WASHINGTON - The top U.S. commander in Iraq has ordered sweeping changes for privatized military support operations after confirming violations of human-trafficking laws and other abuses by contractors involving possibly thousands of foreign workers on American bases, according to records obtained by the Chicago Tribune.
Gen. George Casey ordered that contractors be required by May 1 to return passports that have been illegally confiscated from laborers on U.S. bases after determining that such practices violated U.S. laws against trafficking for forced or coerced labor. Human brokers and subcontractors from South Asia to the Middle East have worked together to import thousands of laborers into Iraq from impoverished countries.
Two memos obtained by the Tribune indicate that Casey's office concluded that the practice of confiscating passports from such workers was both widespread on American bases and in violation of the U.S. trafficking laws.
The memos, including an order dated April 4 and titled "Subject: Prevention of Trafficking in Persons in MNF-I," or Multinational Forces-Iraq, say the military also confirmed a host of other abuses during an inspection of contracting activities supporting the U.S. military in Iraq. They include deceptive hiring practices; excessive fees charged by overseas job brokers who lure workers into Iraq; substandard living conditions once laborers arrive; violations of Iraqi immigration laws; and a lack of mandatory "awareness training" on U.S. bases concerning human trafficking.
Along with a separate memo from a top military procurement official to all contractors in Iraq, dated April 19 and titled, "Withholding of Passports, Trafficking in Persons," Casey's orders promise harsh actions against firms that fail to return passports or end other abusive practices. Contracts could be terminated, contractors could be blacklisted from future work, and commanders could physically bar firms from bases, the memos show.
"Contracts must incorporate appropriate language to compel the protection of individual rights (at both the contract and subcontract levels)," Casey's orders say, adding that it was his goal to "to promote (the) rule of law in Iraq and in the labor recruiting process."
Under future contracts, Casey is requiring that all firms, no matter how far down the chain, "provide workers with a signed copy of their employment contract that defines the terms of their employment."
He's ordering that contracts include "measurable, enforceable standards for living conditions (e.g., sanitation, health, safety, etc.) and establish 50 feet as the minimum acceptable square footage of personal living space per worker," after finding that some conditions were substandard.
Contractors and subcontractors also must "comply with international laws" regarding transit, exit and entry procedures, "requirements for work visas," and Iraqi immigration laws.
The orders also mandate that future contracts and subcontracts include "language that prohibits contractors and subcontractors at all tiers from utilizing unlicensed recruiting firms, or firms that charge illegal recruiting fees."
The short-term impact of the orders is unclear, because the separate memo to contractors, which is dated April 19 and written by Col. Robert K. Boyles, a top official with the Joint Contracting Command-Iraq/Afghanistan, shows many of the reforms would be implemented by changes in the language in future contracts.
Nonetheless, the findings and actions represent a dramatic turnabout for the U.S. military, and follow three months of behind-the-scenes pressure on the Defense Department from State Department officials charged with monitoring and combating human trafficking worldwide.
The State Department launched an investigation and promised other actions earlier this year in response to a series published Oct. 9-10 by the Tribune, "Pipeline to Peril," that detailed many of the abuses now cited in the memos.
The stories disclosed the often-illicit networks used to recruit low-skilled laborers from some of the world's most impoverished and remote locales to work in menial jobs on American bases in Iraq.
Although other firms also have contracts supporting the military in Iraq, the United States has outsourced vital support operations to Halliburton subsidiary KBR at an unprecedented scale, at a cost to the United States of more than $12 billion as of late last year.
KBR, in turn, has outsourced much of that work to more than 200 subcontractors, many of them based in Middle Eastern nations condemned by the United States for failing to stem human trafficking into their own borders or for perpetrating other human rights abuses against foreign workers.
KBR's subcontractors employ an army of workers to dish out food, wash clothes, clean latrines and carry out virtually every other menial task. About 35,000 of the 48,000 people working under the privatization contract last year were "Third Country Nationals," who are non-Americans imported from outside Iraq, KBR has said.
"Pipeline to Peril," which was based on reporting in the United States, Jordan, Iraq, Nepal and Saudi Arabia, described how some subcontractors and a chain of human brokers allegedly engaged in the same kinds of abuses routinely condemned by the State Department as human trafficking.
The newspaper retraced the journey of 12 men recruited in 2004 from rural villages in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal and documented a trail of deceit, fraud and negligence stretching into Jordan and Iraq. Most of the men had contracts filed with their government falsely promising them positions at a five-star hotel in Amman, yet all 12 were sent into Iraq in August 2004. They were ultimately kidnapped from an unprotected caravan traveling along what was then one of the most dangerous roadways in the world: the Amman-to-Baghdad highway.
All 12 men were subsequently executed by militants in likely the single worst massacre of foreign workers in Iraq since the American-led invasion more than three years ago.
Those workers and others suffered from a chain of exploitation that began in their home countries, where families often assumed huge debts to pay fees demanded by brokers, to Iraq. Even after discovering they'd been deceived, workers felt compelled to head into the war zone, or remain in danger for much longer than they desired, just to pay those 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 Iraq under the threat of cutting off their food and water.
The series also showed how KBR and the military left virtually every aspect of the recruitment, deployment and safety of such workers in the hands of their subcontractors. They also allowed subcontractors to employ workers from countries that had banned the deployment of their citizens to Iraq, meaning thousands were trafficked through illicit channels.
When told of the memos, John Miller, who heads the State Department office to monitor and combat human trafficking, credited the Tribune for shedding light on the illicit practices. He also praised the military for taking corrective action.
"Needless to say, we're delighted," Miller said. "This is progress, and we agree with the steps they've taken."
Although allegations of such abuses began appearing in international press reports more than two years ago, and the Tribune's own investigation was published last October, one of the memos calls on the military and the State Department to develop "an effective media strategy emphasizing the (military) Command's pro-active response to the problem."
Separate records also show that similar allegations had been raised in September 2004 with Joseph Schmitz, who was then the Department of Defense inspector general.
Schmitz did not respond in any detail until nearly a year later, saying in an Aug. 25, 2005, letter to Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., that there was a "list of corrective measures" ordered by coalition military officials in Iraq following "a preliminary inquiry" into the allegations. The letter did not mention passport seizures or violations of U.S. laws against human trafficking, but said living conditions "required further attention" and that officials were "monitoring the status of corrections" purportedly under way.
Schmitz resigned about two weeks later amid accusations that he stonewalled investigations. He took a job with Blackwater USA, a private security contractor.
It wasn't the only time officials were made aware of such allegations. Last summer, the Army, which oversees the KBR privatization deal, deflected questions from the Tribune about human trafficking onto American bases in Iraq by saying "these are not Army issues." Similarly, Halliburton said in a written statement that questions regarding "the recruitment practices" of its subcontractors "should be directed to the subcontractor."
Melissa Norcross, a Halliburton spokeswoman, issued a statement from the company Sunday saying that KBR "fully supports the Department of Defense's efforts to ensure that all contractor and subcontractor personnel working for the U.S. government be treated in a fair and humanitarian manner."
The statement also echoed previous press releases from the company, saying KBR "operates under a rigorous code of business conduct that outlines legal and ethical behaviors that all employees and subcontractors are expected to follow in every aspect of their work. We do not tolerate any exceptions to this Code at any level of our company."
The company has refused to say whether it has ever taken any action against subcontractors.
Another memo obtained by the Tribune, dated April 13 and addressed to all KBR project managers, deputy project managers and operations managers, indicates the company is requiring all of its personnel to undergo human-trafficking awareness training because of Casey's orders.
A U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, confirmed the issuance of Casey's orders in a statement to the Tribune on Sunday, saying the "rights to freedom of movement and quality living standards are serious issues."
He also claimed, "There's always been a focus on this, and this is one more clarification of that," adding that the U.S. military has the ability to "terminate contracts and keep people off of bases."
Casey's orders came at about the same time the Defense Department published long-awaited interim rules that allow officials to cancel overseas defense contracts for trafficking violations.
But the orders go well beyond what is contained in the rules, and indicate that most of the measures stem from an inspection of the support operations by Casey's command. Johnson said that inspection was conducted by the command's inspector general's office, a process that was started last October.
While the orders do not indicate how many workers have had their passports seized, the April 19 memo to contractors says evidence indicated a widespread practice of "holding and withholding employee passports." It says passports are seized, in part, to keep workers from accepting jobs with other firms.
The Tribune identified three major KBR subcontractors that employed thousands of foreign workers on U.S. installations in Iraq and confiscated the passports of their foreign workers as a standard practice. At least two of those firms also have their own contracts with the United States.
The ultimate impact of the new orders will depend on how they're implemented, and on several key, unanswered questions. Included among them: how U.S. military officials in Iraq hope to influence the conduct of village recruiters and human brokers across the globe who are several links up the chain from the subcontractors ultimately employing workers in Iraq.
Johnson said U.S. military officials would not immediately refer any contractors or subcontractors for prosecution.
Miller agreed that important questions remained, but called the new rules a major step forward. "I think they are heading in the right direction."
Chicago Tribune correspondent Liz Sly contributed to this report from Baghdad.
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