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State Dept. Says Embroiled Embassy Almost Done

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/embassy.jpgU.S. Embassy in Baghdad Construction in May 2006, Associated Press

For two years, stories about the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad have talked about its looming size — a 104-acre expanse — and extreme isolation. More recently, though, the stories have turned to sensational reports of human trafficking, slave labor conditions and a dangerously unsafe structure.

The allegations have been strong enough to put the entire project in doubt. Yet the State Department has plowed ahead and is finally saying that the embassy will soon be completed — far away from the glare of continuing Justice Department and congressional investigations.

Nationalsecurity_4725.jpg
Nationalsecurity_4725.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Department spokesman Rob McInturff said in an interview with The Washington Independent that within the next few weeks the State Dept. will issue a “Certificate of Occupancy.” This impending occupancy might seem unlikely considering a Washington Post article two weeks ago that pointed out the building’s entire fire safety apparatus was broken.

McInturff explains, however, that First Kuwaiti Building and Contracting Co., the embassy contractor, has inspected the fire system and assures State everything is fine. Now the department simply needs to proofread their work. ” It’s a process of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s for the final inspection ,” McInturff says.

Embassy completion will probably be a little more contentious than a series of bureaucratic formalities. Nonetheless, it appears State is hoping to cross the finish line without having to confront the recently uncovered scandals.

Beginning last summer, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform laid out the case that the State Department made a terrible mistake in awarding a $592-million contract to First Kuwaiti to build the embassy in Baghdad’s green zone. And instead of admitting things had spiraled out of control, State was apparently stonewalling investigations.

The Justice Department responded by launching a criminal probe into the subcontracting deals made by First Kuwaiti. Justice also began an investigation of James Golden and Mary French, the State Department officials managing embassy construction.

Meanwhile the oversight committee pushed forward scrutiny of the State Department’s Inspector General Howard “Cookie” Krongard, who had refused to acknowledge labor and contracting problems on the embassy site.

Krongard had developed a reputation for blocking all investigations in State Department contractors, including Blackwater, a major security and military contractor. In November, Krongard told the committee that his brother was not on the Blackwater advisory board, but when presented evidence that suggested otherwise, changed his story. A publicly embarrassed Krongard, who still face perjury charges, resigned in December.

His resignation was followed two weeks later by that of State Overseas Building Operations Director Charles Williams. In July Williams promised the committee that the embassy would be completed in September. When September came, however, State admitted project completion would be indefinitely delayed until 2008. Golden, Williams project manager, is also no longer around. McInturff explained in an interview that his contract has expired.

Yet while the key people who allegedly mismanaged embassy oversight are no longer in the jobs, many remain skeptical that the whole truth will come out.

Scott Horton, a senior project consultant of the non-profit advocacy organization Human Rights First, suspects that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad could be the next in a line of Iraq contracting scandals that makes headlines — only to fade away. Human Rights First published a study last week that only one prosecution of an Iraq contractor has taken place. “It basically has to be a throbbing, red-hot case to maintain public scrutiny and Justice Department interest,” Horton said.

David Phinney, a Washington-based journalist, whose stories about labor conditions on the embassy compound in online publications including CorpWatch and AlterNet, helped spark the oversight’s committee inquiry, is also skeptical. “The Justice Department is backlogged for years in Iraq cases,” Phinney said.

For the scope of its ambitions and subsequent problems, though, the embassy is a case like no other. State awarded the Lebanese based-First Kuwaiti a contract in July 2005 to build the largest embassy in the world, a self-sufficient community with everything from apartment buildings, water and waste treatment facilities and a power station to a gym, cinema and swimming pool. The entire compound was to be completed for a fixed price of $592 million, a sum based on State’s standard embassy design — though that money has proved inadequate to fiance the compound’s many facets.

To complete the massive undertaking at that price, First Kuwaiti turned to contract labor from the Philippines, India and Pakistan. These workers could be hired for far less money than local people- who might also be reluctant to work openly for the U.S. government, employment that can prove dangerous in Baghdad. However, those worker’s governments do not let citizens travel to Iraq.

Mayberry, who was

hired to be an emergency medical technician, said the workers he talked to thought they were going to work in Dubai hotels but were instead physically forced to go to Baghdad.

In testimony before the House Oversight Committee, John Owen and Ray Mayberry, former First Kuwaiti employees and U.S. citizens, recounted the apparent solution to this problem. Workers would get on planes with passports stamped for Dubai, but the flight would be re-routed to Baghdad.

Then, Mayberry testified, First Kuwaiti would confiscate their passports and put them to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. They were housed 25 people to a trailer that was typically 40 FT. by 10 ft., not receive basic equipment like shoes and would often have to work dazed by painkillers. For this, Mayberry said, workers told him they were paid between $10 to $30 a week. And according to an Iraq Multinational Forces Inspector General report, many workers had to send the equivalent of a year pay as a fee to a work recruiter who had put them on the wrong plane in the first place.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the embassy has now failed numerous tests of its security, electric wiring and fire safety systems. The structure was billed as blast resistant, but last May part of the building was destroyed by mortar fire. Amb. Ryan Crocker subsequently ordered Golden out of Baghdad when he worked with First Kuwaiti to prevent an investigation into the attack. In other words, the man who had been in charge of managing the project was not allowed to see the project.

An internal State Department conflict has also developed over the fire system — where the official line contradicts a report by the State Dept.’s Fire Protection Division that “the entire installation is not acceptable.” Intramural battles most notoriously occurred in the Inspector General’s office, where Krongard killed staff probes into allegations made by Owens, Mayberry and others. He traveled to Baghdad in September to investigate labor abuses and reported that, “Nothing came to our attention.”

When Krongard resigned, Oversight Committee Chair Henry A. Waxman, (D-Calif.), said, “It removes an enormous distraction.” So is the committee moving full-speed ahead? “It is definitely an active, ongoing investigation,” says Waxman spokeswoman, Karen Lightfoot.

What bears monitoring is how the investigation can continue to circle back to the waste, fraud and abuse that happened when the embassy was oversight-free. “What you’re trying to do now is shut the barn door while the horse is out,” said Dina Rasor, the founder of the Project on Government Oversight who recently started the Follow the Money Project to investigate where war funds are going.

Lawernce Korb, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, is more confident. “Waxman’s committee will pick it up,” Korb asserted. “The State Dept. will find out they need more money and they’ll ask for more money and [the committee] will investigate what they’re going to spend this money for.”

In other words, as long as State keeps making mistakes, justice will be served.

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