At this point in the rule of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, I thought I had reached shock fatigue. We’ve seen illegal invasions, torture, unprecedented levels of corruption, a warrantless wiretapping on a nationwide scale, and an erosion of national credibility on everything from the environment to the rule of law.
Yet this morning I read a story that filled me anew with fresh outrage and I think exemplifies the horrors – the absolute horrors – of this administration and the political ideology behind them.
The article is in Vanity Fair’s November edition, The People vs. the Profiteers. (If this was diaried earlier this month, my apologies. I did a search on several key words and did not see it. Vanity Fair is a very thick magazine and I read it from front to back so I usually read it spaced out over the entire month).
In it, the writer, David Rose, covers how an attorney, Alan Grayson, has led a campaign against government corruption. He’s done so for 16 years. In the past the Department of Justice often allied with him to root out corrupt officials. But when it has come to the Iraq war, the DOJ has thrown up roadblock after roadblock.
In this administration corruption on a massive scale is a statistic. It’s an example Rose uses from among the cases that is the outrage.
Consider the case of Grayson’s client Bud Conyers, a big, bearded 43-year-old who lives with his ex-wife and her nine children, four of them his, in Enid, Oklahoma. Conyers worked in Iraq as a driver for Kellogg, Brown & Root. Spun off by Halliburton as an independent concern in April, KBR is the world’s fifth-largest construction company. Before the war started, the Pentagon awarded it two huge contracts: one, now terminated, to restore the Iraqi oil industry, and another, still in effect, to provide a wide array of logistical-support services to the U.S. military.
In the midday heat of June 16, 2003, Conyers was summoned to fix a broken refrigerated truck-a “reefer,” in contractor parlance-at Log Base Seitz, on the edge of Baghdad’s airport. He and his colleagues had barely begun to inspect the sealed trailer when they found themselves reeling from a nauseating stench. The freezer was powered by the engine, and only after they got it running again, several hours later, did they dare open the doors.
The trailer, unit number R-89, had been lying idle for two weeks, Conyers says, in temperatures that daily reached 120 degrees. “Inside, there were 15 human bodies,” he recalls. “A lot of liquid stuff had just seeped out. There were body parts on the floor: eyes, fingers. The goo started seeping toward us. Boom! We shut the doors again.” The corpses were Iraqis, who had been placed in the truck by a U.S. Army mortuary unit that was operating in the area. That evening, Conyers’s colleague Wallace R. Wynia filed an official report: “On account of the heat the bodies were decomposing rapidly…. The inside of the trailer was awful.”
(As an aside, I have smelled the sickly sweet stench of putrified corpses more times than I care to recall. It is one of the worst smells in existence. I cannot imagine what 15 trapped inside a metal trailer for two weeks in the desert heat would have been like.)
Under any consideration, the rule of civilian or military regulations or laws, religious taboos, and basic human decency, there are prohibitions against carrying food and water in the same containers that had been used to carry human corpses – yet alone putrid corpses.
But that is exactly what is being done in Iraq. To our soldiers. With our tax dollars.
But when Bud Conyers next caught sight of trailer R-89, about a month later, it was packed not with human casualties but with bags of ice-ice that was going into drinks served to American troops. He took photographs, showing the ice bags, the trailer number, and the wooden decking, which appeared to be stained red. Another former KBR employee, James Logsdon, who now works as a police officer near Enid, says he first saw R-89 about a week after Conyers’s grisly discovery. “You could still see a little bit of matter from the bodies, stuff that looked kind of pearly, and blood from the stomachs. It hadn’t even been hosed down. Afterwards, I saw that truck in the P.W.C.-the public warehouse center-several times. There’s nothing there except food and ice. It was backed up to a dock, being loaded.”
This is where a Republican ideology leads us. The for-profit contractor used a refrigerated tractor trailer permeated with human remains in the wood floor and on the floor itself to carry ice and probably food.
Profit over people – even when it comes to the troops they claim to support. They outsourced a basic government service of the feed and care of the troops for a for-profit enterprise which didn’t care about their health or human decency.
It came down to a shortage of refrigerated trucks. Rather than buy more, Kellough Brown and Root kept it running from corpse hauling to food hauling. Conyers was fired by KBR for not being a “team player.”
How KBR treated Conyers would itself be an outrage but after hauling ice for human consumption with the remains of putrid corpses, anything KBR does under that pales in comparison. The entire story is well worth a read, including how the DOJ is using a provision of the whistle-blower law probably to keep incidents like this rather than to investigate them as it should.
Grayson has hope that one day the deep-rooted profiteering and corruption of the Iraq war will come to light.
There are a few encouraging signs that a day of reckoning is drawing near. Committees in both the House and the Senate have held hearings on contracting in Iraq, and several plan to hold more. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, has introduced a War Profiteering Prevention Act, which would make it much easier to investigate corrupt contractors and call them to account. And in August, the news that tens of thousands of weapons intended for Iraqi security forces had vanished or been stolen prompted the Pentagon to announce that its inspector general, Claude M. Kicklighter, would lead an 18-person team to investigate “contracting practices” in Iraq.
In the more distant future, a Democratic administration might open up the vaults and expose the American public to the scale of what has been looted. “What we have seen up to now is the worst of the worst in terms of a deliberate cover-up,” Grayson says. But if and when it comes to an end, he thinks it’s entirely possible that Congress will appoint a special prosecutor-one whose targets might one day reach “an extremely high level.”
We can only hope. But I think the stench will linger forever.