Oregon Congressmen attach oversight amendment to 2012 Defense Authorization Bill
Oregonians on Wednesday successfully amended the House Defense Authorization bill to spotlight who pays when a defense contractor causes harm.
The amendment requires the Pentagon to report when it enters or changes immunity agreements with contractors. It is the latest strategy by U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader to boost the transparency into defense contracts.
“We’re trying to get more and better information and get people to think twice,” said Blumenauer.
The Oregon delegation began scrutinizing contractor immunity after 34 former Oregon Army National Guard soldiers sued war contractor Kellogg, Root and Brown in 2009. The combat veterans allege that while guarding KBR’s operations to restore oil early in the Iraq war, they were exposed to a rust-fighter at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant. The material contained the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, and soldiers say they suffer serious health problems as a result.
KBR has denied causing any harm. But a deposition filed in the case in U.S. District Court in Portland last year revealed that before the war ever started, a KBR attorney won a secret clause ensuring that U.S. taxpayers, and not KBR, would pay in the event of any death or injury.
Blumenauer sought to get a copy of the indemnification clause in the KBR contract, which remains classified. But Blumenauer was able to make public 124 contracts with similar immunity provisions from the Pentagon. The list indicated the government legally covers dozens of military contractors doing dangerous jobs, such as making anthrax vaccine or disposing of mustard gas.
Schrader said contractors are “working the system to the taxpayers’ detriment.”
“They’re getting all the benefit and taking none of the risk and that’s unconscionable. If they’re going to have these nice exclusive agreements where they make a ton off the American taxpayer and frankly, American service members’ backs, we want them to be held responsible.”
BETTERSCHRADER.JPGRep. Kurt Schrader
About 82 percent of the Pentagon’s current budget goes to contractors and grants, along with 83 percent of the State Department’s and 99 percent of USAID’s net operation costs. Critics say the current administration lacks the ability to oversee the privatization that is not bound by the same rules and ethics as government employees.
The amendment requires the defense secretary to notify congressional defense and budget committees within 90 days of changing an indemnification agreement, including the name of the contractor, cost involved and circumstances. Sensitive contracts around national security would be exempt.
The House is expected to vote on the Defense Authorization bill by Friday.
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