Sunday, May 23, 2010


By William Fisher

As Congress stiffens its resistance to moving any Guantánamo prisoners anywhere near the Continental U.S., some American communities are putting out the welcome mat.

Through an organization called “No More Guantánamos,” two New England towns have voted to welcome detainees who have been cleared for release, and similar actions are being planned in other locations.

In late April, voters at a Town Meeting in Leverett, Massachusetts, overwhelmingly approved a resolution welcoming “one or two” cleared Guantánamo Bay detainees to the community once Congress lifts its current ban.

Leverett thus became the second U.S. municipality to make it known that it would welcome GITMO detainees. Its resolution is identical to one approved in November 2009by Town Meeting members in nearby Amherst, Massachusetts.

Leverett is a town in Western Massachusetts with a population is 1,663 as of the 2000census. It is part of the Springfield metro area. Amherst is a much larger town, with a population of more than 35,000. It is home to Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It was also the home of famed American poet Emily Dickinson, who was known as “The Belle of Amherst.”

Nancy Talanian, executive director of “No More Guantánamos,” told IPS that there was very little local opposition in either of the towns. “The main opposition that Amherst town officials experienced came from outside the community, from right-wing talk radio and the blogosphere.”

Congress has left no doubt that it regards the movement of any Guantánamo prisoner to the Continental U.S. as one of the most highly charged third rails in American politics. It has imposed strict rules on the Obama Administration governing bringing GITMO prisoners to the U.S. even for trial.

And it has effectively stalled the Administration’s plans to purchase a prison in Illinois to house prisoners now in custody at Guantánamo. Congress reiterated that position last week when the House Armed Services Committee unanimously approved a defense bill for 2011 that bans spending money to build or modify any facility inside the United States to house Guantánamo detainees.

Guantánamo detainees have been largely successful in appealing their detentions to Federal district court, which has ordered 75 per cent of appellants to be released. But the U.S. military continues to hold them because an Appeals Court has ruled that releasing them into the U.S. involves immigration law, over which federal judges have no jurisdiction.

At the same time, the U.S. continues to negotiate with other countries to accept prisoners it has cleared for release.

With GITMO’s promised closing effectively stalled by Congress, why is “No More Guantánamos” actively promoting municipal resolutions offering homes?

The group’s executive director, Nancy Talanian, told IPS, “It’s important for the world to know that there are many community groups who take seriously their responsibility to promote justice for their fellow human beings. For years, we were told that all the prisoners held at Guantánamo were the worst of the worst. Now we know that was not true.”

She added, “The Bush and Obama administrations and Federal court have already freed nearly 600 men who passed through that facility. Many of the 100 remaining men whom the government has cleared for transfer have been held for more than eight years without being charged with any crime. We are prepared to accept our government’s verdict that these men pose no threat to the United States.”

“Without cooperation from U.S. communities and Congress, the long-awaited plan to close Guantánamo may not succeed,” she said.

She noted that Congress's ‘not-in-our-backyard' ban stands in the way of encouraging international cooperation in closing the prison. "Guantánamo detainees who cannot safely return home are really no different than other refugees whom western Massachusetts communities have welcomed in the past," she said.

Talanian told IPS that “No More Guantánamos” has additional chapters in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; New York City; Denver, Colorado; and Tallahassee, Florida, and other chapters currently forming.

Ms. Talanian founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC), a grassroots not-profit advocating for the rule of law, and was its executive director through 2008.

No More Guantánamos describes itself as “a coalition of concerned U.S. residents, communities, organizations, and attorneys who are working together to ensure justice for the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Bagram air base in Afghanistan, and other offshore prison sites maintained by the CIA and the Pentagon around the world.”

Its mission is “to ensure basic human rights for all prisoners, including the right to be either charged for crimes and tried or released, in accordance with international law, and not held indefinitely, and to find homes for prisoners who cannot return home. “

The organization was formed soon after President Barrack Obama signed an executive order to close Guantánamo Bay prison by January 22, 2010.


By William Fisher

Only hours after the Justice Department said it plans to pursue a lawsuit accusing KBR Inc. of taking kickbacks from two subcontractors on Iraq-related work, the Army announced it would award a $568 million no-bid contract to the former Halliburton Corporation subsidiary.

The company, which won the award over objections from members of Congress who have pushed the Pentagon to seek bids for further logistics contracts, will provide military support services in Iraq through 2011.

Several hours earlier, the Justice Department (DOJ) said the government will join a suit filed by whistleblowers alleging that two freight-forwarding firms gave KBR transportation department employees kickbacks in the form of meals, drinks, sports tickets and golf outings.

“Defense contractors cannot take advantage of the ongoing war effort by accepting unlawful kickbacks,” Assistant Attorney General Tony West said in a statement.

KBR, the Army’s largest contractor in Iraq, will continue to provide services in Iraq such as housing, meals, laundry, showers, water purification and bathroom cleaning under the new order, which was placed under a military contract KBR won in late 2001, shortly after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.

Since April 2008, the Army has put all logistics orders out for bids, pitting KBR against other companies, including the Falls Church, Virginia-based DynCorp International Inc. and Irving, Texas-based Fluor Corp.

Thus the no-bid work order is considered to be unusual. The Army said it chose the no-bid route for this contract because U.S. commanders in Iraq felt that bringing in a new company would be too disruptive as the U.S withdraws.

The view of General Ray Odierno, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, was crucial to the decision, Army Chief of Staff General George Casey told reporters.

“Odierno has reportedly said, ‘I’ve got three million pieces of equipment I’ve got to get out of Iraq, I’ve got 100 or so bases to close, I’ve got to move 80,000-plus people out of here and you want me to change horses in the middle of the stream?”

The U.S. force in Iraq is scheduled to shrink from 94,000 troops now to 50,000 by August, with a complete withdrawal by December 2011.

The Army, in its statement yesterday, said putting out to bid an order for 18 months’ work and making the transition to a new contractor would cost at least $77 million.

But members of Congress expressed dismay at the award. Congressman Edolphus Towns, a New York Democrat who heads the House Oversight Committee, wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates to question the Army's decision. North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, who chaired several Senate hearings on electrocutions of soldiers in Iraq resulting from shoddy contracting work by KBR, said the Army's past LOGCAP, or logistics, contracts had produced "the greatest waste, fraud and abuse perhaps in the history of our country."

KBR’s no-bid work order also drew criticism from two U.S. senators even before it was announced. Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who heads a subcommittee that oversees military contracting, and the panel’s ranking Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, wrote Defense Secretary Robert Gates urging the Army against “continued reliance” on KBR in light of the Justice Department’s April lawsuit.

“The Army has a big burden to demonstrate that a decision to not compete is in the best interest of the military and American taxpayers,” McCaskill said.

The whistleblowers’ lawsuit against KBR is the second government action this year. The U.S. sued the company on April 1, alleging that it used private armed security guards in Iraq between 2003 and 2006 in violation of its Army contract and then improperly billed for their services.

Before yesterday’s DOJ announcement, the Army had said in an e-mailed statement that it was aware of the April lawsuit and would use “additional oversight measures to ensure only reasonable, allowable costs are paid” under the new work order.

The new lawsuit, filed in a Texas federal court, was based on information from two whistleblowers who work in the air cargo industry, the DOJ said. The whistleblowers are entitled to a part of any money the Justice Department obtains in the case.

The new no-bid award also comes just a week after the Army announced that KBR would not receive $25 million in bonuses under the LOGCAP III Iraq support contract because KBR "failed to meet a level deserving of an award fee payment for work it did during the first four months of 2008.”

KBR's "failed" work occurred during the time a Green Beret soldier was electrocuted in a barracks shower in Iraq that KBR was responsible for maintaining.

The whistleblowers’ lawsuit is not the first legal action taken against KBR. On April 1, the DOJ sued KBR alleging it violated its contract by using private security guards and improperly charging the Army for their services.

More recently, Charles M. Smith, a civilian official formerly in charge of managing KBR's multibillion-dollar contract in Iraq, blew the whistle on the Army approving $1 billion in dubious charges to the company. Smith was forced from his job when he refused to sign off on the charges, for which auditors had determined that KBR lacked credible data or records. His successors then approved the charges. Smith said:

"They had a gigantic amount of costs they couldn’t justify. Ultimately, the money that was going to KBR was money being taken away from the troops, and I wasn’t going to do that.”

For KBR, the new contract award is about more than money. It represents an opportunity for the company to repair its iconic image as typifying the worst of wartime profiteering and greed. The company has charged billions of dollars in unsupported charges, carried out shoddy electrical work, built hazardous burn pits, and failed to protect its employees from being raped.

KBR sent an email to its employees that says, "With so much negative news about KBR and the fact that we have not won a LOGCAP IV task order, it is with great pride that I am able to announce that KBR is now in the LOGCAP IV business."

Former Vice President Dick Cheney was the chief executive of Halliburton from 1995 until 2000. Halliburton spun off its KBR subsidiary in 2006.