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2008-04-08

EXCLUSIVE...In Their First Joint Interview, Two Ex-KBR Employees Say They Were Raped by Co-Workers in Iraq

Guests

"Lisa Smith", former employee of the military contractor KBR. She has come forward with allegations of rape by her co-workers in Iraq.

Jamie Leigh Jones, has filed a civil suit against Halliburton and its former subsidiary KBR for an alleged drugging and gang rape by employees of the company in Baghdad. No charges have been filed in her case so far, and she has accused both KBR and the Justice Department of a cover-up. She is founder of the Jamie Leigh Foundation, which aims to help US citizens victimized by government contractors or other corporations working overseas.

Karen Houppert, she broke the story of Lisa Smith’s rape allegations for The Nation magazine. The article is called “Another
KBR Rape Case." Her latest book is Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military for Better or Worse.

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Another female employee of the military contractor KBR has come forward with allegations of rape in Iraq. The woman, identified by the pseudonym "Lisa Smith," says two colleagues raped her at a southern Iraqi military base in January. She says a supervisor told her to “keep quiet” or face danger. "Lisa Smith" will be testifying publicly tomorrow before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Last year, former KBR employee Jamie Leigh Jones sued KBR and its former parent company Halliburton after she says she was drugged and gang-raped by employees of the company in Baghdad. Today, in their first joint interview, we speak to both of these women, who have bravely come forward with their stories. We also speak with journalist Karen Houppert, who broke the story of "Lisa Smith" in The Nation magazine. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Another female employee of the military contractor KBR has come forward with allegations of rape in Iraq. In an interview with The Nation magazine last week, a woman identified by the pseudonym Lisa Smith says two colleagues raped her at a southern Iraqi military base in January. Smith says a supervisor told her to “keep quiet” or face danger.

Last year, former KBR employee Jamie Leigh Jones sued KBR and its former parent company Halliburton after she says she was drugged and gang-raped by employees of the company in Baghdad. Jones recounted that after she was raped, the company put her in a shipping container without food or water for at least twenty-four hours. She was also warned that if she left Iraq for medical treatment, she’d be out of a job.

Jones has said that thirty-eight other female contractors have privately come forward with their own stories of sexual harassment and abuse in Iraq and other countries. A criminal probe into Jones’s case has lasted more than two-and-a-half years. No charges have been filed.

Today, in their first joint interview, we speak to both of these women who have bravely come forward with their stories. Lisa Smith, as we’ll call her to protect her privacy, will be testifying publicly tomorrow — that’s Wednesday — before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in D.C. She joins us on the phone from Texas. Jamie Leigh Jones joins us on the line from San Diego. She is the founder and director of the Jamie Leigh Foundation, which assists US citizens victimized by government contractors or other corporations while working abroad. She has testified twice before Congress and spoken out in the media about her case.

I’m also joined on the line by their attorneys: for Lisa Smith, Dan Ross; for Jamie Leigh Jones, Todd Kelly. And joining us from Baltimore is Karen Houppert. She broke the story of Lisa Smith’s rape allegations for The Nation magazine. The article is called “Another KBR Rape Case,” posted at thenation.com. Karen’s latest book is Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military for Better or Worse.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! I want to begin with Jamie Leigh Jones. Tell us —-

JAMIE LEIGH JONES: Hi.

AMY GOODMAN: —- for those who haven’t heard your story — hi, Jamie — when you were in Iraq and what happened.

JAMIE LEIGH JONES: Well, I went to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and I worked for Halliburton, KBR, and I went there as an IT tech. And on the fourth day in Iraq, I was socializing with some fellow American contractors and was handed a drink — I was offered a drink, and I took two sips from the drink and don’t remember anything after that. I woke up to my body brutally raped and beaten, and the injuries I sustained were so severe which required me to have a reconstructive surgery on my chest.

I then, later on, I decided to start the Jamie Leigh Foundation because not only could I not pursue my case against my assailants criminally, I failed to be able to pursue a case civilly because of the arbitration provisions in my employee contract. So I decided to start the Jamie Leigh Foundation to make sure that other victims have an avenue for justice so that I could stand up in front of Congress and try and get some laws changed to protect these women that are also coming forward. But currently, right now, there’s actually forty women who have sought help through this foundation.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we’re also joined by a woman we’ll call Lisa Smith. Jamie Leigh Jones has been going through this for several years now, first what happened to her, Iraq, and then how she is trying to get redress, to get justice. Lisa, first tell us why you don’t want to use your real name, and then tell us what happened to you and when it happened.

LISA SMITH: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Hi.

LISA SMITH: The main reason, at this point, why I do not want to use my real name is that hopefully there will be some charges pressed in my case. It’s currently still under investigation both by the military and the government. So I’m trying to keep some sense of confidentiality.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what happened. When did you go to Iraq?

LISA SMITH: I went to Iraq in July of 2007. I’m a KB — I believe a KBR employee, also through Service International, or Service Employees International. We’re having some issues as far as the clarity of whose employee I’m actually having. I have a similar issue as Jamie Leigh does as far as our contract: it’s not clear who we actually work for. And again, we also have an arbitration clause in our contract through Service Employees International; however, I always was under the understanding that I was a KBR employee.

AMY GOODMAN: So it’s only now when you’re involved with the legal system that you’re learning you may have been employed by another company somehow connected to KBR.

LISA SMITH: Correct. They are somehow connected. We’re just not real clear on the connection at this point. And, however, KBR is standing by the arbitration clause that Service Employees International has on the contract that we signed.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what happened in Iraq.

LISA SMITH: I was a paramedic for Iraq in a southern part of Iraq and had been only at that particular site for — I’m sorry, I needed to stop our car. I was only at that site for approximately ten days, and again, I was socializing with the military, as well as other KBR employees. And we had a drink, and shortly after consuming part of that drink, I have very little memories of any activity after that. I also woke up in another location and had been assaulted. There was blood and feces in the room, and there was a military personnel in the room. And the camp management, from what I found out through the investigation and what the investigators have told me, the camp management actually was in the room during the assault several times.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you know this?

LISA SMITH: I learned this through the CID’s investigation, the military [inaudible] —-

AMY GOODMAN: CID is the military investigation.

LISA SMITH: Right. The investigation did not begin until almost five weeks after the assault, and the investigation was initiated after I reported it. The camp evidently had -— the management of the camp had already been under suspicion for other allegations, which is a large concern of mine, because we were not — when I was sent there, I was not aware that there was an ongoing issue at that camp.

AMY GOODMAN: Which camp was it?

LISA SMITH: I do not want to release that information at this time. There are several other innocent people there that could be affected by it.

AMY GOODMAN: And when you were there, did you report to your higher-ups? How did you deal that morning as you came to and realized what was happening?

LISA SMITH: I was physically ill from having feces being placed in my mouth. I had no other option other than to work that day. I was the only medical provider for that site. So I did work. I did have some rectal bleeding for about four days after that. And I had a discussion with camp management, as well as with the military, and was informed at that time that I was not to say a word. Until I left that particular camp, I did not say a word.

Once I was returned to another camp that was larger, that had more people available, as far as human resources and employee relations and the employee assistance program, that is when I chose to report the incident and felt that I was in a safer environment to do so.

The environment that I was in had very limited resources. There was no employee relations there until they came down to start this investigation of other issues in the camp. There was no human resources on a regular basis. There was no employee assistance on any type of basis there, other than traveling through to go to a different other site. So I had no options as far as who I could report it to, nor did we have military police there or American military established. There was a small group of American military there, but that was it.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you worked, you believe, for KBR at the time. Did you, as a medic, have to treat one of your assailants?

LISA SMITH: Yes, I had.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened? What was that situation?

LISA SMITH: I had to treat him after an occupational injury.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you do that?

LISA SMITH: Again, I’m the only — he had a foot injury. I am the only medical provider down there. It wouldn’t matter who came in and was injured; I would have to — I have an obligation to treat.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to break and come back. We’re talking to Lisa Smith — that’s a pseudonym — a woman who is telling her story about working for KBR, she believed, in Iraq. Jamie Leigh Jones, also with us, who is well known for speaking out about what happened to her in Iraq. And we’re also, when we come back, going to talk to the author of The Nation piece who exposed Lisa’s story. Lisa will be revealing her identity when she testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tomorrow in Congress. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with, well, Lisa Smith, a pseudonym, a woman who will be revealing her identity on Wednesday before the US Congress; Jamie Leigh Jones, founder of the Jamie Leigh Foundation; and Karen Houppert, a woman who wrote a story about their two cases, she is joining us from Baltimore.

But we want to go back to Lisa Smith. Tell us what happened. You just described, as a medic, having to treat your assailant. You worked for KBR in Iraq. Then what happened? When did this case start to get some attention? When did you feel someone was responding?

LISA SMITH: Actually, I did not feel anyone was responding positively until I came back to the States on my R&R. I did give a report to employee relations. They then turned it over to an investigator for KBR. And I was forced to go speak with them. I spoke with them one day for several hours as they escorted me around the camp for my safety. I also was taken by them to the military for a physical exam and blood work. And the way it was presented to me was, well, you want to make sure that you’re healthy, you want to make sure you’re OK. And for me to have the testing done on my way out of country would have been costly to myself. I would have had to pay the expenses.

And in fact, by taking me to the military, that’s how it got turned over to the CID. The military physician who examined me had no choice but to report the assault to the military, taking away any chance I had to actually decide whether I was going to report this through the military or not and to do it on my time rather than their time. I had already talked to Dan Ross prior to speaking with the global investigators. And at no time was I told that the information I was giving them was being turned over to the military. And even after that point, I had requested a copy of the statement that I gave global investigations so I could forward it to my attorney, and I was told I could have that. The following day, I was told I would not be allowed to have that, that the Criminal Investigations Division from the military didn’t pick it up, and they would be contacting me shortly. At that point, I notified [inaudible] —-

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Lisa, a quick question, a quick question. Your computer was confiscated?

LISA SMITH: Yes, my computer was confiscated right after that. I had notified Dan again that global investigations was refusing to give me a copy of the statement. He then issued a letter to KBR, and shortly after I received that letter and responded to a date correction on it, within ten to twenty minutes KBR security came and pulled my computer. At that point, it was confiscated.

AMY GOODMAN: Was this your personal computer or given to you by them?

LISA SMITH: This is a company computer used to do all my daily reports.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did they justify taking your computer?

LISA SMITH: They said they needed it for evidence.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I want to say KBR declined our request to join us on the broadcast today, but the corporate communications director, Heather Browne, did release this statement. It said, “The safety of all employees remains KBR’s top priority. The company in no way condones or tolerates any form of sexual harassment. Any allegation of sexual harassment or sexual assault is taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. In no way are the allegations publicized recently, an indication of KBR’s treatment of women. The Company’s zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment is unwavering.” Lisa, your response to KBR’s statement?

LISA SMITH: My response to KBR’s statement is that’s funny. The employee assistance program told me -— they gave me an 800 number back in the States to contact for counseling and for advice, because they’re not trained in handling sexual assault. There is no medical protocol on a treatment or proper steps to be taken for sexual assault. There is a medical protocol for treatment of STDs.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it true your twenty-two-year-old son in the US military in the Middle East was the one who encouraged you to make a formal complaint?

LISA SMITH: Yes, he did. He served seventeen months in Afghanistan, and I wanted to discuss with him before I went to CID to find out his opinion. And I really was leery that he would be angry with me because I was naming people that were in his same military. And he was very definite, very much disgusted that somebody who wore his uniform would do that to anyone, let alone his mom, and he encouraged the report to CID.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie Leigh Jones, does this sound familiar, what Lisa is describing? You worked for Halliburton; she, for KBR.

JAMIE LEIGH JONES: Yeah, it does. It all sounds familiar. Just now, you know, I’m getting tears to my eyes, because part of the reason why I came forward was to prevent this type of thing from happening. I didn’t think I would get emotional like this, but it makes me very, very sick that it’s not stopping. I mean, what will it take? I don’t know how many women it’s going to take. I — my heart really goes out to you, Lisa. If I can do anything at all to help you, please just let me know. You know, a lot of things are similar. My laptop was taken. You know, I was drugged. I just can’t imagine why they just can’t change the situation over there. They’ve known it was a problem. They know it’s a problem, because it happened to me. So I’m just really sick about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Lisa Smith, does someone like Jamie Leigh Jones coming out — did it make a difference for you? When did you learn of her plight? Has it strengthened you in coming forward?

LISA SMITH: I didn’t — I was not aware of Jamie Leigh’s story even, until after I had talked with Dan a couple of times. I had no idea that it had happened to other people or even the frequency that it does happen. And it does give you a sense of strength when you know someone else has walked through these very shoes. And in the same token, it’s so unbelievably frustrating that this is continuing to happen and that this company, who issues safety statements on common sense and on how to walk on an uneven surfaces and on backing your vehicle, does not address this openly and publicly with its employees.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s bring Karen Houppert into this conversation, who’s written about both women for The Nation. Karen, joining us from Baltimore, tell us about how Lisa and Jamie’s picture — stories fits into a larger picture.

KAREN HOUPPERT: Well, I think what’s interesting is that both women originally thought they were alone in what happened to them, but what we’re starting to see is there’s been a rash of incidences of sexual assault or sexual harassment or retaliation for complaining about either of those things against KBR, Halliburton and some of their subsidiaries over there in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their — Jamie Leigh’s attorney has fifteen cases alone. And as Jamie noted, there’s forty women who’ve contacted — and a few men, who have contacted her organization regarding similar complaints.

And what’s interesting is the way that these issues have been able to stay quiet. As both women noted, there’s a clause in the fine print of their contracts that says they must go through an arbitration process if they have complaints. And that’s something that keeps them from being able to take these into a courtroom, a civil courtroom, and have a public trial where these issues come out and where other women might then know about them. And also it might push the company itself to spell out more clearly any kind of sexual harassment policy, to put in place a clear set of procedures where there is a sexual assault. All of those things they’re able to — have been able to keep quite quiet over the last couple of years.

And in Lisa’s case, it’s interesting because it’s — one of the alleged perpetrators is a US soldier and the other is a KBR employee. So the military CID, their investigative branch, will — is currently investigating the incident. They could decide to court-martial the US soldier and hold a trial, and — but it’s not clear whether they have any jurisdiction over the civilian KBR employee. And that’s really been an issue that’s come up quite a bit between Blackwater in other instances. But here, unlike Blackwater, where it was a US defense contractor who — security contractor who is — shot Iraqi civilians, here the two, both the victim and the alleged perpetrator, are US citizens, and the incident took place on a US military base, which means that the Justice Department actually has jurisdiction over pursuing this case, pressing charges and bringing this to trial in a federal court. But whether they’ll decide to do that or not is unclear, because they haven’t done that, they haven’t successfully prosecuted a single violent crime against US contractors over there, despite the fact that there’s 180,000 US contractors over there right now in the Middle East, which is a shockingly high number of people not to have a single criminal prosecution take place.

So what’s happening right now, I think, and what Jamie Leigh Jones has been able to successfully do is kind of push the American people to look a little more closely at this and hopefully ultimately push the Justice Department to actually pursue some of these cases, because at this point there’s no indication that they’re doing so with any of these incidences.

AMY GOODMAN: How did the military and how did KBR respond to your investigation, Karen Houppert?

KAREN HOUPPERT: The military said it cannot release any information — it’s currently investigating it — unless we get a — and this came after our story actually already went to press. We got a statement from them saying if we got a signed statement from Lisa Smith, that they might be able to release some details, so we’re working on that right now.

But KBR sent us a statement quite similar to the one that you read, saying that, you know, they took all complaints against — of sexual assault or sexual harassment quite seriously, they had a zero tolerance policy, etc. Their statement they gave us was very similar to the one that you received.

But they did also send a reply to Lisa Smith’s attorney, a letter, when he sent a letter when he first began representing her and sent them a letter saying that and that they should retain any paperwork or anything related to this investigation in her complaint. They responded very swiftly and, among other things, disputed the accuracy of her claims and also said that she was free to remain in the United States if she wanted, because she’s actually supposed to report back for work to Dubai, I believe this week, but that she would not — it would have to be unpaid leave. So they’re not going to pay her anymore. She can file for unemployment if she wants. But, you know, that was there.

And they reminded her again that she was required to enter into the dispute resolution, arbitration procedures that are outlined in her contract. And several times, it’s worth noting, that when I spoke with Lisa Smith a couple of — earlier this week, she mentioned that several times when she was talking to different people, KBR employees, about her complaint, she was asked to sign a statement again, a nondisclosure statement, saying that she wouldn’t talk about these issues publicly. And I think that — you know, that’s a very troubling precedent for the company to be setting under these circumstances, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go back to Lisa Smith. Lisa, as you’re calling yourself now, why did you decide to testify before Congress and reveal your identity when you do that tomorrow?

LISA SMITH: The only resolution that I see that’s going to come out of this at all is that KBR, hopefully, will be encouraged to write a policy to make it accessible for their employees to get the help they need without making your employees feel even more insecure than they already do. Currently, KBR has done nothing, other than remind me to be silent. And anything that I’ve trusted from any of the KBR employees that I have spoke with has ultimately turned around and been a fact-finding mission for them, with giving me no information and no safety and no security. That needs to change for their employees. That — I don’t know how to stress that. Employees need to be able to go to their employer if there is a problem and at least have some sense of safety. And it wasn’t until four days before I left the country that I was called into human resources and asked if I wanted someone to be with me until I left the theater.

AMY GOODMAN: And how long was that after the assault?

LISA SMITH: Almost seven weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie Leigh Jones, you’ve set up this foundation now, the Jamie Leigh Foundation. First, how is it in your case it hasn’t been resolved in two-and-a-half years? You’ve already testified before Congress twice.

JAMIE LEIGH JONES: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And second, how many women have come to you, and what are you doing? How do you deal with the women who come to you?

JAMIE LEIGH JONES: OK. Well, so far, forty women have come through my foundation. We have become a watchdog foundation, so we are pushing for more stringent laws to make sure that these perpetrators have some type of law that they umbrella under, because no man should be above the law.

I’m actually going to the Senate hearing. I’ve been invited to submit written testimony. In there, I talk on behalf of the women that have come through the foundation. Lisa Smith isn’t one that’s come through the foundation, though I really feel for her. And I am so saddened because her story is so similar to mine, and it really brought tears to my eyes a minute ago.

But with these women also, we help them file for workman’s comp, and we also find them medical care if they need it or therapy. I’ve been through the whole process, filing for workman’s comp and stuff. A lot of women come home, they don’t even realize that they are able to file the Longshore and Harbor Workman’s Compensation Act, and so I make them aware that they can do that, it is an option, because they tell you, when you’re going home, that you’re not going to be paid, that, you know, that’s that. It’s not the case. And it took me seven months for them to pay for my reconstructive surgery, but part of that was probably because, you know, I didn’t know how to do the entire process. So I think that the foundation helps women, because I’ve been through everything, I can give them advice and advise them on different things that have failed in my case, so that they don’t — you know, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here on certain issues.

I have been in front of a grand jury hearing. There is a grand jury hearing convened out of the Florida district. I went in January and gave a testimony. I still don’t have the results for the criminal grand jury, but it is moving a little bit further along, so hopefully I’ll get there some day.

AMY GOODMAN: Last words, Lisa, before you go public tomorrow, before you testify, as we wrap up this segment?

LISA SMITH: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.

AMY GOODMAN: Your last thoughts?

LISA SMITH: My last thoughts? I honestly, at this point, have been so worn down and so disappointed and frightened that I’m just starting to get a little bit angry now that a company that I gave so much to has done so very little for me and for anyone else in this situation. Going public tomorrow is a little frightening for me. It will most likely prevent me from getting another contracting job, unless we can manage to change the public view on sexual assault in the workplace.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for joining us, for coming forward, Lisa Smith. We will follow your testimony tomorrow in Congress. We hope to play it on Thursday. Jamie Leigh Jones, thank you for joining us, as well. And I want to thank Karen Houppert for being with us, who broke the story for The Nation magazine at thenation.com.

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