Thursday, June 15, 2006

Did Army Corps Cover Cheney's Role?

E-mails indicate that the Army Corps of Engineers worked to downplay Vice President Cheney's role in awarding a no-bid contract to a Halliburton subsidiary.

RAW STORY has obtained a copy of the emails, which were acquired by the government watchdog group Judicial Watch under the Freedom of Information Act.

The newly released emails show the Army Corps attempting to deflect attention from Cheney's office by distributing talking points that would mask Cheney's purported role. The Corps could not immediately be reached for comment.

Among the 100 pages of newly-obtained documents is an 2003 email in which Army Corps official Carol Sanders writes, "Mr. Robert Andersen, Chief Counsel, USACE, participated in a 60 Minutes interview today in New York regarding the sole source award of the oil response contract to Kellogg, Brown and Root... [Andersen] was able to make many of the points we had planned."

Sanders subsequently provided sound bites from the interview, including, "There was no contact whatsoever (with the VP office)."

The linked story contains excerpts of the relevant e-mails, but to view the entire packet of documents, including queries about the no-bid "bridge" contract and more, you can download this pdf. You can also download a second pdf of an e-mail which contradicts Sanders' soundbite.

The Army had earlier refused to hand over the documents. U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo M. Urbina released them after the group sued, arguing that they were being improperly exempted from the Freedom of Information Act.

Noting Vice President Cheney's prior relationship to Halliburton, Judicial Watch had filed its original FOIA request to obtain documents pertaining to the lucrative no-bid contract.

The vice president's associations with Halliburton "raise concerns about the appearance of a conflict of interest or favoritism," Judicial Watch argued, "particularly since the contract was awarded to KBR without a bidding process and because the contract was not announced to the public until after it was approved."

I don't go purple in the face when the name "Halliburton" comes up, nor do I use it as a verbal-shorthand code word for All Things Evil About Big Business etc. etc. etc. There is a relatively small pool of companies capable of handling certain types of work assignments--or clusters of work assignments--in terms of experience, resources, indemnification, start-up time and so forth. Not just any and every company is qualified.


No-bid contracting is a real problem, most especially because it can too easily lend itself to opacity and manipulation, leading either to the appearance of or actual corruption of the process. (By the way, I don't think "low-bid" and "wide-open bid" processes are without flaws, either: One, though not always, there's much truth to "you get what you pay for," and, two, there's a good argument to made, in certain situations, to limiting the universe of qualified bidders, though not to one.) The taint then spreads far and wide, undercutting the credibility of the process, everyone involved in it, and potentially even the work itself.

In this case, it appears to go beyond that. However hysterical and overwrought the attacks on Halliburton have been at times, legitimate questions have been raised from the very beginning as to how it was awarded certain contracts and the degree to which Vice President Cheney was involved, which, frankly, should have been "not at all," based on his previous relationship to Halliburton--an obvious potential conflict of interest, any way you slice it, from the beginning. That's why the contract-awarding process in this case absolutely needed to be translucent all the way through; that's all the more reason that a no-bid process was a mistake. If indeed Halliburton was the only company able to do a particular task, that needed to be explained in detail as much as possible (apart from details that might truly involve classified or national security issues--problematic for this administration, with its tendency to over-protect).

I find it appalling (no, not surprising) that, as these e-mails suggest, members of the Army Corps of Engineers were essentially deputized to cover up footprints leading to the vice president's office. What's that I just said about taint spreading? Now we have ever more people on the government payroll sucked up into the murk and mud which constitutes the state of the integrity of this administration in key areas.

I'll leave you with this excerpt from one of the e-mails to ponder:

One email, for example, includes a frank admission by an Army Corps of Engineer official: "I am copying you on this crap since I honestly believe the competitive procurement will never happen."

A refreshing, though depressing, dash of candor amidst the mire of misrepresentations and outright lies, isn't?