, he may say, ‘Well, I’m not sure if that’s really the best way,’ ” says Caldwell. “But if I can bring in a gendarmerie force, they’re ready to go … and take instructions well.”

By the end of October, Caldwell hopes to build the force to 109,000 members, including an “elite unit” that so far has roughly 4,900 members. That outfit is called the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP). It’ll be used for particularly sensitive assignments like Marja. ANCOP members get 16 weeks of training, and they’re required to have at least a third-grade proficiency in reading and writing. So far, reviews from Marja are mixed. “The new police are more organized, committed, responsible, and helpful than the previous police, who were more like a criminal gang,” Assadullah, a school principal, tells newsweek. (Like many Afghans, he uses only one name.) Local shopkeeper Hajji Noruddin Khan disagrees. “We are as disappointed with the new police as we were with the old police,” he complains.

Quality matters. “In the rush to increase the number of trained police officers, we must remember that the end goal is a civilian police force capable of promoting good government, not a paramilitary adjunct for the counterinsurgency fight,” warns Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the top U.S. Marine commander in southern Afghanistan, puts it more succinctly: “I’d rather have one well-trained cop than 10 untrained.” Besides, the fact is that no one is quite sure how many Afghan police there really are. The Americans are only now in the process of trying to create a database that will positively identify and track recruits. Without such data, it’s more than difficult to catch “ghost” troops who exist only as names on the payroll, not to mention possible Taliban infiltrators.

But the buildup continues, and so does the training. On the firing range just outside Kabul, one of the few decent marksmen is Khair Mohammad, an illiterate 24-year-old from northern Afghanistan. “I’ve already had a lot of practice shooting at the Taliban,” he says. He’s been a cop for two years, serving one year in Kandahar and another on checkpoints just outside Marja. “I lost a lot of friends in the fighting,” he says. Now he’s getting his first taste of formal training, and hoping to join ANCOP. He figures he’d earn about double the $180 a month (including combat pay) he’s been getting. His trainers are doing their best to make him worth the extra salary. “One thing the police don’t know is good relations with the people,” says Carabinieri Lt. Col. Massimo Deiana. “We’re trying to train them to respect and relate to people.” If such a skill is teachable at all, it could be far more important in the long run than knowing how to shoot straight.

With Sami Yousafzai in Kabul 

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Filed under Af/Pak, Afghanistan, Contractors, ProPublica, Special Envoys and Reps

Overlooked: Tate Mallory Receives Defense of Freedom Award

I did not see this when it came out, but thought I’d reprint this here even when late. Contractors are the unrecognized fourth leg of our foreign policy. If we have any doubt about that at all, let’s take them away and see how quickly the operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere would quickly fold without their support.  The article below is reprinted in full from ProPublica under Creative Commons:       

War Contractors Receive Defense of Freedom Medal for Injuries, But Attract Little Notice
by T. Christian Miller, ProPublica – February 18, 2010 1:08 pm EST
Falls Church, Va. — A former sheriff’s deputy from South Dakota named Tate Mallory got a medal for service to his country on Wednesday, but it didn’t get much attention. There was no top military brass at the ceremony, no long line of politicians waiting to shake his hand. Instead, Mallory stood on a dais in an anonymous hotel room in suburban Washington, D.C., looking pleased and slightly embarrassed as he was handed a Defense of Freedom medal.
“I thought that if someone was going to get hurt, it was going to happen to somebody else,” he told the audience, which included friends, family, co-workers, State Department officials and representatives from a congressional office or two.
Mallory was a civilian contractor who worked for DynCorp [1], a large defense firm that helps train police in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in western Iraq in 2006, punching a hole in his gut. He almost bled to death until U.S. Marines saved him.
He is one of thousands of civilians whose deaths and injuries are not included in the Pentagon’s official list [2] (PDF) of casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A joint investigation [3] by ProPublica, ABC News and the Los Angeles Times found that injured civilian contractors routinely face drawn-out battles to get medical treatment paid for under a taxpayer-financed federal system known as the Defense Base Act.
The Labor Department, which tracks injuries to contract workers abroad, recently updated the tally [4]: Since 2001, more than 1,700 civilian contractors have died in Iraq and Afghanistan and nearly 40,000 have been reported injured.
More than a hundred contract workers have been given the Defense of Freedom medal [5] (PDF), a Pentagon citation that is the civilian equivalent of the military’s Purple Heart. Still, it’s difficult to track who receives the medal, which was created by the Defense Department after 9/11. Typically, corporations such as DynCorp or Houston-based KBR [6] nominate their workers, with the Pentagon approving the final award. But there is no centralized record of recipients, nor are the award ceremonies [7] (PDF) usually publicized.
Several of those at Wednesday’s ceremony, which was sponsored by DynCorp, lamented the lack of attention. They noted that contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan usually get in the news for bad behavior — such as wasting taxpayer money or the killing of innocent civilians.
Ken Leonard, a former DynCorp employee who was also recognized for valor on Wednesday, said Americans are not always aware of the contribution made by civilian contractors at work in the war zones. Leonard had both legs amputated after being injured by a roadside bomb in 2005. After 18 months of surgeries and rehabilitation, he returned to work as a police officer in High Point, N.C. [8]
“I’d say there was a public misunderstanding. I was there to work with the military,” Leonard said. “There’s a perception that we’re all gun-crazy, trigger-happy cowboys. That’s not the case.”


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A Strategy for that $7.5 billion Pakistan Aid

Map of PakistanImage by Omer Wazir via Flickr


Christopher Flavelle
writes Washington to Reduce Funding for U.S. Contractors in Pakistan for ProPublica on December 22, 2009. The report quotes Stephen P. Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution and a former member of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department who praised the new report (Pakistan Assistance Strategy Report), but questioned the ability of Pakistani NGOs to handle the increase in American funding, as well as USAID’s ability to monitor those projects. “We should have been addressing Pakistan’s problems more effectively earlier,” Cohen said. “This is a good report. They say all the right things. The question is, is it too much, too late?”

Flavelle did a follow-up report yesterday State Dept. Responds to Criticisms Over Pakistan Aid Report (Pro Publica | December 23, 2009). Report reprinted below under creative commons license:

The State Department has responded to criticisms over how it is going to spend and oversee $7.5 billion in new civilian aid for Pakistan, outlined in a plan that ProPublica reported on [1] yesterday.

That plan, which is outlined in a report [2] (PDF) the department sent to Congress last week, calls for shifting spending on U.S. aid projects away from American contractors and nongovernmental organizations and toward their Pakistani counterparts, as well as relying more on Pakistani public accounting firms to monitor that money. Development workers have raised concerns that the policy shift could make American taxpayer money more vulnerable to waste and abuse.

Robin Raphel, the U.S. coordinator for economic and development assistance in Pakistan, told ProPublica today that the key point of the plan is to foster lasting development in Pakistan and help strengthen local institutions.

“When you don’t have Pakistani buy-in, input, ownership of these programs, you might think you’re gaining something fast in the short term, but it isn’t sustainable,” said Raphel. The emphasis on strengthening institutions in Pakistan may include allowing the Pakistani government to run the bidding process for some U.S.-funded programs. Instead of the U.S. Agency for International Development choosing the Pakistani groups that will provide goods and services for the programs it funds, Raphel said that some of those contracts may go through the Pakistani procurement process, with American oversight.

Asked about the risks involved in relying on Pakistani accounting firms, Raphel said that much of the work would be done by Pakistani branches of international accounting firms like KPMG, and that accounting firms used would first be vetted by the USAID’s Inspector General’s office. She added that any training of accounting firms done by that office, which will have just nine staff members in Pakistan, would be contracted out.

A senior administration official, who asked not to be identified, expressed frustration over the criticism of Pakistani organizations. “There’s a widespread perception that every Pakistani you run into is corrupt,” said the official. “I find myself a little impatient with that assumption. Pakistanis are very capable of doing this kind of work. I think it’s very patronizing.”

Active links added above.

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Labor Dept Slow to Help Injured War Zone Contractors

T. Christian Miller of ProPublica reports that under Secretary Hilda Solis, the Labor Department has continued to be slow to act in its oversight of medical care for civilian workers injured in war zones (Read Injured Abroad, Neglected at Home: Labor Dept. Slow to Help War Zone Contractors | December 17, 2009). The report states that DOL has failed to pursue sanctions against corporations accused of ignoring federal requirements to purchase such insurance, according to a ProPublica review of court cases, federal records and interviews with worker advocates. Quick excerpts below:

The department has also taken no action in cases where insurance carriers allegedly provided false or misleading information to the federal government to terminate medical benefits for injured civilians–another potential crime under the law, known as the Defense Base Act [2].

The lack of enforcement has allowed carriers and contract companies to abuse the system by avoiding or blocking payments, forcing contractors to spend months and sometimes years battling carriers in court for benefits, claimants and their attorneys said.
[…]
But the ProPublica examination shows that the department has rarely deployed the tools available under the law to crack down on fraud and abuse–a record that extends back through Democratic and Republican administrations. Labor officials can recommend cases for prosecution to the Justice Department–but have only done so once in the past two decades, according to Labor officials.

They can directly levy civil penalties, but have done so sparingly. As of June, Labor officials have imposed fines in only about 50 of more than 36,000 cases processed by the two largest insurance carriers, according to an internal Congressional memo [3] obtained by ProPublica.
[…]
Passed in 1941, the Defense Base Act requires every company with an overseas U.S. contract to obtain health insurance for its workers. But no single U.S. agency is fully in charge of implementing the program, which has exploded since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 1,600 civilians have died and 37,000 have reported injuries.
[…]
“We put our lives in danger for our military. We supply them with water, food, ammunition, housing. And yet, we’re screwed,” said Philemon, an Air Force veteran. “I almost give my life for my country and I get treated like dirt? “Something’s not right with that picture,” he said.

Read the whole thing here.

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Jumping the Gunman

investigation analysis publication 4Image by eschipul via Flickr

From ProPublica by Stephen Engelberg | November 12, 2009 2:11 pm EST. Republished under Creative Commons license.

The recent reporting on Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, is a classic run-and-gun investigative story in which dozens of reporters badger officials to disclose a new fact (which gets you on page one) or two new facts (which is enough to snag the coveted lead-of-the-paper slot on a slow day). This wolf-pack approach to reporting almost invariably produces stories that lack context, which is hardly surprising.

After all, reporters are telling a complex story by unveiling the key aspects as they learn them. It’s roughly akin to taking scenes from say, the three “Godfather movies” and spitting out them out as YouTube videos in random order. Good luck to anyone trying to follow the plot.

On the Hasan story, one of the earliest newsbreaks seems, at least so far, to be among the least clear.

About a year ago, U.S. intelligence intercepted messages sent by Hasan to Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical imam in Yemen. A task force of counterterrorism officials reviewed those messages , determined they were benign —consistent with work-related research Hasan was doing — and never contacted anyone in the military familiar with Hasan’s record in the military.

Newspapers, Web sites and TV all gave huge play to the story. But what was anyone expecting the government to do about someone who exchanged e-mails or text messages with a known bad guy? Seize his legally obtained gun? Remove him from his job? Arrest him as a material witness to a crime not yet committed?

Last night, NPR provided some context in an exclusive story on “All Things Considered.” Daniel Zwerdling reported that Hasan’s supervisors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center had become increasingly worried that their young resident was losing touch with reality and might be psychotic and a danger to himself or others. They weighed firing Hasan, decided that would be too difficult, and sent him off to Fort Hood without a formal mental health evaluation.

Now, the intercepted messages story has more meaning.

Remember the contacts between Hasan and the Yemeni cleric? They are reported to have occurred in December 2008, which appears to be the same time as Walter Reed doctors were wondering whether Hasan might be capable of what NPR termed “fratricide.”

The terrorism task force that reviewed the potential threat posed by Hasan looked at his personnel files. But they never knew of the doctors’ concerns, because as, The New York Times reported today, the doctors didn’t add them to his file.

Had the Federal Bureau of Investigation spoken to his supervisors – an idea that raises a host of civil liberties and privacy questions – the assessment of the danger he posed might have been different. But the available facts suggest that no one knew the full picture, which meant no one could start “connecting the dots.’’

The reader faces a similar challenge as the Hasan story unfolds in the coming months.

Here’s something to keep in mind: It is a long-established rule for reporting that the first accounts of any military action are frequently wrong. A corollary: The initial reports in a run-and-gun investigative story seldom age well. Remember the hero female cop who shot Hasan? Well, maybe she did and maybe she didn’t. And the purported view of Walter Reed officials that Hasan might be a threat? Shortly after the NPR story aired, the Washington Post asserted the possibility that Hasan might be “delusional” was never taken seriously and addressed by his supervisors only “in passing.’’

Stay tuned.


Stephen Engelberg is managing editor of ProPublica.

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Western Sahara: A fight over independence

Lobbying Expenses: Algeria – $416,000; Morocco – $3.4 million

The following is excerpted from Opening the Window on Foreign Lobbying by Anupama Narayanswamy and Luke Rosiak, Sunlight Foundation and Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica. Reprinted here under Creative Commons.

The Western Sahara [14] is an inhospitable patch of desert about the size of Colorado on Africa’s Atlantic coast, with a population of about 400,000, a GDP of only $900 million, and an economy based on nomadic herding, fishing and phosphorous mining. It is also one of the last colonies in the world — Morocco [15] annexed it a few years after Spain granted it independence in 1975 — and the subject of 34 U.N. Security Council resolutions on the territory since 1999.

In late 2007 and 2008, the desert region was a top priority for Morocco’s hired lobbyists. At issue was Western Sahara’s autonomy, but the story also shows how, in a foreign lobbying arms race, the side with the biggest arsenal can come out on top.

The government of Morocco sought the support of Congress in this lengthy territorial dispute. The region has long demanded independence. An indigenous insurgent group, the Polisario Front [16], waged a guerrilla war against the Moroccan military until the United Nations brokered a cease-fire in 1991.

Part of the terms of that deal included holding a referendum to determine the territory’s final status, but no vote has been held. In 2007, Morocco issued a proposal to grant Western Sahara autonomy within sovereign Morocco. The U.S. initially welcomed the proposal, and direct talks began between Morocco and the Polisario with the involvement of Algeria, which supports self-determination for the Sahrawi tribes from the area.

Toby Moffett, a lobbyist for Morocco who served as a Democratic congressman from Connecticut in the 1970s and ’80s, wrote an op-ed for the April 8, 2007, edition of The Los Angeles Times, explaining how he presented Morocco’s position to an unnamed member of Congress: “Morocco has a good story to tell,” he wrote. “It believes that the long-standing dispute with Algeria and the rebel Polisario group over the Western Sahara must be resolved.

“We tell the congresswoman and her staff that the region is becoming a possible Al Qaeda training area,” he wrote. “Algeria and the Polisario recently hired lobbyists, too, so we’ll have our hands full.”

Indeed, records show the Algerian government’s lobbyists had 36 contacts with members of Congress and staff promoting self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. The Algerians paid a modest $416,000 in lobbying fees.

By comparison, lobbyists for the government of Morocco had 305 contacts with members of Congress and their staff. Morocco paid $3.4 million in lobbying expenses — putting it among the top foreign government spenders for FARA filings in the period.

The intense campaign won converts. A bipartisan group of some 173 House members signed on to a statement supporting Morocco’s offer of autonomy for the region without formal independence. President Bush also expressed support [17] for Morocco’s plan in summer of 2008. And this April, 229 representatives sent a letter to President Obama urging him to back Morocco.

Until Obama reversed Bush’s stance [18] last month, Morocco’s investment worked.

* * *

The Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker is a joint project of ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation. It digitizes information that representatives of foreign governments, political parties and government-controlled entities must disclose to the U.S. Justice Department when they seek to influence U.S. policy. Filings under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) provide details on how lobbyists interact with government officials than those required by the Lobbying Disclosure Act; they contain information on efforts by foreign governments and organizations to influence U.S. policy on trade, taxation, foreign aid, appropriations, human rights and national security.

You may query the database by member of Congress contacted, country, client or lobbying firm. You can also search by “contact issues” as reported by lobbyists.

Read more on Western Sahara here.

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$4.2 million to dispute a single word

Image from ProPublica

Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker, a joint project of ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation, digitizes information that representatives of foreign governments, political parties and government-controlled entities must disclose to the U.S. Justice Department when they seek to influence U.S. policy. Filings under the Foreign Agent Registration Act provide more details on how lobbyists interact with government officials than those required by the Lobbying Disclosure Act; they contain information on efforts by foreign governments and organizations to influence U.S. policy on trade, taxation, foreign aid, appropriations, human rights and national security.

You may query the database by member of Congress contacted, country, client or lobbying firm. You can also search by “contact issues” as reported by lobbyists. Here are some sample queries: “Robert Wexler“, “Tax“, and “Executive Office of Dubai.”

With the roll out of the influence tracker database, ProPublica also published two accompanying articles Adding it up: The Top Players in Foreign Agent Lobbying and Opening the Window on Foreign Lobbying. The latter by Anupama Narayanswamy and Luke Rosiak, Sunlight Foundation and Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica. The following is excerpted from that piece (reprinted under Creative Commons):

Map of TurkeyImage via Wikipedia


$4.2 million to dispute a single word

Perhaps no player in the field shows the influence of foreign agents as much as Robert Livingston, the powerful ex-appropriations chairman who was in line to be House Speaker before a scandal derailed him. His firm, Livingston Group [6], reported the highest number of contacts with government officials, and Livingston was the second-biggest political giver among lobbyists for foreign agents, listing more than $99,000 in campaign contributions, most of which went to members of Congress. His clients — including the governments of Azerbaijan, Egypt, Libya and the Republic of Congo and the Bank of the Netherlands Antilles — showered his firm with $5 million in fees, the third-highest total among all firms that reported during the period.

Also among them was one country with a longstanding image problem: Turkey. From 1915 to 1923, as many as 1.5 million Armenians perished, many at the hands of the Ottoman government, but a precise description of the events has been an extraordinarily sensitive subject in Turkey. The issue also has risen regularly in Congress, thanks in part to American-Armenian groups that have pushed for government affirmation [7] that the killings amounted to genocide.

In October 2007, with elderly Armenian survivors from the era in attendance, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs approved a resolution [8] that would do just that. The next step would be a vote before the entire House, something Turkey wanted desperately to avoid. On more than any other issue, Turkey, which has a U.S.-led war in Iraq on its border, is seeking help in a longstanding effort to join the European Union.

The genocide question split U.S. leaders. All eight living former secretaries of state at the time sent a letter warning Congress that offending Turkey could have serious diplomatic consequences for the United States. Both Barack Obama and his chief opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, were in the Senate; Clinton backed a resolution recognizing the genocide, and Obama made it a campaign pledge.

Turkey’s lobbyists made contact with the executive branch 100 times in a coordinated effort to persuade congressional leaders to squash the resolution. The Livingston Group worked Congress. The firm’s lobbyists contacted the office of Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., author of the resolution, four times on Oct. 4 to arrange a meeting with Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy. A few weeks later, Sensoy was withdrawn in protest of the House’s consideration of the measure.

Turkey didn’t lobby just Congress — the country hired foreign agents to promote the cause with people outside the administration, too. Noam Neusner, who served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, worked the powerful Jewish lobby, meeting with an array of groups including the influential American Israeli Public Affairs Committee [9] a combined 96 times to persuade them to oppose the resolution, FARA records show. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, and relations have been generally positive; but in the end, AIPAC supported the resolution.

On Oct. 26, 2007, some sponsors of the resolution backed off a full floor vote, and the legislation never advanced. FARA records quantify the effort Turkey’s lobbyists put into the issue: 673 contacts in a single month, and more than 2,200 in the filings overall — the most of any country.

In all, records show, Turkey spent $4.2 million to mobilize its lobbyists to influence a resolution that hinged on the single word — genocide. Some $1.9 million of that went to DLA Piper [10], a top-50 U.S. law firm that operates globally and has taken on such high-profile cases as the defense of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. The dispute demonstrates the power of labels — and the lengths to which a country will go to protect its world image.

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Mis/Fortunes of Wars and Rocks

Lots of chatter on getting more boots on the ground in Afghanistan here, here and here as well as more civilian reconstruction workers. Danger Room also reports about the Army exploring the possibility of using private security contractors as the primary protective forces on American outposts.

So if this war, like that other one will be fought partly by foreign soldiers, and paid for by borrowed money, where does that leave us actually? The sleeping dragon must be grinning as it now controls $776.4 billion in U.S. debt.


As if that is not troubling enough, there is this wonderful news that would make any taxpayer grind his/her teeth to powder. David Axe writes:

Geological Survey and the Navy had been asked by the Afghan government to figure out if there were any undiscovered, valuable minerals in the country: coal, iron, gas, even oil — anything that might help Kabul fund badly-needed rebuilding. The Navy plane used “hyper-spectral” cameras and radars to chart mineral deposits, while an Air Force WB-57 — a modified, Vietnam-era bomber — scanned with an infrared sensor. USAID funded the work.

Kabul had exclusive access to the data gathered by the planes. And when it came time to sell the data along with exploration rights for potential copper mines, Kabul picked a Chinese company — even though the U.S. government had done all the survey work, for free.


Holy mother of god and all her wacky nephews!

On a related note, Spencer Ackerman who covered Richard Holbrooke staff announcements last week (Obama Faces Rising Anxiety on Afghanistan) quoted the special envoy as saying “I’m not here to say we’re winning or losing, that we’re optimistic or pessimistic,” but rather to show that there’s “a determination to succeed.” That’s good, I guess until you reached the limit of persistence. On success in Afghanistan, Mr. Holbrooke said “We’ll know it when we see it.” Oops!

Oh heavens! It’s exactly talk like that that makes folks a tad antsy … this bucket is not a bottomless thing.

* * *


More on the misfortunes of war. Below is a story from ProPublica reprinted under
Creative Commons license:

Sometimes It’s Not Your War, But You Sacrifice Anyway
by T. Christian Miller, ProPublica – August 17, 2009 9:19 am EDT

To outsource the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has turned to the cheapest labor possible. About two-thirds of the 200,000 civilians working under federal contracts [2] in the war zones are foreigners. Many come from poor, Third World countries. Others are local hires.

These low-paid foreign workers face many of the same risks soldiers do. Mortars have killed Filipinos who served meals in mess halls. Assassins have targeted Iraqis translating for soldiers. Roadside bombs have ripped into trucks driven by Turkish nationals. These workers have been wounded like soldiers. They have died like soldiers.

The United States has a system to provide care for such civilian casualties. Developed in the 1940s, it is an obscure type of workers’ compensation insurance, funded by taxpayers and overseen by the Labor Department. Mandated by a law called the Defense Base Act [3], the system requires almost every federal contractor working abroad to purchase insurance to cover injuries arising from work or war, for all employees, American or foreign.


American civilian workers have had trouble enough getting payment
[4] for their injuries. AIG, the primary provider of such insurance, has battled them over everything from prosthetic legs to treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, according to court records and interviews. But at least the Americans have a fighting chance.

For foreign workers, the system has not even come close to delivering on its promises. In Nepal, I spoke with a family in a remote valley of tumbling rivers and jewel-green rice fields. After neighbors heard news reports over the radio, the family watched an Internet video that showed that their son had been executed in a dusty ditch in western Iraq on his way to work at a base for U.S. soldiers. Neither the company nor the United States had made any effort to contact them. The elderly couple, who had relied upon their son’s salary, wondered how they would survive.

In the Philippines, I spoke to a woman who received a cellphone message when her son’s father died: “God took him.” She, too, had never been told of her rights to benefits by the employer or the United States. Her partner’s wages were so low that the death payment would have amounted to about $14,000. Not much, perhaps. But on the day I met her in a slum of tin shanties and reeking sewage, she did not know where she would find food that night for her three 3-year-old son. She still has received no payments.

These are not isolated examples. They are part of a pattern of neglect by the U.S. government and its contractors to inform civilian workers of their rights or even to deliver care that has already been purchased by taxpayers. While about two-thirds of the contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan are foreigners, only about 15 percent of claims are filed by foreigners [2], according to an analysis of Labor Department and Pentagon records by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom.

Since foreigners work many of the same jobs as Americans, albeit for far less money, the reasons for the disparity seem obvious. Their care has been entrusted to an overwhelmed bureaucracy and the machinations of insurance firms and multinational corporations. And the government has so far shown little interest in helping them out.

Seth Harris, the deputy secretary of labor, said at a congressional hearing in June that the program has “systemic problems,” and he urged Congress to enact new legislation. “The program is not designed for the circumstances we’re in right now,” Harris told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “We are trying to meet a complex, 21st-century challenge with a program from World War II.”

Harris’s history lesson is spot on. Congress, corporate America and individual laborers banded together 60 years ago to create the program for wounded war workers after what is perhaps one of the most forgotten chapters of World War II.

On the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing, Japanese forces also attacked the South Pacific outpost of Wake Island. At the time, about 1,200 American construction workers were beefing up the island’s defenses. Most were employed by an Idaho construction company, Morrison Knudsen. Aided by the contractors, who manned gun batteries in some cases, U.S. Marines repelled the first attack, but they fell to a second assault on Dec. 23, 1941.

The Japanese sent both civilians and soldiers to prisoner-of-war camps in China. But a contingent of 98 contract workers was kept on the island as forced labor. They were all men, mostly white, from towns across America. Photos show them with pomaded hair and fedoras. When the U.S. Navy attacked the island in October 1943, the Japanese lined up the workers and executed them, dumping their bodies in a mass grave.

A single, unknown man escaped, only to be recaptured a few weeks later. In a macabre echo of the fate that would befall several contractors in Iraq, the Japanese commander, Adm. Shigematsu Sakaibara, later confessed to personally beheading him, according to an account by Mark Hubbs [5], a retired Army Reserve officer who researched the incident. All told, more than 150 civilian contractors from Wake Island were killed, executed or died in prison camps.

The civilians’ entanglement in the war caught the military and the contracting firms unprepared. Earlier in the year, Congress passed the Defense Base Act, requiring defense contractors to purchase workers’ compensation insurance for employees building overseas bases as the U.S. girded for war. But it was a law for workplaces, not war zones. The law did not deal with hostile acts. Nor did it cover employees killed outside the workplace, such as civilians who died in prison camps. The families of the Wake Island men were left without income.

“These people were just coming out of the Depression. There were young wives with children, dependent parents,” said Bonnie Gilbert, an Idaho writer whose father was an imprisoned worker. “They were between a rock and a hard place.”

The families’ plight spurred action. Led by Morrison Knudsen, contracting firms lobbied Congress and financed a charity to help the families with mortgage bills and doctors visits. Each Christmas, the men’s children were given a check for around $9, according to a report published by the firms. The War Department directed emergency funds to the cause.

Congress, meanwhile, created the outlines of the current benefits system. The Defense Base Act was amended to require employers to provide coverage on a nearly 24-hour basis in war zones. To persuade insurers to write policies, Congress also passed the War Hazards Compensation Act in December 1942. The act reimburses carriers for injuries or deaths due to combat, lowering their risk for catastrophic expenses.

In creating the system, Congress recognized that civilian contractors played a vital part in fighting the war. Sen. Elbert D. Thomas, D-Utah, then chairman of the Senate’s Education and Labor Committee, urged passage by telling fellow lawmakers that the war was everybody’s business. “When once total war … is undertaken, the sooner we bring home to our people the fact that all are responsible for the war, all might suffer by the war and therefore all should sustain the losses, the better off we will be in a social and governmental way,” he said.

The sympathetic response to the Wake Island tragedy contrasts with the attitude toward contractors today. They are now often labeled as mercenaries or war profiteers. Their contributions to the war efforts are lost amid reports of six-figure salaries, murdered Iraqis and substandard construction. Last Sunday, a British security guard working for ArmorGroup was arrested by Iraqi authorities after allegedly gunning down two colleagues in the Green Zone — an action that would amount to a contractor version of fratricide.

Nearly 1,600 civilian workers have died in Iraq, and more than 35,000 have reported injuries. Since 2001, Congress has held scores of hearings for injured veterans, but only two for injured contractors. The Government Accountability Office has published more than 100 studies on veterans’ benefits since March 2003. It has done two on the Defense Base Act.

Nor, with a few exceptions, have the contract firms stepped forward for their employees. No company leads a charge to fix the system. Notably silent is Washington Group International, a major contractor in Iraq. The company, which has reported 19 deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, was once known as Morrison Knudsen. Now part of URS Corp., the company declined to answer questions about contractor deaths.

It’s not surprising that neither the government nor the firms have felt much pressure to act. Many of the foreign workers and their families do not speak English. They do not have a senator to argue their case or a corporation to lobby for them. The result is an invisible, disposable army suffering its wounds in silence.

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