Seymour Hersh Unleashed

January 25, 2011

By Blake Hounshell

DOHA, Qatar-David Remnick, call your office.

In a speech billed as a discussion of the Bush and Obama eras, New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh delivered a rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe here Monday expressing his disappointment with President Barack Obama and his dissatisfaction with the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

“Just when we needed an angry black man,” he began, his arm perched jauntily on the podium, “we didn’t get one.”

It quickly went downhill from there.

Hersh, whose exposés of gross abuses by members of the U.S. military in Vietnam and Iraq have earned him worldwide fame and high journalistic honors, said he was writing a book on what he called the “Cheney-Bush years” and saw little difference between that period and the Obama administration.

He said that he was keeping a “checklist” of aggressive U.S. policies that remained in place, including torture and “rendition” of terrorist suspects to allied countries, which he alleged was ongoing.

He also charged that U.S. foreign policy had been hijacked by a cabal of neoconservative “crusaders” in the former vice president’s office and now in the special operations community.

“What I’m really talking about is how eight or nine neoconservative, radicals* if you will, overthrew the American government. Took it over,” he said of his forthcoming book. “It’s not only that the neocons took it over but how easily they did it — how Congress disappeared, how the press became part of it, how the public acquiesced.”

Hersh then brought up the widespread looting that took place in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. “In the Cheney shop, the attitude was, ‘What’s this? What are they all worried about, the politicians and the press, they’re all worried about some looting? … Don’t they get it? We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. And when we get all the oil, nobody’s gonna give a damn.'”

“That’s the attitude,” he continued. “We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. That’s an attitude that pervades, I’m here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command.”

He then alleged that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC before briefly becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, “are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.”

Hersh may have been referring to the Sovereign Order of Malta, a Roman Catholic organization commited to “defence of the Faith and assistance to the poor and the suffering,” according to its website.

“Many of them are members of Opus Dei,” Hersh continued. “They do see what they’re doing — and this is not an atypical attitude among some military — it’s a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They’re protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function.”

“They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins,” he continued. “They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war. … Right now, there’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of anti-Muslim feeling in the military community.”

Hersh relayed that he had recently spoken with “a man in the intelligence community… somebody in the joint special operations business” about the downfall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. “He said, ‘Oh my God, he was such a good ally.'”

“Tunisia’s going to change the game,” Hersh added later. “It’s going to scare the hell out of a lot of people.”

Moving to Pakistan, where Hersh noted he had been friendly with Benazir Bhutto, the journalist told of a dinner meeting with Asif Ali Zardari, the late prime minister’s husband, in which Hersh said the Pakistani president was brutally disdainful of his own people.

Hersh described a trip he made to Swat, where the Pakistani military had just dislodged Taliban insurgents who had taken over the scenic valley, a traditional vacation area for the urban middle class. Hersh said he asked Zardari about the tent cities he saw along the road, where people were living in harsh, unsanitary conditions.

“Well, those people there in Swat, that’s what they deserve,” the Pakistani president replied, according to Hersh. Asked why, Hersh said Zardari responded, “Because they supported the Taliban.” (Note: Hersh’s conversation is not recounted in his 2009 New Yorker article on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, presumably because it coudn’t be verified.)

The veteran journalist also alleged that the CIA station chief in Islamabad, who was recently recalled after his name surfaced in Pakistani court documents and in the lively Pakistani press, had actually been fired for disputing the plans of Gen. David Petraeus, who took over the Afghan war last summer after General McChrystal was summarily dismissed.

“When Petraeus issued a very optimistic report about the war in December that he gave to the president,” Hersh said, the station chief “just declared it was bankrupt… internally. He just said ‘This is completely wrongheaded. The policy’s wrongheaded.’ Off he goes. Out he goes.”

“I’ve given up being disillusioned about the CIA,” Hersh said. “They’re trained to lie, period. They will lie to their president, they will lie certainly to the Congress, and they will lie to the American people. That’s all there is to it.”

Hersh was speaking on the invitation of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, which operates a branch campus in Qatar.


More Christians Flee Iraq After New Violence

December 14, 2010

A new wave of Iraqi Christians has fled to northern Iraq or abroad amid a campaign of violence against them and growing fear that the country’s security forces are unable or, more ominously, unwilling to protect them.

The flight – involving thousands of residents from Baghdad and Mosul, in particular – followed an Oct. 31 siege at a church in Baghdad that killed 51 worshipers and 2 priests and a subsequent series of bombings and assassinations singling out Christians. This new exodus, which is not the first, highlights the continuing displacement of Iraqis despite improved security over all and the near-resolution of the political impasse that gripped the country after elections in March.

It threatens to reduce further what Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana of the Assyrian Church of the East called “a community whose roots were in Iraq even before Christ.”

Those who fled the latest violence – many of them in a panicked rush, with only the possessions they could pack in cars – warned that the new violence presages the demise of the faith in Iraq. Several evoked the mass departure of Iraq’s Jews after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.

“It’s exactly what happened to the Jews,” said Nassir Sharhoom, 47, who fled last month to the Kurdish capital, Erbil, with his family from Dora, a once mixed neighborhood in Baghdad. “They want us all to go.”

Iraq’s leaders, including Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, have pledged to tighten security and appealed for tolerance for minority faiths in what is an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

“The Christian is an Iraqi,” he said after visiting those wounded in the siege of the church, Our Lady of Salvation, the worst single act of violence against Christians since 2003. “He is the son of Iraq and from the depths of a civilization that we are proud of.”

For those who fled, though, such pronouncements have been met with growing skepticism. The daily threats, the uncertainty and palpable terror many face have overwhelmed even the pleas of Christian leaders not to abandon their historic place in a diverse Iraq.

“Their faith in God is strong,” said the Rev. Gabriele Tooma, who heads the Monastery of the Virgin Mary, part of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Qosh, which opened its monastic rooms to 25 families in recent weeks. “It is their faith in the government that has weakened.”

Christians, of course, are not the only victims of the bloodshed that has swept Iraq for more than seven and a half years; Sunni and Shiite Arabs have died on a far greater scale. Only two days after the attack on the church, a dozen bombs tore through Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, killing at least 68 people and wounding hundreds.

The Christians and other smaller minority groups here, however, have been explicitly made targets and have emigrated in disproportionate numbers. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, these groups account for 20 percent of the Iraqis who have gone abroad, while they were only 3 percent of the country’s prewar population.

More than half of Iraq’s Christian community, estimated to number 800,000 to 1.4 million before the American-led invasion in 2003, have already left the country.

The Islamic State of Iraq, an iteration of the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, claimed responsibility for the suicidal siege and said its fighters would kill Christians “wherever they can reach them.”

What followed last month were dozens of shootings and bombings in Baghdad and Mosul, the two cities outside of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. At least a dozen more Christians died, eight of them in Mosul.

Three generations of the Gorgiz family – 15 in all – fled their homes there on the morning of Nov. 23 as the killings spread. Crowded into a single room at the monastery in Qosh, they described living in a state of virtual siege, afraid to wear crosses on the streets, afraid to work or even leave their houses in the end.

The night before they left, Diana Gorgiz, 35, said she heard voices and then screams; someone had set fire to the garden of a neighbor’s house. The Iraqi Army arrived and stayed until morning, only to tell them they were not safe there anymore. The Gorgizes took it as a warning – and an indication of complicity, tacit or otherwise, by Iraq’s security forces. “When the army comes and says, ‘We cannot protect you,’ ” Ms. Gorgiz said, “what else can you believe?”

There is no exact accounting of those who have fled internally or abroad. The United Nations has registered more than 1,100 families. A steady flow of Christians to Turkey spiked in November to 243, an official there said.

The Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq offered itself as a haven and pledged to help refugees with housing and jobs. Many of those who fled are wealthy enough to afford rents in Iraqi Kurdistan; others have moved in with relatives; the worst off have ended up at the monastery here and another nearby, St. Matthew’s, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world.

There have been previous exoduses, especially from Mosul. In October 2008, more than 12,000 Christians left after a wave of assassinations killed 14 Christians. In February of this year, more than 4,000 fled to the Kurdish-controlled region in Nineveh or to Syria after 10 Christians were killed. When violence ebbed after each exodus, many returned to their homes and jobs, though not all, leaving fewer and fewer Christians. By one estimate, only 5,000 of the 100,000 Christians who once lived in Mosul remain.

“I expect that a month from now not a single Christian will be left in Mosul,” Nelson P. Khoshaba, an engineer in the city’s waterworks, said in Erbil, where he joined a chaotic scrum of people trying to register with the local authorities there.

The displacement of Christians has continued despite the legal protections that Iraq’s Constitution offers religious and ethnic minorities, though Islam is the official state religion and no law can be passed contradicting its basic tenets.

Christians have a quota of 5 seats in the new 325-member Parliament, though little political influence. Christmas was declared a national holiday in 2008, though celebrations are muted, and in Kirkuk, a tensely disputed city north of Baghdad, Christmas Mass was canceled last year.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, appointed by the president and Congress, said that the nominal protections for religious minorities in Iraq – including Christians, Yazidis and Sabean Mandeans, followers of St. John the Baptist – did little to stop violence or official discrimination in employment, housing and other matters. It noted that few of the attacks against minority groups were ever properly investigated or prosecuted, “creating a climate of impunity.”

“The violence, forced displacement, discrimination, marginalization and neglect suffered by members of these groups threaten these ancient communities’ very existence in Iraq,” the commission said in its latest annual report in May. Last week security officials announced the arrest of insurgents whom they said planned the attack on Our Lady of Salvation; those who actually carried it out died when Iraqi forces stormed the church. They offered few details, and a spokesman for the American military, which regularly joins Iraqi forces during such arrests, said he had no information on those arrested.

Archdeacon Emanuel said the government needed to do more to preserve a community that has been under siege in Iraq for decades – from the first massacre of Christians in Sumail in 1933 after the creation of the modern Iraqi nation to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein to today’s nihilistic extremism that, in his words, has taken Islam hostage.

Invitations by European countries for Christians to emigrate following the attack, he said, would only hasten the departure of more, which “is not a solution.” Instead, the latest violence should give impetus to the creation of an autonomous Christian enclave in the part of Nineveh Province near here that is now under the control of the Kurdish region. That idea, though, has little political support in Iraq in Baghdad or Iraqi Kurdistan.

“What happened has been done repeatedly and systematically,” he said. “We have seen it in Mosul, in Baghdad. The message is very clear: to pluck Iraqi Christians from the roots and force them out of the country.”


‘Killing’ of Qaeda leaders won’t end Iraq attacks

April 21, 2010

by Arthur MacMillan

BAGHDAD (AFP) – The purported killing of two top Al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders will send shockwaves through the jihadist network but mid-level commanders must also be removed if attacks are to stop, analysts said Tuesday.


A picture released by the US army shows Abu Ayub al-Masri. The purported killing of two top leaders of Al-Qaeda in Iraq will send shockwaves through the jihadist network but mid-level commanders must also be removed if attacks are to stop, analysts said on Tuesday.

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri — both linked with Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden — died in a shootout on Sunday near Tikrit, the home town of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, according to Iraqi and US officials.

Read the rest of this entry »


Why Washington fears Islamic Iran?

January 26, 2010

General David Petraeus (a Jewish Lobby’s choice), Head of US Central Command, during a recently interview with CNN threatened Islamic Iran by saying that in addition to crippling sanctions and international diplomacy, Washington is considering “contingency plans” against Iran’s nuclear installations in parallel. Responding to the General’s barking, Islamic Iran’s Chief of staff of Joint Armed Forces, General Hassan Firouzabadi advised Petraeus to carry out consultations before making such warmongering threats: “The politicians’ statement may not cost them dear, but the military men are expected to avoid making crude and emotional remarks”.

Professor James Petras writing for the Global Research (May 4, 2008) called General David Petraeus Zionism\’s Military Poodle: “In pointing to Iran, Petraeus played the dangerous game of echoing the Israeli line and providing support for a military attack on Iran promoted by the leadership of major American Jewish organizations. Even while Petraeus was covering up his failure (in Iraq) by blaming Iran, (the US) Iraqi puppet government was praising the Iranian government for helping to stablize the country by using its influence on the Shia militias to hold their fire. Puppet Prime Minister Maliki invited Iranian President (Ahmadinejad) to Baghdad, signed trade agreements and praised their co-operation and efforts to stablize the country”.

On January 22, Richard Haass, the Zionist Jewish president of the powerful Zionist think tank, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and an adviser to Obama administeration, made the pitch for the Zionist entity by calling for a (pro-Israel) regime change in Tehran. He called for western governments’ continue help for the anti-Ahmadinejad movement, more sanctions against Tehran and more international pressure on Islamic regime to stop its nuclear program which could pose a threat to Israel’s monopoly in that field (Tel Aviv has 240-400 nuclear warheads).

Last month, another Jewish Lobby puppet, US secretary of states Hillary Clinton, warned Venezuela and Bolivia to “think twice” about the consequences of their ties with the Islamic Republic.

Incidendtly, Israeli MEMRI has not translated any of Ahmadinejad’s speeches in which he may have called for “Wipe the US off Map”. So why the successive US administrations are so paranoid of the Islamic regime in Tehran? Ramzy Baroud, an author and internationally-syndicated columnist, in his recent essay, titled Iran and Latin America: The Media States Its Case, provides some background to Washington’s paranoid behaviour.

Should the United States be concerned about Iran’s determined efforts to reach out to Latin America? Or, as was suggestively described in the Economist, by the Ayatollahs’ strategy of cozying up to Latin America?

The US continues to see the world as its own business. It gives itself and its allies, most notably Israel, the right to geopolitical maneuverability. Iran, on the other hand, is censured, derided and punished for even its own internal policies, within its own borders. Thus, an Iranian move into Latin America is naturally viewed as unwarranted, uncalled for and most definitely dangerous as far as the US is concerned.

But Iran is not invading America geopolitical space per se. It is neither financing a terrorist group, nor involved in the ongoing narcotic war. More, there is no historical connection between an interventionist Iran and the bloody past of Latin America, including its former dictators and brutal juntas. In fact, Iran’s ‘cozying up’ to Latin American merely began in 2005. Since then, Iran has opened embassies in several Latin American countries and launched important joint projects that provided funds and work opportunities for thousands of ordinary people. There is no Iranian equivalent to the School of the Americas.

So why the alarm?

Paul McLeary of Aviation Week gives us a clue. Iran’s move “has set off a proxy conflict between Iran and Israel in South America, with the presidents of both countries logging frequent-flier miles to win friends in the region. One cause for concern among many analysts is the weekly flight between Caracas and Tehran (with a stop in Damascus) that Iran Air has flown for two years.”

He quotes Frida Ghitis: “Flight manifests are kept secret, so neither cargo nor passenger information is well known …one Israeli report suggested that Venezuela and Bolivia are supplying uranium to Iran.”

Two questions emerge. One, is it required of Caracas and Tehran to provide a detailed report of the cargo and passengers to the US and Israel, and perhaps also cc-ed to a list of their friends and allies?

The second pertains to Israel itself. Why is the media most concerned by Iran’s ‘suspicious’ behavior in Latin America, despite the fact that its presence is welcomed by various countries in the hemisphere, while Israel – whose bloody involvement has wrought much chaos to South America – is simply unquestioned, and even cited as a credible source? There is no evidence to link Iran to death squads, or any Iranian firm with “an archive and computer file on journalists, students, leaders, leftists, politicians and so on” to be hunted down, killed or simply made to ‘disappear’ under brutal regimes. Israel’s own history in Latin America seems to inspire little commentary by the ever-vigilant ‘many analysts’. McLeary, Ghitis and others need to do their homework before leveling accusations against others. The book Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship may be a good place to start.

Back to the lurking Ayatollahs in America’s backyard, Susan Kaufman Purcell is also raising questions, this time about Brazil. In Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva welcomed his Iranian counterpart, president Ahmadinejad late November 2009. In the January 7 Wall Street Journal, Purcell claimed: “Until recently, the Obama administration assumed that Brazil and the United States were natural allies who shared many foreign policy interests, particularly in Latin America. Brazil, after all, is a friendly democracy with a growing market economy and Western cultural values.” Purcell suggests that Brazil’s various achievements – largely beneficial to the US – qualified the country to become “more like us”.

Western media is indeed rife with all sorts of unfounded accusations, baseless speculations and superfluous insinuations. They evoke in the reader and viewer a dread and fear, based in this case on the doomsday scenario whereby fanatical Latin Americans and radical Muslims gang up on America, and ultimately Israel………..”

http://rehmat1.wordpress.com/2010/01…-islamic-iran/


The CIA has long struggled with ensuring safe interrogations

January 20, 2010

By David Ignatius
Sunday, January 17, 2010

As the CIA mourns the officers who died in Khost, Afghanistan, last month, there’s an understandable desire not to second-guess the procedures that allowed a Jordanian suicide bomber to enter the agency’s base. But this practice of meeting with agents “inside the wire” has a controversial history within the CIA, and it offers some useful background as the agency considers changes.

The debate about how to handle agents in war zones surfaced in Iraq in 2003. The question was how to balance the safety of CIA personnel with the needs of intelligence gathering. Headquarters argued for meeting agents inside the Green Zone; case officers in the field countered that this would actually put them and their agents at greater risk — and choke the flow of information.

The tradecraft dispute went on for more than a year, but in the end, the headquarters view prevailed. By 2005, CIA officers had generally stopped meeting agents in the “red zones” of Iraq, outside secured areas. Agent-handling procedures in Afghanistan also evolved toward “inside the wire” meetings.

Some CIA veterans continued to argue privately, however, that the new approach was potentially risky. This account is based on their comments.

CIA officers in the field began to develop their Iraq tradecraft in the months after the March 2003 invasion. The dangers were highlighted by a shootout in Baghdad in midsummer that year when insurgents attacked three case officers riding in military Humvees. The Baghdad station developed procedures to operate more stealthily, using ordinary civilian vehicles.

The biggest danger, CIA officers concluded, was crossing the checkpoints to enter the Green Zone in Baghdad and other secured locations. The insurgents maintained surveillance outside the gates. And on several occasions, jittery soldiers shot at agency vehicles. In the spring of 2004, for example, Kurdish guards opened fire on CIA officers at a checkpoint in Sulaymaniyah, and a CIA security officer was killed.

In the spring of 2004, the chief of the agency’s Near East division, worried about such incidents, ordered a halt to most meetings in red zones. The CIA station in Baghdad protested, arguing: “If you pull people inside the wire, it’s unsafe.”

The field officers warned that some of their best agents would refuse to come inside the Green Zone because they thought it would put them at risk. “They didn’t want their faces known,” recalls one agency veteran.

The Baghdad station argued instead for using its fleet of cars, which could be repainted and retagged repeatedly, to avoid detection. When headquarters proposed using only armored vehicles, the station again balked, arguing that these behemoths would be giveaways. Instead, the Baghdad tech shop devised homemade armor for some of its beat-up civilian cars.

To enhance security outside the Green Zone, the Baghdad station also developed procedures in 2004 for monitoring Iraqi agents who might be hostile. Surveillance teams of Iraqis and other Arabs would precede agency officers on their way to meetings to look for insurgent activity. The Arab surveillance teams would also track the agency’s contacts, checking for signs they might be carrying suicide bombs.

The Baghdad station felt so strongly that it would be a mistake to bring agents inside the wire that its leaders in mid-2004 proposed moving case officers to safe houses outside the Green Zone. That way, the officers and agents wouldn’t have to worry about running the gantlet at checkpoints. Headquarters refused.

Through 2004, a standoff developed between headquarters and the Baghdad station over which approach — inside or outside — was safer. The field officers continued to operate relatively safely with the war zone tradecraft they had evolved, even as violence increased. But the dangers were obvious.

The leadership of the Baghdad station changed in 2005, and the new bosses are said to have opted for the approach that headquarters preferred. Meetings out in the hostile red zones declined. In Afghanistan, too, agency officers reduced their movements in high-threat areas. Since their bases were generally at forward military outposts, CIA officers were already more visible to the enemy. This argued for avoiding meetings outside the wire.

CIA Director Leon Panetta is conducting a high-level review of the Khost tragedy, in part to explore what tradecraft procedures make sense for the future. Agency veterans argue that the Iraq experience — like the agency’s tradecraft in Lebanon during the 1980s — shows it may be safer to operate out in the field, away from “protected zones” that, in reality, have become targets for the enemy.

davidignatius@washpost.com


Foreign workers for U.S. are casualties twice over

December 30, 2009

Contract employees injured in the conflict zones of Iraq and Afghanistan and families of those killed there are covered by American taxpayer-funded insurance, but it often fails to deliver.


Gorgonia Torres lives in a poor part of the Philippine city of San Fernando. After her husband’s death in a 2005 ambush in Iraq, she was eligible for about $300,000 in compensation but didn’t know it until a reporter told her two years later. Video » (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

By T. Christian Miller

Reporting from San Fernando, Philippines – Rey Torres dreamed of a better life for his wife and five children when he left a neighborhood of wooden shacks and burning trash piles to drive a bus on a U.S. military base near Baghdad.

He hoped to send his children to college and build a new home with the $16,000 a year he earned in Iraq — four times what he could make in the Philippines.

Then, in April 2005, Torres, 31, was killed in an ambush by Iraqi insurgents. His widow and children were supposed to be protected by a war zone insurance system overseen by the U.S. government. They were eligible for about $300,000 in compensation.

But Gorgonia Torres knew nothing about the death benefit and did not apply. When she did learn about the insurance, two years later, it was from a reporter. She has since turned down an insurance company’s $22,000 settlement offer. Her only hope of receiving full compensation is a legal fight that could drag on for years.

“He knew it was dangerous. . . . He had second thoughts all the time,” she said of her husband. “But he’d say, ‘If I don’t go, there’s no way we’ll be able to survive.’ ”

Torres was among tens of thousands of civilian contract workers from poverty-stricken countries hired to support the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. In case of injury or death, they are supposed to be covered by workers’ compensation insurance financed by American taxpayers.

But the program has failed to deliver medical care and other benefits to many foreign workers and their survivors, a Los Angeles Times-ProPublica investigation found.

Previous articles by The Times and ProPublica described how American civilians injured in Iraq have had to battle insurers for medical care, artificial limbs and other services.

An examination of what happened to foreign nationals has uncovered an even more dismal record. Injured workers have gone without medical treatment and compensation because they were never informed of their right to the benefits. Widows and children have not received death payments for the same reason.

The system relies on companies to make employees aware of coverage and to report deaths and injuries to insurers and the federal government. But some employers have shirked those obligations, and the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees the program, has done little to ensure compliance, punish violators or reach out to injured foreigners or their survivors.

An analysis of Pentagon and Labor Department records indicates that thousands of injured foreigners have fallen through the cracks.

About 200,000 civilians are working in Iraq and Afghanistan under U.S.-funded contracts. Many are so-called third-country nationals, from countries other than the United States, Iraq or Afghanistan. The rate of reported injuries among these workers is much lower than for Americans doing similar jobs.

Nearly 22,000 injury claims were filed by third-country nationals and American workers from 2003 through 2007. Although they outnumbered Americans by about 2-1, the third-country nationals filed just 14% of the total claims.

Insurance experts said the numbers suggest that many wounded foreigners never apply for benefits, even though U.S. taxpayers have paid more than $1.5 billion in premiums for the war-zone insurance.

Those who do apply often confront rejections and resistance from insurers. It can take years for them to receive compensation.

“It’s been a big problem,” said Jack Martone, a former top Labor Department official. “The Department of Labor is not well equipped to police” the conduct of employers and insurers.

Insurance for civilians working in war zones is required under a World War II-era law known as the Defense Base Act. Companies providing services to the U.S. government must secure a special type of workers’ compensation coverage for their employees, both American and foreign.

The insurance covers all injuries and deaths, whether caused by workplace accidents or roadside bombs. Companies bill the cost to U.S. taxpayers as part of their government contracts.

Mobilization of civilians

For decades, this system was overseen by a handful of federal bureaucrats who processed a few hundred claims a year. That changed when the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and later in Iraq.

In both conflicts, the U.S. military has relied on civilian workers to a greater extent than ever before — to cook meals, clean latrines, deliver fuel and translate for troops, among many other tasks. There are more civilians than uniformed soldiers in the two war zones, and more than 1,400 contract workers have died.

Despite this large-scale mobilization of civilians, the Labor Department did not increase staff or budget to handle Defense Base Act claims and was quickly swamped.

The department stationed no one in Iraq or any other country to help injured foreigners file claims. Nor did it make a serious effort to ensure that companies posted information about workers’ rights, as required by law.

“I see a complete absence of claims or payments for foreigners,” said Joshua Gillelan, a former Labor Department attorney who now represents injured contract workers. “They are never going to be enforced.”

Thousands of companies have worked under U.S. contracts in Iraq, but since the war began in 2003, the department has fined only one, a small security subcontractor, for not reporting worker injuries, according to Labor Department figures.

Similarly, the department has not prosecuted any companies for failing to buy war-zone insurance, although the Times-ProPublica investigation identified at least five cases in which military contractors did not provide coverage for employees.

The department does not even attempt to communicate with injured Iraqis or Afghans for fear that a letter from the United States might imperil their lives. Instead, the department asks employers to forward Labor Department mail informing workers of their rights.

“It’s the biggest fiasco. Almost all of it is returned,” Richard Robilotti, a department official who oversees many of the claims, said at a recent conference.

Labor Department officials said cultural barriers and war-zone dangers have prevented them from reaching out to injured foreigners.

“There is no mechanism for the Department of Labor to stand around in Baghdad and drum up claims,” said Shelby Hallmark, who oversees the department’s Defense Base Act program. Officials try “to get the word out down through their chains of subcontractors on how this works. Is it perfect? No, I wouldn’t say it is.”

Insurers defended their performance. American International Group Inc., the insurance giant that received a huge taxpayer bailout last year after suffering heavy losses in the derivatives market, is the largest provider of workers’ compensation coverage in Iraq.

In a statement, the company said it conscientiously fulfilled its obligations to workers injured in the war zone and took “numerous extraordinary measures under very difficult circumstances to locate and pay claimants or their beneficiaries.”

AIG opened an office in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to handle claims and translated Labor Department guidelines into Arabic, Turkish and other languages. In some cases, AIG has hired insurance research companies to track down widows and injured workers.

CNA Financial Corp. has the second-largest number of claims in Iraq and Afghanistan. The insurer said it “routinely pays claims made by foreigners” and “is not aware of a problem with regard to foreign workers.”

Incident rates differ

KBR Inc. is the largest employer of contract workers in Iraq, with about 16,000, most of them U.S. citizens, according to a July 2007 Pentagon census.

The Houston engineering and construction firm reported more than 700 serious injuries or deaths in the first six months of 2007– almost 5 incidents for every 100 workers.

Prime Projects International of Dubai was the largest employer of foreigners in Iraq, with about 10,000 civilian workers.

The company reported 43 serious injuries or deaths in the first six months of 2007 — less than 1 per 100 workers.

The same held for other subcontractors with large foreign workforces, such as Saudi-based Gulf Catering Co. and Tamimi Global Co. and Turkish firm Kulak. None of the companies responded to requests for comment.

“When you’re dealing with these subcontractors, a lot of them would just as soon wash their hands and walk away,” said Tyler Keagy, vice president of operations for Vetted International Ltd., a North Carolina firm that researches claims for insurance companies. “A lot of claims go unreported and these people just don’t get care.”

Many of the Middle East firms providing services to the U.S. military in Iraq are subcontractors for KBR. In a statement, KBR said its “top priority is the safety and security of all employees and those the company serves. . . . We expect those we do business with to uphold that same commitment.”

When an employer neglects to report an injury or death, it is difficult for foreign workers or their survivors — assuming they even know about the war-zone insurance — to persuade U.S.-based insurance companies and federal bureaucrats that they are entitled to benefits.

Gorgonia Torres found that out after losing her husband in Iraq.

Rey Torres had gone to Baghdad in December 2003. Stationed at Camp Victory, a U.S. military complex on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, he was a jack-of-all-trades, working as a driver, janitor and security guard, his wife said.

On April 17, 2005, Gorgonia got a call from one of Rey’s co-workers, who told her he had been killed while traveling through an insurgent-infested neighborhood of Baghdad.

Eleven days later, her husband’s remains were delivered to her in a coffin sealed with red wax. Gorgonia took a deep breath when she remembered looking inside.

“Every part of my body was in pain. I felt like I had just run a long distance. I couldn’t even feel my legs. Everything hurt,” said Gorgonia, 38, a slight woman with high cheekbones and short black hair.

The Philippine government paid Gorgonia about $5,000, a death benefit for citizens working abroad. Her husband’s employer, Qatar International Trading Co., made a one-time payment of $16,000, representing a year of his salary.

That was a fraction of what she was due. Under the Defense Base Act, a widow is entitled to as much as half her spouse’s salary for the rest of her life — more if the deceased left children behind. For foreigners, the law allows insurers to calculate a lump sum based on an estimate of the widow’s remaining life span, and pay half that amount. (Survivors of U.S. citizens receive the full lump sum or lifetime monthly payments.)

Under the formula, Gorgonia and her children were eligible for as much as $300,000. But until a reporter visited her in 2007 after learning of her case from a Philippine government website, Gorgonia had never heard of the insurance.

Qatar International never told her about it, Gorgonia said. Nor is there any record that the firm reported Rey Torres’ death to the U.S. government.

When she finally applied for compensation, the Labor Department sent her a notice in English that she could not read. It said that AIG, Qatar International’s insurance carrier, was disputing her claim and wanted more time to investigate the death and verify her husband’s employment.

AIG recently offered a one-time payment of $22,000, Torres said. She turned it down. She hired a U.S. lawyer and is pursuing full compensation through the Labor Department’s dispute resolution system, a process that can take years.

AIG declined to comment on any individual case.

Qatar International, a logistics and support firm, did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Torres used the $21,000 she received after her husband’s death to build a two-story, two-room concrete house among tin shacks and rutted roads in a poor area of San Fernando, a provincial capital on Luzon, the Philippines’ main island.

The bottom floor houses the family business, a store crammed with sacks of rice, cases of soda and canned squid. Gorgonia and the five children live upstairs.

Business is bad. One December day, Gorgonia fretted that she would not earn enough to put food on the table. One of her children hunted for snails in a ditch for dinner. Another went Christmas caroling in hopes of getting donations to buy pants for school.

“As time goes by, it gets worse and worse,” she said.

Claim goes unfiled

Marcelo Salazar, a Filipino from the resort island of Cebu, was killed in Iraq in April 2005 while working as a truck driver. He left behind his partner, Vicky Buhawe, their baby son, and an unfinished house.

Buhawe has no right to benefits under the Defense Base Act because she and Salazar were not married. Their son, John Mark, now 4, is eligible for a one-time payment of about $14,000, based on his father’s wages. But Buhawe was unaware that civilians employed in the war zone were covered by insurance and never filed a claim.

There is no record that Kuwait-based El Hoss Engineering and Transport Co., Salazar’s employer, reported his death to the Labor Department. The company did pay compensation to Salazar’s son by a different relationship, according to a Philippine government news release.

Efforts to reach El Hoss for comment were unsuccessful.

“Sometimes we go to Marcelo’s grave and we whisper, ‘How will we survive tonight?’ ” Buhawe said as she held John Mark on her knee. “Tonight, I am not sure where we’re going to get dinner.”

Another Filipino, Leopoldo Soliman, took a job in a warehouse on a U.S. military base in Iraq in 2003, hoping to save enough to build a home for his wife and children in a village northeast of Manila.

He earned $9,000 a year working for Prime Projects International, a KBR subcontractor. In 2004, he was given a commendation by U.S. soldiers for “hard work and tireless dedication.”

Then, in May 2005, a mortar shell fell near his living quarters in Balad, a military logistics hub north of Baghdad. Shrapnel blew a hole in his knee.

Prime Projects paid for his initial medical care in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates and his transportation back to the Philippines, he said. But since then, he has had to pay out of his own pocket for pain medication, follow-up surgery to remove shrapnel and physical therapy.

Soliman said Prime Projects ignored his pleas for help. He said he never received any information about the war-zone insurance and has not filed for benefits.

Prime Projects did not respond to requests for comment.

Soliman said the company “treated me well during the accident.

“After that, when I came home, nothing.”

A global workforce

The Defense Base Act was not designed for the complexities of the global contractor workforce now in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Citizens of at least 45 countries are working under U.S. contracts in the two nations. Yet Labor Department notices are printed in English and Arabic, but not Tagalog, Hindi or the many other languages spoken by workers.

Overseas companies often ignore orders from Labor Department administrative law judges to appear in court or pay benefits.

Contracts for support services often involve layers of subcontractors. A Sri Lankan janitor might work for an Indian labor broker hired by a Middle Eastern subcontractor for a U.S. company. The chain is so complex that foreign workers can have trouble proving they were employed in behalf of the U.S. war effort.

In 2004, a dozen Nepalese were killed by insurgents in western Iraq. They had been on their way to work at a U.S. base where Daoud & Partners Co., a Jordanian logistics firm, held a contract. The company denied that it employed the men, foreclosing death benefits for their survivors.

After news reports about the case, attorneys with the Washington law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll volunteered to represent relatives of the slain Nepalese.

Attorney Matthew Handley traveled to Nepal to take witness statements and discovered, by chance, a copy of an employment contract that showed the men worked for Daoud.

In 2008, four years after the killings, a Labor Department judge ruled that Daoud and its insurance provider, CNA, were obliged to pay death benefits. That June, CNA began paying compensation, ranging from $35,000 for dependent parents to $175,000 for young widows of the dead workers.

Daoud did not respond to requests for comment.

“I couldn’t imagine anyone without counsel, nevermind somebody from Nepal, trying to navigate through this process,” Handley said.

“When it comes to third-country nationals, it becomes a black hole. You’re lucky if you’re able to get payments.”

Survivor’s struggles

Even when foreigners know their rights, the system can be daunting.

Daniel Brink, a South African, was working as a security guard in Iraq when his SUV was hit by a string of roadside bombs in December 2005.

Brink, a former police officer, lost his right leg and most of his fingers. He was flown to London, where surgeons used some of his toes to replace some of his lost fingers.

CNA, the insurance carrier for Brink’s employer, paid for that treatment. But when he returned to Johannesburg, South Africa, disputes arose over the cost of follow-up surgeries, psychological counseling, an electric wheelchair and related renovations to Brink’s house. CNA took months to pay for the surgeries and rejected the other bills, Brink said. His credit rating plunged, his wheelchair was repossessed, and he lost his home to foreclosure.

In May 2007, Brink flew to Chicago, believing he had an appointment to meet with his CNA claims adjuster. When he arrived, Brink said, he was told nobody would meet with him. Security guards escorted him out of CNA headquarters.

Two years later, Brink is pressing his claim in the Labor Department’s dispute-resolution system. He said his outstanding medical bills total about $150,000.

CNA said that it “does not have any direct contact with workers,” but otherwise declined to comment, saying that individual cases are confidential.

Brink, 39, said scores of South Africans who worked in Iraq are in similar situations. He is now in law school and hopes to represent injured contract workers from his country someday.

“It’s not that I want something out of the ordinary,” Brink said. “I just want what I’m entitled to, nothing more, nothing less.”

t.christian.miller@propublica.org

Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times


Iran says Iraq border incident a “misunderstanding”

December 23, 2009

TEHRAN (Reuters) – Iran on Tuesday described a border incident with Iraq, which caused oil prices to rise late last week, as a “misunderstanding” and called for experts from both countries to look into border demarcation issues.

The statement came two days after Iraqi officials said Iranian troops had withdrawn partially from a disputed oil area claimed by both Tehran and Baghdad, possibly defusing a border feud straining the two neighbours’ ties.

“Our stance has been crystal clear … it was a misunderstanding,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told a news conference in comments translated by English-language state television.

Saying the two countries’ foreign ministers had reached an “understanding” in a phone conversation on Saturday, he added a committee should be formed to look into border demarcation issues between Iran and Iraq, which fought a 1980-88 war.

“We think it is a technical and expert issue and the experts of both sides should sit down and look into … specifying the border areas between the two countries so that such misunderstandings are removed,” he said.

On Sunday, Iraq’s government spokesman said a group of Iranian troops who had taken over an oil well in a remote region along the Iran-Iraq border last week were no longer in control of the well, which Iraq considers part of its Fakka oilfield.

A border official in Iran was quoted on the same day as saying Iranian forces had returned to their original position after dismantling a barricade built by Iraqi soldiers near the disputed oil well.

Global oil prices climbed on Friday following initial media reports that Iranian troops had commandeered an Iraqi oil well.

Iran and Iraq have a long history of border feuds, including one that escalated into the eight-year war in the 1980s.

The relationship warmed after Sunni Arab Saddam Hussein’s ousting in 2003, when Shi’ites took over in Baghdad and trade and religious tourism picked up. Iran is also a predominantly Shi’ite Muslim state.

According to Iraqis, the well is one of seven that comprise Fakka, a relatively small field that now produces about 10,000 barrels of oil per day. Iraqi officials say the well in question has only been operative briefly, before the Iran-Iraq war.

Iran says the well falls within Iranian borders.

“The best solution is … for the experts to sit down and investigate the issue,” Mehmanparast said.

“A committee will review the demarcation and the border lines to remove any possible misunderstanding and to find solutions to that,” he said. (Reporting by Hossein Jaseb and Fredrik Dahl; editing by Robin Pomeroy)


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