by David Phinney
Sunday June 16th 2019

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Pentagon Claims Widespread Practice: Contractors have been Taking Passports from Workers on the Battlefield

by David Phinney

Dec. 17, 2006 — The Pentagon announced last spring that contractors in Iraq were taking and holding civilian employee passports.

Why?

To prevent employees from “jumping” to other firms…. “among other things.”

Did the “other things” include discouraging laborers from escaping harsh treatment, non-payment of salaries, poor food, lousy housing, and just one too many incoming mortar rounds when an employer failed to issue proper, but expensive body armor?

Those conditions have been all to common as I reported in Blood, Sweat and Tears. The Pentagon won’t offer any comment other than note in its announcement that “the right of freedom of movement” is a serious issue.

One would hope so.

Passports are not just a grown-up version of high school hall passes. In the Pentagon’s words about taking away passports: “This practice violates the law under Title 18 U.S. Code.”

The Pentagon claimed the practice of taking passports was “widespread.” Subcontractors working under the Halliburton/KBR $16-billion-and-counting military logistics contract (LogCAP) were among the worst offenders.

Largely headquartered in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, these subcontractors are called “body shops.” They employ thousands of low-paid laborers recruited from south Asian countries and ship them to Iraq.

This Pentagon’s discovery of taking passports led to a on April 21, 2006, order to contractors demanding that all passports be returned by May 1.

I am hearing that at least one company failed to return all the passports it was holding at military camps.

I am also told that First Kuwaiti Trading and Contracting was withholding passports of hundreds, if not thousands of workers, at the US embassy site in Baghdad until late October. One reason, allege more and more former employees, is because First Kuwaiti was busy smuggling workers in from Kuwait. That would be another no no.

What penalties does the Pentagon lay out if contractors are found to be withholding passports? They include withholding payments, contract termination, negative performance evaluation, suspension, and/or debarment. Contractors also may be prohibited access to any government installation.

What are the penalties to First Kuwaiti, if, in fact, it did not return passports until late October? Maybe none. The $592-million embassy project is a State Department contract — and not under the Pentagon. Did anyone get busted?

Oh, by the way, the State Department is the flagship of US foreign policy. Passports are considered government property by the country that issues them, not that of the individual.

Now….. back to “among other things.”

Right, now, the Pentagon isn’t saying what those “other things” are — at least as far as my inquiries have found. And if you notice in the following statement, the Pentagon cleaned up its “among other things” but mentions an unidentified “trafficking incident.”

Okay, I’m splitting hairs… But here it is:

Mr. Phinney,
This is all we will say about the trafficking incident.

During an inspection by the MNF-I Inspector General (IG) that was completed in late March, evidence indicated a wide spread practice of holding and withholding employee passports to prevent employees “jumping” to other employers. It is the position of Multi-National Forces-Iraq (MNF-I) that this practice violates the law under Title 18 U.S. Code.

An added note: First Kuwaiti competitors tell me that the State Department awarded three new embassy projects in Africa this fall to First Kuwaiti and a renovation in India. Unlike the Baghdad embassy, these projects needed classified clearance so First Kuwaiti teamed up with a US firm, Grunley-Walsh of Rockville, Md.
12/29/06:

I just found this Aug. 22, 2005, document in my old emails. The letter lays out the position of five leading Washington, DC, contractor associations about proposed labor trafficking regulations. Apparently, the Pentagon was already concerned about the issue in Iraq as early as June 2005.

01/03/07: I just found this Halliburton email response to inquiry about the Pentagon investigation of labor trafficking.

If KBR became aware of an allegation of unlawful activity, the company would initiate an investigation. If there was evidence to support the allegation, KBR would take appropriate action, up to and including terminating the subcontractor and/or reporting the actions of the subcontractor to KBR’s client, the U.S. Army. The Army has the authority to debar contractors.

As a matter of policy, KBR does not disclose to the media the results of the company’s investigations into personnel and contractual matters.

Melissa Norcross
Halliburton
04/26/06

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