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Contract Killers

A public/private partnership goes horribly wrong in Iraq

Staff Sgt. Ryan D. Maseth, a Green Beret from Shaler, died in Baghdad on Jan. 2. The military called it a "non-combat related incident," but that comes as little comfort. When Maseth was found, his body was smoking from the electrical current coursing through him. When a comrade reached out to help him, legal documents say, he was nearly shocked as well.

Staff Sgt. Maseth was electrocuted while taking a shower. A shower whose electric water pump wiring was faulty … despite being maintained by KBR, the government-contracting giant which earned $2.5 billion in revenue in just the first three months of 2008.

At least a dozen other soldiers have been electrocuted in Iraq, but Maseth's death has attracted special notice. After suing KBR in federal court, Maseth's mother, Cheryl A. Harris, has appeared on national television. U.S. Senator Bob Casey and other legislators have demanded answers, prompting Gen. David Petraeus to issue a statement asserting that only two soldiers have been killed while showering -- incidents that occurred "on different bases in Iraq and … 3½ years apart."

I guess that's supposed to be the bright side: An elite soldier in Iraq has a pretty good chance of surviving a shower.

Or does he?

On July 19, The New York Times reported that "[s]hoddy electrical work by private contractors on United States military bases in Iraq is widespread and dangerous." According to documents obtained by the paper, more than 283 electrical fires destroyed or damaged American military facilities in Iraq during one six-month period alone.

The casualties that result are tragic, and chillingly literal, symbols of what writer Naomi Klein calls "the Shock Doctrine." In her book of the same title, Klein argues that for modern corporations, wars and other disasters are just part of the business model. When turmoil strikes a region like Iraq, corporations see the chaos as a chance to expand their market penetration -- by securing oil rights, for example. And in the meantime, they profit from the chaos itself. As Klein writes, "[M]aintaining the U.S. military is now one of the fastest-growing service economies in the world."

KBR's parent company, Halliburton, famously once employed Vice President Dick Cheney as its CEO. But as Klein points out, "deluxe war spending was pioneered during the Clinton era." It doesn't seem to matter who is in the White House: The contractors have become more powerful than the officials who supposedly control them. And filings in Maseth lawsuit suggest they may even be above the law itself.

As Maseth's family argues in legal filings, soldiers deserve the same protection from shoddy contractors in Baghdad that they get in Blawnox. And the family has compiled a damning pile of evidence that would have put any local contractor out of business. For example, they have produced a sworn statement from Sgt. First Class Justin Hammer, who'd previously occupied Maseth's quarters. "I was shocked four or five times in the … same shower where [Maseth] was electrocuted," Hammer's statement reads. Hammer says he notified KBR personnel about the electrical danger each time, but the problem never got fixed.

Even so, KBR's legal filings claim federal law protects the military, and its contractors, from lawsuits stemming from military duty. Courts have granted immunity in some cases -- a helicopter that suffers a structural failure during a mission, for example. It's hard to see how the fog of war makes it hard to wire a shower, though, and by KBR's rationale, a drive-through customer scalded by a cup of coffee has more legal rights than a soldier sworn to defend the Constitution.

Which seems to be the mindset of contractors in Iraq. During a Congressional hearing, a former KBR electrician testified that "[t]ime and time again we heard, ‘This is not the States, [safety law] doesn't apply here. You're in a war zone, what do you expect?'"

Meanwhile, KBR has convinced Judge Nora Barry Fischer to seal its responses, so the public cannot see how the company defends itself.

Briefs filed for Maseth's family object that "KBR would prefer to litigate this matter behind closed doors to shield from public scrutiny the wrongful conduct that has resulted in the deaths of United States soldiers." But KBR says that its responses include information about the identity of Americans serving abroad, the location of military barracks, and other information whose release could help the enemy.

KBR, see, wants to protect our troops.

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