Officer says Iraq firms were slow to return passports

By Cam Simpson
Washington Bureau
Published June 22, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Getting contractors on U.S. military bases in Iraq to return the passports they seized from thousands of foreign workers imported to do menial labor in the war zone was "kind of like pulling teeth," even though the seizures violated U.S. laws against human trafficking, a senior contracting officer told Congress Wednesday.

Air Force Col. Robert Boyles, who helped implement military reforms aimed at eliminating trafficking of Asian laborers onto American bases in Iraq, also testified that contractors had seized passports as a standard practice. He suggested they complied with military orders to return travel documents to the workers only because their business was threatened.

Boyles testified at a joint hearing by two House subcommittees, one from the Armed Services Committee and one from the International Relations Committee. The session was convened to examine how the Defense Department is implementing its zero-tolerance policy on human trafficking.

Much of the hearing focused on the agency's investigation of and response to a 2005 Tribune series, "Pipeline to Peril." The series documented networks run by a string of human brokers in Asia and the Middle East, men working in tandem with a chain of subcontractors doing business on U.S. military bases in Iraq. They deceitfully lured workers into the war zone from poor Asian nations, sometimes used coercion, violated human rights or failed to protect them.

Workers also were subjected to a type of debt bondage that made it difficult for them to leave one of the world's most dangerous places.

Unbeknownst to many Americans, there are an estimated 35,000 foreign workers, most from impoverished corners of South Asia or the Asian Pacific, working on U.S. bases for more than 200 subcontractors hired by Halliburton-subsidiary KBR. The Houston company is carrying out an unprecedented, multibillion-dollar privatization of military-support operations in Iraq, largely through subcontractors based in the Mideast.

A U.S. military investigation, prompted by the Tribune series, led to reforms in April, including an order to return workers' passports. Wednesday's hearing was the first in Congress on the issue since the abuses were revealed last year.

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) called the practices "absolutely deplorable and unacceptable," and asked Boyles whether the military needed to be concerned about more passport seizures.

"You have got to constantly stay on top of it," Boyles said. He also said the contractors were "not changing because they had an epiphany. . . . They're changing because they know they're going to be held accountable."

John Miller, head of the State Department's office charged with combating human trafficking, testified that seizing passports is a standard tool for traffickers, though he cautioned that not everyone who takes passports is trafficking.

Boyles said the practice had been widespread in Iraq. Contractors had claimed it was primarily aimed at keeping workers from seeking different employers. He also testified that once they're threatened under U.S. laws designed to cut off taxpayer-financed contracts that are linked to human trafficking, the "contractors then finally get the message, and they comply."

Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), a co-chairman of the hearing who wrote the law aimed at cutting off such contracts, urged the military to be aggressive. "I would hope," Smith said, "that you wouldn't be shy about using the penalty phase to get people's attention."

Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) wondered about America's business partners in the Middle East. "What does it say," he asked, "about the people with whom we're contracting?"

Boyles said he believed that all passports had been returned and said a compliance audit is in the works. He also said that existing military contracts were rewritten in Iraq to include countertrafficking provisions.

In part, the Tribune documented the abuses by retracing the trail of 12 Nepalese workers who were illegally trafficked to Iraq, then kidnapped and executed by extremists while en route to jobs on a U.S. base.

A previously undisclosed U.S. military investigation of the specifics in that case concluded that there was "no reason to question the sequence or accuracy of events outlined in the Chicago Tribune articles," according to an April 14 memo written by Thomas Gimble, principal deputy of the Defense Department's inspector general's office.

But Gimble, who also testified Wednesday, would not say whether two Jordanian subcontractors involved had lost their contracts. A spokesman for the office said he was unsure of their status.