WASHINGTON -- The State Department office charged with monitoring human trafficking is investigating alleged abuses of workers who are part of an undocumented pipeline used to deliver thousands of Asians to labor on U.S. military bases in Iraq.
John Miller, director of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said in an interview Wednesday that his office is working with the Department of Defense, as well as State Department officials in South Asia and the Middle East, to investigate and address issues brought to light by "Pipeline to Peril," a two-part series published by the Tribune in October.
Miller said his office, which was created by congressional mandate in 2001, has recently started to grapple with trafficking abuses that exist within the larger system of foreign labor migration into the Middle East, where petrodollars have for decades fueled the flow of millions of domestic workers and menial laborers from impoverished nations.
While much of the flow of workers is for legitimate employment, Miller said, "There is a dark side to this." He also said, "If this turns out to be the case in Iraq, something has to be done about it."
Miller said the Tribune's series, which documented the deaths of 12 workers who had been trafficked from Nepal to Iraq, raised a specific alarm because it detailed alleged abuses involving contractors and subcontractors "employed directly or indirectly by the U.S. government" at American facilities in Iraq under a multibillion-dollar privatization contract.
That contract, which has cost taxpayers more than $12 billion, is held by Halliburton subsidiary KBR.
Miller also said U.S. government contractors have to be held accountable, at least to some degree, for the behavior of their subcontractors and the networks below them that are often used to recruit and deliver laborers to American bases in Iraq--networks uncovered by the Tribune.
"Our view is that the U.S. contractor has to take responsibility," Miller said.
He said that even if there are 15 layers between the firm that originally recruited the worker and the U.S. government, it is not hard to "ask your last subcontractor to inquire of the workers how they got there."
"Pipeline to Peril" described how some of KBR's subcontractors, and a chain of human brokers stretching to South and Southeast Asia, allegedly engaged in the same kinds of abuses routinely condemned by Miller's office in other nations as symptomatic of human trafficking.
The newspaper retraced the journey of 12 men recruited from rural villages in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, one of the most remote and impoverished corners of the world, and documented a trail of deceit, fraud and negligence stretching into Jordan and Iraq.
Most had contracts filed with their government falsely promising them jobs at a five-star hotel in Amman, yet all 12 were ultimately kidnapped in August 2004 en route to jobs at a U.S. military base in Iraq. They were subsequently executed by militants in what appears to stand as the single worst massacre of foreign workers in Iraq since the American-led invasion almost three years ago.
Other practices documented by the newspaper, which found that the men changed hands at least four times before landing in an unprotected convoy, included deceit, fraud and coercion for many workers, whose families often assumed huge debts to pay fees demanded by brokers in their home countries. Workers felt compelled to head into the war zone, or remain in danger for much longer than they desired, just to pay the debts.
The Tribune also found evidence that subcontractors and brokers routinely seized workers' passports, deceived them about their safety or contract terms and, in at least one case, allegedly tried to force terrified men into the war zone from a neighboring country under the threat of cutting off their food and water.
Official credits Tribune
Miller said Wednesday that his office's actions were sparked by the Tribune series.
"This information first came to our attention, my attention, everybody in this office, because of your series," Miller said.
KBR relies on more than 200 subcontractors, many based in the Middle East, to carry out the military support contract. KBR officials have said roughly 35,000 so-called third-country nationals are employed in theater under the contract, many of them performing menial labor on bases for the Middle Eastern subcontractors.
The company's subcontracts even contained clauses informing firms they could be required to hire workers from developing nations because of the U.S. military's fear that hiring Iraqis would allow insurgents to infiltrate its bases.
Nonetheless, KBR left virtually every facet of the recruitment, hiring and mobilization of such workers in the hands of its subcontractors. And the company, along with the U.S. military, allowed subcontractors to hire workers from nations such as Nepal that banned labor agents from sending their citizens to Iraq, meaning many were brought in through illicit channels or fraudulent methods, the newspaper found.
Halliburton declined to answer many of the Tribune's written questions for the series but did say that it outlined "legal and ethical behaviors that all employees and subcontractors are expected to follow in every aspect of their work."
Miller said Wednesday that he thinks provisions contained in the recent reauthorization of the nation's countertrafficking statute will allow for stricter enforcement of anti-trafficking measures against overseas subcontractors.
Despite resistance from the defense industry, Miller said, he is working with the Pentagon to ensure that new Defense Department rules, expected to be finalized early this year after months of delay, will require U.S. contractors operating overseas to police their subcontractors for human-trafficking violations.
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