Under tough questioning from a House committee, State Dept. officials acknowledged problems with construction at a temporary guard camp in Baghdad but said that the camp buildings aren't permanent facilities and that construction at the related U.S. embassy compound is on budget and on schedule.
Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee grilled State Dept. officials at a July 26 hearing about allegations of shoddy construction practices at the guard camp by contractor First Kuwaiti Trading & Contracting. Lawmakers expressed concern that the problems at the camp might signal larger difficulties at the embassy project, which also is being built by First Kuwaiti.
The camp, a group of trailers designed to house the embassy's security guards, was shut down in May after embassy staff in Baghdad discovered that the kitchen appliances didn't work when turned on for the first time and that some electrical wiring had melted. In cables sent to the State Dept., embassy officials detailed "poor quality construction" and "inherent construction deficiencies" that "left the post with no recourse but to shut the camp down" because of safety concerns.
In their testimony at the hearing, State Dept. officials distinguished between the guard camp and the $592-million embassy compound project, which Patrick Kennedy, director of the department's office of management policy, described as "completely separate both physically and contractually." He added, "The camp is temporary and largely a trailer park while the [embassy compound] is a group of permanent buildings."
Charles E. Williams, head of the State's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, said that the embassy compound project is "on schedule and on budget, with completion slated for September."
He acknowledged that repairs at the guard camp were necessary, but said that they were routine punch-list items typical on construction projects and that the standards for constructing temporary facilities––particularly those in a war zone––are different from those applied to permanent facilities. "The guard camp was not subject to the rigor of a permanent facility," Williams said. Nevertheless, he added that the repairs, totaling about $6,000, will be made before First Kuwaiti is paid.
But Democrats on the panel said that the construction failures were more significant and that the State Dept. should have shown more rigor in investigating the allegations made. "It should have been painfully obvious that [the workers] were making a mistake," here said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D–Mass.).
Much of the hearing focused on alleged labor abuses, deceptive hiring practices and human trafficking violations by First Kuwaiti. State Dept. officials said that they had seen no evidence of abuses or human trafficking by First Kuwaiti during interviews with workers in Baghdad. But lawmakers expressed grave concerns. Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), chairman of the national security and foreign affairs subcommittee, said that lawmakers might consider introducing legislation to give the State Dept. more authority to inspect and conduct audits when such allegations are made.