Camp X-Ray on the NHS

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Look which US company is at the front of the queue for Iraq contracts.

What connection could there be between Texas, Vietnam, Camp X-Ray, US vice-president Dick Cheney and computerisation of the National Health Service? The answer, of course, is Halliburton--the US corporation which has been handed one of the first contracts for 'reconstruction' in Iraq and which the folks back in England are only just beginning to find out about.

Like its Texan counterpart Enron, the Halliburton corporation has undergone a transformation in recent years, beginning as a relatively specialised 'oil services' conglomerate based in Dallas and ending up as one of the world's largest providers of 'integrated solutions' for oil and gas exploration, development and production--not to mention the management of 'monumental infrastructure projects' and 'logistics for military operations'.

As 'Socialist Review' reported last month, one of Halliburton's major subsidiaries--a firm called Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR)--had been awarded an open-ended contract to fight oilwell fires in Iraq, without competition from other bidders. On one estimate, the 'petroleum field rehabilitation effort' may be worth $7 billion over two years. KBR has been doing rather well from government contracts for quite some time--right back to the days (in 1937) when a then unknown congressman, Lyndon B Johnson, approved the funding that Brown & Root desperately needed to complete a million-dollar dam project. As a result, Herman Brown and his brother George made an overall profit of $1.5 million, more than double all the profit they had made in their previous 20 years in the construction business.

According to an online source called The Texas Observer (which provides 'sharp reporting and commentary from the strangest State in the Union'), a symbiotic relationship developed from that point onwards between LBJ and Brown & Root (see www.texasobserver.org). And this was at a time 'before campaign finance laws required candidates to reveal the sources of their funding'. LBJ's biographer Ronnie Dugger reported that--by Johnson's own admission--much of the money he got from Brown & Root came in cash. In return, Johnson steered lucrative federal contracts to the company which has since become a 'global construction powerhouse'.

Without Brown & Root's money and aeroplanes, Johnson 'wouldn't have won (or rather, been able to steal) the 1948 race for the US Senate' and without the seat in the Senate he would not have gotten anywhere near the White House.

For Dick Cheney, the path to glory began during his period as secretary of defence at the Pentagon during the last Gulf War. Cheney was in charge of the mobilisation of thousands of troops for the invasion of Kuwait and then Iraq, a colossal logistical operation. Then, in 1995, just two and a half years after he left his federal job, Cheney went to Halliburton and began to cash in on the very contracts he had helped to initiate, steering huge military logistics contracts to private contractors.

Between 1992 and 1999 the Pentagon paid Brown & Root more than $1.2 billion for its work in 'trouble spots' around the globe. In fact, KBR has provided the bulk of logistics services for the US army since 1992. The way it works is that, whenever US troops venture abroad, KBR builds the barracks, cooks the food, mops the floors, transports the goods and maintains the water systems, before and after the soldiers arrive (see www.motherjones.com).

In December 2001 KBR secured a ten-year deal from the Pentagon known as the Logistics Civil Augmentation programme. This contract is euphemistically described as a 'cost-plus-award-fee, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity service'. What this means in practice is that the federal government (in the form of Dick Cheney) now has 'an open-ended mandate and budget to send Brown & Root anywhere in the world to run military operations for a profit'.

Coverage currently includes Afghanistan, Djibouti, Georgia, Jordan, Turkey and Uzbekistan. According to US Army Field Support Command, the overall anticipated cost of task orders awarded since contract award in December 2001 is approximately $830 million. Which goes a long way to explaining why, when Dick Cheney left his job as chairman and chief executive officer of Halliburton to become George Bush's running mate in the 2000 presidential race, he also took a retirement package worth more than $33.7 million. This is on top of the $10 million he has earned in salary, bonuses and stock options since 1995.

Not all of this has gone entirely unnoticed in the US. In early April two prominent senators called for an official investigation, to examine whether Halliburton had been receiving special treatment from the Bush administration because of the connection with the vice-president. Some people who certainly have been receiving special treatment--but from the company--are the inmates of Camp X-Ray, the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. KBR currently runs the contract for provision of 'services' to the inmates. The two senators, John Dingell and Henry Waxman, point out that Halliburton appears to have been awarded lucrative contracts 'despite a record of excessive costs and other problems'. The company has recently been under investigation for allegedly inflating contracts at a military base in California.

All of this has prompted the Texas state director of consumer watchdog Public Citizen to ponder thus: 'You have to question whose interests Cheney is looking after and whether privatisation has really benefited the Department of Defence or defence contractors like Brown & Root'. The folks back in England might soon be asking a similar question. Despite a series of disasters involving other private sector menaces like EDS and Capita, New Labour has just awarded a three-year IT contract to KBR for the 'project planning, procurement support and implementation of the programme aimed at delivering electronic patient records, electronic booking and much else to the NHS by 2005'.

It's the 'much else' that doesn't sound too promising. Bed shortage? Instead of leaving patients alone on a trolley for hours on end, why not do them up in bright orange jump suits, keep them all together in a wire compound and stick hoods on their heads? And sticking a hood on his head is exactly what health secretary Alan Milburn must have been doing when he plumped for KBR.