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More shocking problems at the Baghdad embassy

The State Department is owed $134 million by a Kuwaiti firm that poorly and dangerously constructed the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, according to a newly released report by the Inspector General’s Office. The severe problems in the building of the compound, which opened last April almost one year late and more than $100 million ...

578475_091022_baghdad2.jpg
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - JANUARY 5: This image provided by the Iraqi President office shows the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (L) speaks as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte (R) and US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker (C) listen, during the opening of the new US embassy in Green Zone, on January 5, 2009 in Baghdad, Iraq. The embassy compound is the biggest and most expensive that the US has built and will house 4000 staff. (Photo by Iraqi President Office via Getty Images)

The State Department is owed $134 million by a Kuwaiti firm that poorly and dangerously constructed the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, according to a newly released report by the Inspector General’s Office.

The severe problems in the building of the compound, which opened last April almost one year late and more than $100 million over the $592 million budget, are so bad that the State Department will be paying for them in repairs and maintenance for years to come, the IG’s office found.

Among the most shocking problems still present at the embassy: The walls are in danger of cracking; the “safe areas” for emergencies aren’t safe; the fire protection systems might not protect from fires; and oh, by the way, the plumbing and electrical systems don’t work.

This is only the latest piece of bad news for the lead contractor, First Kuwaiti Trading and Contracting, a firm the U.S. has used for hundreds of projects in Iraq but stands accused of shoddy work and widespread abuse of third-country workers it ships in from all over the world.

John Owens, one of the First Kuwaiti foremen on the project, quit in disgust after witnessing what he called labor trafficking and widespread worker abuse, including tricking migrant workers into going to Iraq, placing them in sub-human living conditions, and holding their passports so they couldn’t escape.

“I’ve never seen a project more fucked up. Every U.S. labor law was broken,” he said.

A House oversight committee held hearings on the mess in 2007, featuring testimony from Owens and Rory Mayberry, another First Kuwaiti employee who detailed the kidnapping practices of First Kuwaiti and accused the State Department of covering up the allegations.

Unfortunately, it was later discovered that Mayberry was basically a career felon who had been fired by First Kuwaiti for completely falsifying his credentials, casting doubt on his testimony.

Regardless, the new IG report confirms that severe safety problems at the embassy persist to this day and also lambasts State’s Bureau for Overseas Building Operations (OBO) for its conduct throughout the affair.

The report criticizes the State Department for a total lack of oversight, mainly because OBO established something called the Emergency Project Coordination Office (EPCO) that didn’t do its job in monitoring the construction when it was going on.

EPCO paid First Kuwaiti tens of millions of dollars not authorized by the contracts, didn’t require proper documentation before paying invoices, and didn’t enforce design and construction requirements, leading to a lot of the cost overruns and persistent problems, the IG found.

The OBO bureau responded to the IG by saying that “stand alone project offices [such as EPCO] are a mistake” and would not be used in the future. The Baghdad embassy did not respond with any comments to the IG report.

Photo by Iraqi President Office via Getty Images

The State Department is owed $134 million by a Kuwaiti firm that poorly and dangerously constructed the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, according to a newly released report by the Inspector General’s Office.

The severe problems in the building of the compound, which opened last April almost one year late and more than $100 million over the $592 million budget, are so bad that the State Department will be paying for them in repairs and maintenance for years to come, the IG’s office found.

Among the most shocking problems still present at the embassy: The walls are in danger of cracking; the “safe areas” for emergencies aren’t safe; the fire protection systems might not protect from fires; and oh, by the way, the plumbing and electrical systems don’t work.

This is only the latest piece of bad news for the lead contractor, First Kuwaiti Trading and Contracting, a firm the U.S. has used for hundreds of projects in Iraq but stands accused of shoddy work and widespread abuse of third-country workers it ships in from all over the world.

John Owens, one of the First Kuwaiti foremen on the project, quit in disgust after witnessing what he called labor trafficking and widespread worker abuse, including tricking migrant workers into going to Iraq, placing them in sub-human living conditions, and holding their passports so they couldn’t escape.

“I’ve never seen a project more fucked up. Every U.S. labor law was broken,” he said.

A House oversight committee held hearings on the mess in 2007, featuring testimony from Owens and Rory Mayberry, another First Kuwaiti employee who detailed the kidnapping practices of First Kuwaiti and accused the State Department of covering up the allegations.

Unfortunately, it was later discovered that Mayberry was basically a career felon who had been fired by First Kuwaiti for completely falsifying his credentials, casting doubt on his testimony.

Regardless, the new IG report confirms that severe safety problems at the embassy persist to this day and also lambasts State’s Bureau for Overseas Building Operations (OBO) for its conduct throughout the affair.

The report criticizes the State Department for a total lack of oversight, mainly because OBO established something called the Emergency Project Coordination Office (EPCO) that didn’t do its job in monitoring the construction when it was going on.

EPCO paid First Kuwaiti tens of millions of dollars not authorized by the contracts, didn’t require proper documentation before paying invoices, and didn’t enforce design and construction requirements, leading to a lot of the cost overruns and persistent problems, the IG found.

The OBO bureau responded to the IG by saying that “stand alone project offices [such as EPCO] are a mistake” and would not be used in the future. The Baghdad embassy did not respond with any comments to the IG report.

Photo by Iraqi President Office via Getty Images

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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