Saturday, January 12, 2008

And Still the Baghdad Embassy isn't complete!

Just because we didn't hear about any embassy-related problems or scandals for a while doesn't mean all is well and all the problems have been solved. (I have been all over this issue for months. See here, here, here and here. Click the links and read up on why you should be in the streets with a torch and a pitchfork over this issue alone.)

The problems haven't been adequately addressed, much less solved. They have just been ignored or overruled in a rush to declare victory the 104 acre, $529 $740 Million dollar complex complete.

The latest defect to rear it's ugly head is the firefighting system.

Last month, 19 days before he retired, State Department buildings chief Charles E. Williams certified key elements of the embassy's fire-fighting system as ready for operation, according to the documents McClatchy obtained.

His own fire-safety specialists and an outside consultant, however, had warned Williams and his aides repeatedly about numerous fire safety violations.

Moreover, Williams' thumbs-up was based on tests run by another contractor that was hired, not by the State Department, but by the company building the embassy, First Kuwaiti General Contracting and Trading Co. State Department officials, members of Congress and others have accused First Kuwaiti of shoddy construction and questionable labor practices.

The State Department's top management official, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy, said in a telephone interview that he hasn't issued a certificate of occupancy for the new embassy complex. He said he won't do so until the fire safety systems and other functions are "validated and checked fully."

Kennedy also said that the department's own fire safety specialists have been to Baghdad to inspect the embassy. "They were the ones who uncovered the problem" in the first place, he said.

In May, a mortar shell smashed into the complex, damaged a wall and caused what were reported as minor injuries to be sustained by people inside. The walls were supposed to be blast-resistant, but weren't.

The project manager, James L. Golden, attempted to alter the scene and conceal evidence of shoddy construction by the contracting company, First Kuwaiti, which is closely tied to Kellogg, Brown & Root, a (former) subsidiary of Halliburton, the war-profiteering company previously headed by Dick Cheney. (As investigations into the company ramped up, Halliburton divested itself of KBR.) According to documents and interviews, the disgraced former IG for State, Howard Krongard, reared his ugly head once more and prevented State Department officials from investigating the incident.

When it came to the attention of Ambassador Ryan Crocker, he banished Golden from the country, yet Golden continued to oversee the project, as well as other projects for the Overseas Building Office (OBO).

Golden, however, continued on as project manager for several months, even though he was not allowed in the country on orders of Ambassador Ryan Crocker. On Nov. 2, he sent and e-mail responding to State Department requests for repairs to underground fire mains, where he referred to the proposed changes as mere "preferences" and do "not change the fact that the work as completed meets all reference codes and specifications."

Until his retirement two weeks ago, the OBO was headed up by Williams, who happens to be a close personal friend of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. In fact, Powell hand-picked his old friend and colleague for the job, and Williams apparently ran the OBO like a personal feifdom, going so far as to refuse to let U.S. diplomats and congressional staffers onto the new embassy compound, according to congressional testimony given in July, and corroborated by a former senior official with first-hand knowledge of Williams and the OBO.

"As far as I know, nothing's been fixed," said a State Department official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation for speaking to the news media. "The lives of the people who are working in that building are going to be at stake" if the complex doesn't meet building codes, he said.
Concerns over the embassy's fire safety systems first arose in late August, when fire safety specialists from the State Department inspected the complex. They discovered problems with the water mains, fire alarms and numerous other systems, according to a Sept. 4 trip report.

The State Department ordered Williams to bring in an outside consultant, Schirmer Engineering of Greenbelt, Md., which found the same problems, according to e-mails from Schirmer to the State Department dated Oct. 22, Oct. 27 and Nov. 1.

Williams set up a separate structure to oversee the Baghdad project. E-mail exchanges in the documents obtained by McClatchy portray his project managers as playing down potential problems and refusing to share information about the embassy's progress.

Somewhere along the line, although no one knows exactly when, Baltimore-based Hughes Associates Inc was hired by First Kuwaiti to test water pressure in the underground firemains to assure they would be operable in the event of a fire.

On December 7, a certification was issued by a Hughes contractor that declared the new embassy met fire codes. But Hughes is now backing away from the contract employee that wrote the certificate. In fact, Hughes President Philip J. DiNenno, who did confirm his company had been hired by his company, sent an email to the State Department on December 14 in which he said the contract employee actually did nothing more than witness one test. "He was and is not authorized to speak on behalf of Hughes Associates or to communicate the final status of any deficiencies, and certainly he may not satisfy anything unilaterally," DiNenno wrote, adding that the firm's final report is still being prepared.

If and when the embassy is ever completed and certified move-in ready (the deadline was September but delays have pushed the occupancy date well into 2008) it will house approximately 1200 diplomats and staffers, as well as coalition military officials. The decision to move Petraeus and his entourage into the embassy complex was an after-the-fact decision because in the words of Patrick Kennedy, who heads the State Department director of management policy "Crocker and Petraeus don't want to divorce."

When contacted in Kuwait on Friday, Wadih al Absi, the general manager of First Kuwaiti and a co-founder of the company, refused to comment on issues concerning the embassy, stating that it's a violation of his contract to speak to the media without the State Department's permission and that he's been requesting permission for three months.

Your (incompetent) State Department at work folks - pissing away your tax dollars as fast as they possibly can, like they are so much cheap beer.

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