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CorpWatch’s Pratap Chatterjee and Ex-Titan Translator Marwan Mawiri on Corporate Cronyism and Intelligence Outsourcing in Iraq

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CorpWatch Managing Editor Pratap Chatterjee has just returned from Iraq, where he was embedded with the US military and investigating the outsourcing of both military logistics and intelligence gathering. A new CorpWatch report offers a scathing assessment of intelligence contractors L-3 and Titan. We also speak to Marwan Mawiri, who worked in Iraq as a translator with Titan in 2003 and 2004. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: A Senate Democratic committee heard testimony Monday alleging fraud and waste by the Pentagon’s largest contractor in Iraq, Kellogg Brown and Root, or KBR. KBR denied all the allegations. It used to be a subsidiary of Halliburton, the company formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Committee Chair Senator Byron Dorgan from North Dakota has scheduled more hearings on wasted government money and said that “in cost-plus contracts, waste doesn’t matter to contractors.” He added that in recent years he had seen “the greatest waste fraud and abuse this country has ever witnessed.”

KBR has a $27 billion logistics contract with the US Army as the sole provider of services to troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. Earlier this month, the US Army awarded KBR an additional $150 million ten-year contract.

Meanwhile, another lesser-known defense contractor, L-3, held its annual shareholder meeting in New York yesterday. L-3 specializes in intelligence gathering in Iraq and is the second largest employer in Iraq after KBR. Created in part by Wall Street investment bankers working for Lehman Brothers, L-3 is now the parent company to firms like Titan, which provided translators at Abu Ghraib.

The watchdog group CorpWatch released a scathing report yesterday about L-3 and Titan. It’s called “Outsourcing Intelligence in Iraq.”

Pratap Chatterjee is the managing editor of CorpWatch and the author of this report. He just returned from Iraq, where he was embedded with the US military and investigating the outsourcing of both military logistics and intelligence gathering. He joins us now here in the firehouse studio in New York.

We’re also joined by Marwan Mawiri. He worked as a translator with Titan in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.

Welcome, both of you, to Democracy Now!

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Juan, thank you for having us.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Let’s start first with KBR and its alleged abuses. You’re very familiar with that topic.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: I’m very familiar with that, Juan, yes. And this is my fourth trip to Iraq, and this time I was embedded with the 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command and Battalion up in Anaconda and down in Camp Arifjan with the 1st Theater Sustainment Command. And what I discovered was a culture of excess, and it’s interesting. It’s different from what I thought. Basically, the idea of the military here is to provide as much as possible to the troops so that they have sort of a hometown experience. We’re talking about Southern comfort food. You have some menus here, you know, an Easter menu, an Indian night menu. You know, soldiers are provided with, you know, bacon, pork loin, jellybeans, waffle bars.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, it says here, “the Happy Easter menu.” Cornish — entrees: Cornish hen, prime rib, sliced ham, roasted turkey and grilled trout. Side dishes: shrimp cocktail, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, mashed potatoes. Sounds like a good menu.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: So this is not — yeah, it’s a pretty good menu. And the idea really is, when soldiers are there, is they get provided with good food, as much of it as they want. They get food four times a day. They have internet. They have video games they can play. The idea is to remove them from the reality of Iraq and to make them feel at home. And we were talking to a young soldier from Mississippi, and he said, “Reading the media, you know, I thought this was a lot more dangerous place.”

Now remember, out of the 160,000 troops, we had 100,000 stay on the bases. And they are really not — we talked to a soldier, and we said, “Well, what do you — how do you communicate with Iraqis?” And he said, “Well, you know, the Iraqis on the base, they’re pretty happy.” And I’m like, “But there aren’t any Iraqis on the base. The people you’re meeting on the base are Indian.” And this food is provided, you know, to the troops by Indian workers who are paid, if they’re cleaners, $9 a day; if they’re cooks, $20 a day; if you’re a cashier, $30 a day. And it’s driven in by Fijian truck drivers. And I spent some time hanging out with Fijian truck drivers in Kuwait. These guys have driven a hundred trips to Iraq, from Kuwait City to Mosul, to Anaconda, to places around there, and they’re paid $180 a trip. So the very fact that there are beans and bullets in Iraq is a result of, you know, third world workers providing this stuff to troops.

The troops now, when they live there, have — if you’re not on the frontlines, the idea is to keep you there and to make you happy, because, remember, a lot of the troops are there, you know, at great cost to themselves and because they need to make a living. The problem is, this creates a culture of excess.

So, in a sense — I met with Colonel Moreland at — and Colonel Carol at the 1st Sustainment Command down in Kuwait, and I said, “Look, I have evidence of contractors who have been involved in multi-billion-dollar fraud. I have evidence that the truck drivers and the workers are not being paid well. Will you do something about this?” And they said, “No. The contract works. The troops are fed.”

So here’s the problem, is you can’t even give KBR a slap on the wrist, because they know they can get away with things. In 2004, there was a trucking contract with a company called PWC from Kuwait. They’re driving things into Iraq, and they have hired drivers who are not competent, who can’t drive these trucks. And the military says, “We’re not going to change anything. We know this was true.” Colonel Moreland himself said, “There was a problem the first year.” I said, “Well, why didn’t you do something about it?” He says, “Because, you know, we’re at war.” I mean, this is the reality. And this is why KBR knows it can get away with workers — particularly management, with charging a lot. It really is a culture of excess.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But now, there have been, I don’t know how many, investigations of contractor abuse in Iraq, congressional hearings, GAO reports. Nothing seems to change.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, I mean, you mentioned it yourself, Juan. This is a company that’s probably gotten $25 billion worth of contracts. Its new contract is $150 billion over the next ten years. This is a lot of money. And the reality is, there are companies who can do — KBR, for example, in doing this work, is subcontracting it to a lot of other companies, to Kulak from Turkey, to Tamimi from Saudi Arabia, to Prime Projects International from Dubai. Now, I’m not suggesting that these companies are much better, because given half a chance, they would overcharge, too, and they definitely exploit their workers, the Indians, the Pakistanis, the Egyptians, the Sri Lankans.

Now, the Marines actually did an interesting experiment in Djibouti at Camp Lemonier where they decided to get rid of KBR and hire instead the company they were subcontracting, and they saved a bunch of money. The Army Corps of Engineers, in reconstructing Iraq, has decided that companies like Parsons, companies like Bechtel, companies like ECCI, all from California, are not doing a good job, so they’ve directly hired the Iraqi companies. It’s much safer, and it puts more money back into the economy. And the GRD, the Gulf Regional Division of the US Army Corps of Engineers — I met with them in Baghdad — they said, “We’re seeing much better work done, because we’re working directly with the local people.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, tell us about this new company, L-3, the subject of your report, “Outsourcing Intelligence in Iraq.”

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, Juan, this is a company that had a multi-billion-dollar contract to provide translators, translators like Marwan here, to work in the field and provide that critical nexus between soldiers and between the local Iraqi population. Most recently, about three years ago, they got a $426.5 million contract to provide intelligence, analysts, screeners, interrogators in Iraq.

Now, the problem the military has is they’re hiring a company for intelligence that’s either not very clever or they’re deaf. They’re deaf to the needs of their translators, who are getting injured. This is — 280 translators have died. This is a rate 50 percent higher than the military itself.

JUAN GONZALEZ: By “died,” you mean “have been killed.”

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Have been killed in Iraq, mostly Iraqi nationals. They are not listening to soldiers, who want to be able to communicate and find out what’s happening in Iraq, and they’re most certainly not listening to Iraqis, who are being thrown in — there are 25,000 prisoners in Iraq.

And because a lot of these translators, you know, either don’t speak very good English or very good Arabic, what happens is there’s a communication gap. I’ll give you an example. Three weeks ago, I was in a camp — I won’t name where — in Iraq, where I met a Titan translator, and we were listening to mortar fire outside. And I said to the translator, I said, “How do you say ‘There’s incoming mortar fire’ in Arabic?” And this look of panic descended upon him, because he couldn’t translate that, and he rushed off to find someone to find out how to say “incoming mortar fire.”

We have a problem here. Bad intelligence costs lives. And that’s really what you’re getting from L-3. I mean — and in fact, the US military has — it took them nine years to do it, but they yanked 80 percent of the new contract for translation, a $4.6 billion contract. Unfortunately, 20 percent of the contract still remains with a company, this joint venture with DynCorp, who is supposed to be their rival. So these companies sort of stitch it up. They work with each other.

Yesterday, when I was at their annual meeting, I ran into the four-star General Carl Vuono, who runs their military training program. I said, “General, aren’t you worried that you are doing a bad job by the military?” I mean, these guys were fired from training the Iraqi army in Kirkuk — in Kirkush, rather, in 2004.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Marwan Mawiri, you were recruited to be — to work for L-3. Could you tell us about your experience, how you got involved and what your duties were there?

MARWAN MAWIRI: Well, what happened is that Titan, back in 2002, 2003, started putting these ads that they’re looking for qualified linguists to come out and help in providing services to the US government and Department of Defense.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And these ads were in Iraq or here?

MARWAN MAWIRI: No, US nationals, US citizens and green card holder. I’m a US citizen, so I responded to the ad, and I called the company. I said I was interested in this job, “What do I need to do?”

And it was a very simple conversation for less than a minute. In less than a minute’s conversation, my Arabic language skill was tested, my English language skill was tested, and I passed. And that was the case with hundreds of hired in — or that were hired in the US.

And when we got to Washington, D.C., and we started going through the hiring process, you know, I was shocked and surprised that many of the people they hired inside the United States, if you were just to give them a simple Arabic language test or an English language test to see how proficient they are in translations, they will not pass. I mean, we literally had people who needed help filling out their employment application. We needed —- you know, I was helping some of the people they hired to fill out their, you know, background investigation application.

And when we got, you know, to the field and when we got deployed to our assignments, you know, I was surprised that we never had any training, even before we took on these assignments, nor we got training when we get to our field. And we had to deal with, you know, incompetent -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: No training about what to expect in Iraq?

MARWAN MAWIRI: No training what to expect in Iraq. No training what the field work going to look like. No training on how you should be translating in a proper manner. No training even how to deal with simple things when it comes to, you know, what if you had issues and problems, you know — and what was most shocking is, even the site manager or the so-called site manager they had, you know, in the field, were unskilled, unqualified. I mean, some of these people literally had no experience even in managing more than three, four, five people. One of the site managers we dealt with was a truck driver. One of the site managers that we dealt was — I think his rank was a sergeant, who probably handled a handful of soldiers before he —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what were you paid by them?

MARWAN MAWIRI: At the time, the pay range was between $60,000 to $100,000.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And once you were deployed in Iraq, what did you do?

MARWAN MAWIRI: I provided translation and language services to the Army. I was attached with Brigade 173rd out of Italy, Airborne, and I was stationed in Kirkuk and the surrounding areas. And I helped out in a lot of efforts in reconstruction that, you know, the government reestablish social order. I also helped out and established, with the help of Battalion 108, which is a branch of 173rd Airborne, in establishing the first police academy after the invasion. And we were able to train, you know, approximately 2,000 to 3,000 police officers and Iraqi Defense Forces and trying to get them ready to handle their own, you know -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the degree of danger, obviously — some 200 translators were killed from the company — because you were obviously exposed to the same kind of dangers that a lot of the troops were, right?

MARWAN MAWIRI: Yes. We were frontline translators. We were embedded with the soldiers. Wherever the soldiers went, we went. Whether it was, you know, a civil affair mission or a, you know, 3:00 in the morning mission raid or, you know, I mean, we were there, we were taking bullets. You know, we were with the soldiers, so wherever the soldier went, we went. And, you know, what was so amazing, that the company has promised that they will provide us with body armors, they will provide us with special uniforms that will keep us protected, but that never happened.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Pratap, what kind of oversight for a company like L-3 or Titan has occurred so far?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, there’s very little oversight, and this is a question we’ve been asking the military for a long time. And literally, the contract ended — the original Titan translation contract ended in 2004. It’s taken four years to get them out of place and move another company. So it’s very hard. I mean, the problem here is that bad contracting, and because there’s poor oversight, costs lives. And more than that, it costs — I mean, not more than that, but equally, it costs a lot of dollars, a lot of taxpayer dollars. And you — it is not good for Iraqis or for Americans to have companies that don’t listen to their client, the military, or to us, the taxpayer.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of — have you talked to Congress, members of Congress, about this at all?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Absolutely. A lot of — I know that the Democratic Policy Committee, for example, in the Senate, which you mentioned, had hearings. They are planning to look into this issue of L-3 and Titan, the fact that the company is providing screeners who are in charge of finding out who gets onto the base and who doesn’t, whose experience is working at a Safeway checkout counter. You know, these are the people we’re putting to decide whether or not — no experience in screening, except maybe working as a baggage screener at an airport. It’s a problem.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Pratap Chatterjee, investigative journalist, author and managing editor of CorpWatch, released a report yesterday called “Outsourcing Intelligence in Iraq.” And Marwan Mawiri worked as a translator with Titan in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.

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