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Iraq convoy was sent out despite threat

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Senior managers for defense contractor KBR overruled calls to halt supply operations in Iraq in the spring of 2004, ordering unarmored trucks into an active combat zone where six civilian drivers died in an ambush, according to newly available documents.

Company e-mails and other internal communications reveal that before KBR dispatched the convoy, a chorus of security advisors predicted an increase in roadside bombings and attacks on Iraq's highways. They recommended suspension of convoys.

"[I] think we will get people injured or killed tomorrow," warned KBR regional security chief George Seagle, citing "tons of intel." But in an e-mail sent a day before the convoy was dispatched, he also acknowledged: "Big politics and contract issues involved."

KBR was under intense pressure from the military to deliver on its multibillion-dollar contract to transport food, fuel and other vital supplies to U.S. soldiers. At Baghdad's airport, a shortage of jet fuel threatened to ground some units.

After consulting with military commanders, KBR's top managers decided to keep the convoys rolling. "If the [Army] pushes, then we push, too," wrote an aide to Craig Peterson, KBR's top official in Iraq.

The decision prompted a raging internal debate that is detailed in private KBR documents, some under court seal, that were reviewed by The Times.

One KBR management official threatened to resign when superiors ordered truckers to continue driving. "I cannot consciously sit back and allow unarmed civilians to get picked apart," wrote Keith Richard, chief of the trucking operation.

Six American truck drivers and two U.S. soldiers were killed when the convoy rumbled into a five-mile gauntlet of weapons fire on April 9, 2004, making an emergency delivery of jet fuel to the airport. One soldier and a seventh trucker remain missing.

Recriminations began the same day.

"Can anyone explain to me why we put civilians in the middle of known ambush sites?" demanded one security advisor in an e-mail. "Maybe we should put body bags on the packing list for our drivers."

Another wrote, "I cannot believe this has happened; the ones responsible should be held accountable for this."

The previously undisclosed documents raise new questions about the U.S. military's growing reliance on civilian contractors to help fight wars.

Selected e-mails, some of them excerpts, were cited in a May 22 letter to the Justice Department by lawyers suing the Houston-based giant on behalf of the dead drivers' families. The families and most of the survivors of the convoy seek a federal criminal probe of KBR's role in the episode.

To confirm the excerpts, The Times reviewed internal memos, e-mails and court-sealed depositions, obtained a copy of an Army investigative report on the incident and interviewed several KBR truck drivers and former military officials.

Attorneys for KBR reacted angrily to inquiries about the documents. In a letter urging The Times to "refrain from publishing" material under court seal, attorney Michael L. Rice also warned that the paper might be subject to unspecified legal sanctions.

KBR officials declined to be interviewed. In the past, they have said that the Army was responsible for selecting convoy routes and providing adequate protection.

Scott Allen, a lawyer for the families, confirmed that he had sent a letter to the Justice Department, but declined further comment and advised the families and surviving drivers to avoid interviews. A department spokesman acknowledged receiving the letter but also declined to comment.

The documentary record, though incomplete, provides the first behind-the-scenes look at a day when military goals clashed with corporate responsibilities, with soldiers and civilian truckers in the middle.

What follows is an account of the Good Friday convoy attack, based on the e-mails, court records and interviews.

Growing fearsInside a long row of white trailers that served as KBR's office at Camp Anaconda, the region's main logistics hub, there was growing unease in the early days of April.

Violence had surged throughout the region. The mutilated bodies of American contractors had just been removed from a bridge in Fallouja. The military was battling simultaneous Shiite and Sunni uprisings.

It would turn out to be one of the deadliest months of the war for American soldiers and contractors -- and KBR's truck drivers were caught in the crossfire. Trucking program chief Richard fired off e-mails to superiors in Houston and Kuwait describing the growing risks to his drivers.

"One of my convoys was hit with 14 mortars, 6 RPGs, 5 IEDs and small arms fire," Richard wrote April 7. Senior KBR management in Iraq suspended travel, with Richard telling one colleague in an e-mail that the roads were "too dangerous."

Several convoys were canceled that week. Delayed shipments contributed to spot shortages when many supplies were needed most.

KBR -- then part of Halliburton Co., the company once run by Vice President Dick Cheney -- delivered 80% to 90% of the military's fuel, according to one senior logistics officer.

That meant that if KBR didn't move, neither could the U.S. Army. Unlike soldiers, contractors don't have to follow orders.

"We had to get food to the soldiers. We had to get fuel to the soldiers," the officer said. "This was a war."

That was clear to KBR dispatchers on April 8, when the first convoys that had moved out onto the highways started reporting gunfire.

"Things started early this a.m. and it hasn't been good," one of the trucking project managers advised in an e-mail.

"Gentlemen . . . HOT!!! We have a convoy . . . that is in direct engagement at this time . . . and pleads for immediate assistance," reported a security advisor.

Vivid reports came in from the field. "We are taking on gun fire, mortared, rocket launch, small arms fire you name it, we got it, we are losing trucks one by one. . . my driver and I were lucky to get out alive."

By the end of Thursday, one KBR driver was dead and more than 70 had been attacked. Several were seriously injured. Because the next day was a Shiite holiday as well as Good Friday, security advisors worried that sectarian violence might add to the danger. They were of one voice calling for suspension of convoys.

"I say we halt them for a day at least and consider it a safety/security stand-down, and mental health day," security chief Seagle wrote on April 8. "There is tons of intel stating tomorrow will be another bad day."

Trucking chief Richard agreed. "Another day like today and we will lose most of our drivers."

Unable to actDespite their mounting fears, KBR security advisors had no authority to halt convoy deployment. They lost that on Monday, April 5, when that power was abruptly limited to Richard and his boss -- KBR General Manager Craig Peterson. It angered the security team.

"Yeah, well I have been authorized for a year now to stop convoys now all of a sudden Keith [Richard] . . . is the only one who can. . . . well partner believe me the ball is in his court," groused one.

The documents show that Peterson, a retired Army general then new to KBR, was determined to meet the company's contractual obligations with the military, which he repeatedly referred to as "the customer." Peterson was adamant that the civilian truckers had to move out when the military called for them.

After a meeting with military commanders, he noted in an e-mail that "it was reiterated that only the army leadership can stop convoys" and that it was necessary "to team our way into decisions. We cannot unilaterally decide these things on our own."

There was sharp disagreement inside the company. "We cannot allow the Army to push us to put our people in harms way," wrote Tom Crum, then the chief operating officer for KBR's logistics operations.

"We need to work with the Army without a doubt relative to stopping the convoys. But if we in management believe the Army is asking us to put our KBR employees in danger that we are not willing to accept, then we will refuse to go," Crum insisted.

Richard also argued that the truckers were not soldiers. "Our drivers did sign up with the understanding of some level of hostility, but they did not expect to be in the middle of a war," he said in an e-mail.

One of Peterson's aides sent a note scolding Richard. "[Peterson] says that if the client pushes, then we push," the message said. It also specified that convoys should stop only if security was not adequate and "doesn't pass the Common Sense Safety Test."

Richard was clearly rankled. "Who in the hell determines adequate security . . . ? This is a roll of the dice. None of this passes any of these tests if you ask me," said a Richard e-mail.

He threatened to resign.

"With this decision I cannot continue my employment with KBR. . . . I cannot consciously sit back and allow unarmed civilians to get picked apart," he wrote in e-mail messages. "Putting civilians in the middle of a war is not in any contract, policy or procedure. I will not allow this to happen."

But after a long day of armed attacks on his drivers and arguments with his boss, Richard issued a terse e-mail at 10:26 p.m., employing a familiar phrase:

"If the military pushes, we push," he wrote.

Supplies urgently neededAt Baghdad's airport, dwindling fuel supplies threatened to idle two military divisions, according to the Army report. Military commanders called for 200,000 gallons of jet fuel to be rushed from Camp Anaconda.

Notes taken during conversations surrounding that decision underscore the urgency of the situation.

"Has to happen . . . 1st light has to go . . . emergency push," read some of the notes as reproduced in the Army report.

Gen. James E. Chambers, the head of Army's 13th Corps Support Command (Coscom), issued explicit orders to his officers: "Not moving critical support is not an option," he wrote in an e-mail sent before dawn April 9. "We just have to figure out how to mitigate the risks."

The orders were passed down to military units that escort KBR convoys with an Anaconda commander's comment attached: "Note the statement about convoys. They move."

But there was dissent among military command staff, too. At a 6 a.m. intelligence briefing, Chambers was told that the road leading to Baghdad's airport was too dangerous for civilians, according to Col. Ray Josey, head of operations for Chambers.

"We should just stand down," Josey said he told Chambers.

Others argued it was safe enough. In the end, Chambers ordered the jet fuel cargo to move. But he also ordered a beefed-up military escort for the KBR convoy: more Humvees, double the ammunition and an armed soldier in every truck cab.

Chambers, now head of the Army's Transportation Center at Ft. Eustis, Va., declined comment through a spokesman, citing the pending litigation. Josey, who soon after was relieved of his post by Chambers, is now retired in Texas.

At KBR the decision to move was again in doubt as dawn arrived.

In a message time-stamped 6:44 a.m. April 9 -- nearly an hour after Chambers' order -- Richard sent a message to all drivers: "No convoys are to move" between Anaconda and the military bases south of Baghdad.

The stand-down lasted only 25 minutes.

At 7:14 a.m. another message moved over the KBR communications system. It read:

"Per Keith Richards, project manager, all traffic is to proceed as normal. All . . . traffic lanes are open in all directions."

It is not clear what caused the orders to shift back and forth. Richard, through his attorney, declined to be interviewed. He no longer works for KBR.

Company officials have said that KBR depended on the military for guidance about when and whether roads were safe to travel, indicating in court proceedings that the Army said the route was safe before departure.

The Army report found that on April 9 there was confusion among different military units about the status of the route to the airport. The military unit monitoring road safety listed the road as a no-go the entire day, but Coscom commanders did not consult the unit in dispatching the convoy.

At KBR there was no such confusion. Six KBR convoys already had been attacked around the airport that same morning. Also, Stephen Pulley, KBR's senior security advisor at Camp Anaconda, was in frequent contact with the road monitoring unit and received repeated assurances the routes were closed.

When 13th Coscom suddenly advised that the roads had opened, Pulley was skeptical.

"Something smells," he wrote.

'I'm hit, I'm hit'KBR drivers led by Thomas Hamill, a Mississippi dairy farmer, were assembled in the dusty staging area of Camp Anaconda ready to roll that Friday morning, unaware of the internal debates. Hamill was not one to second-guess orders -- whatever they were.

"When I went over there, I said: 'I won't refuse to go out on a mission as long as the U.S. Army is willing to escort me out,' " he said. "If they didn't want to go out, then I wouldn't go out."

A few minutes after 10 a.m., the 26-vehicle convoy rolled out -- 19 KBR trucks and seven military vehicles driven by soldiers from the 724th Army Reserve Transportation Company from Illinois. The convoy stretched nearly a mile and a half.

About the same time -- 9:54 a.m. -- Lt. Col. James Carroll, a reservist from Missouri working at 13th Coscom, confirmed orders sending the convoy on a route to Baghdad airport that took it right through a battle between the Mahdi Army and 1st Cavalry.

Three minutes later, Carroll reversed himself and sent out a second e-mail: "Sorry. It looks like [the route] is closed until further notice."

By mistake, however, Carroll sent the second message to himself, and no one else ever saw it, according to the Army report. In an interview, Carroll disputed that account, saying that he called military escorts to warn them not to proceed on the route.

"When I saw that I sent the e-mail to myself, I did everything I could" to reach them, Carroll said. "It was the worst day of my life. You can't believe how much I second-guessed myself . . . [but] I firmly believe that I did everything I could."

Hamill's convoy reached the airport area about noon. He saw the landscape already littered with burning trucks. His truck was hit and disabled by a roadside bomb, forcing Hamill to scramble for cover.

He later was taken captive by a band of gunmen.

The other truckers drove on through fire and smoke. As bullet rounds pierced their cargo tanks, fuel spilled to the ground, making the road slippery. Brakes failed. Trucks jackknifed and flipped over. More roadside bombs detonated.

The sounds of battle crackled over the drivers' radios.

"I'm burning!" screamed one driver.

"I'm hit, I'm hit," called another.

In an incident report, one of the escort soldiers wrote: "I started hearing bullets hit all over our trucks, around my head and door. They were zipping by. We pushed through the flames and kept rolling. It was just hell."

Eddie Sanchez, a driver from New Mexico, was rescued by U.S. soldiers. He recalled one who seemed angry, demanding: "Who are you guys? What are you guys doing out there? We have been fighting those guys for over 48 hours."

The final tally was grim. Six KBR drivers were dead. Most other drivers were wounded. Besides the kidnapped Hamill, another was missing. Tim Bell now is presumed dead. Two soldiers were killed. A third, Matt Maupin, was captured by insurgents and is still listed as missing. Hamill escaped after nearly three weeks and is back in the U.S.

Only six of the 19 KBR trucks reached the airport. Across Iraq, all 122 convoys sent out by KBR on April 9 were attacked, according to KBR.

Richard was devastated by the loss of his drivers, according to Pulley, who worked closely with him at Anaconda.

"I thought the man was going to break down and cry after he found out he sent all those people out there," Pulley said in a deposition. "He was very upset with himself."

Randy Ross, a driver whose truck limped into the airport on steel rims, his tanker and tires blasted with holes, said he blamed neither KBR nor the military. He blamed Iraq.

"It was a bad day," said Ross, who, like Hamill, is not part of the suit. "It was a very bad day."

After the attack, Peterson stopped the trucks. "No KBR convoys will move tomorrow, 10th April 04. I will inform the military chain of command," he said in an e-mail.

Peterson, now a senior vice president at IAP Worldwide Services, a Florida-based military contractor, declined through a spokesman to comment.

In an e-mail sent to an Army general shortly after the convoy disaster, Peterson asked: "Do you think there was any way we could have predicted the events of 8/9 April, the convoy hits? Do you think we had any real predictive intel or indicators or warnings that were sufficiently articulate enough to conclude that we should have halted movement?"

Pulley left no doubt about his feelings. "KBR security did their job," said security advisor in deposition testimony. "KBR security was overruled."

Communication blamedThe military conducted its own investigation of the April 9 attack. The 280-page report concluded that miscommunications in the military about the danger of the roads had contributed to the casualties.

The investigating officer noted that he was not allowed to inquire into the actions of military officials in the 13th Coscom, because the unit was outside his chain of command.

For the families and drivers of the Good Friday convoy, however, KBR provided few details. The company has never made public its own investigation. Its attorneys have fought to keep internal communications under seal, arguing that they contain national security secrets.

In 2005, the families filed their wrongful death suit against KBR in Texas.

Last September, U.S. Dist. Judge Gray H. Miller dismissed the lawsuit under a rule that bars courts from jurisdiction in cases related to the routine exercise of military orders.

"Is it wise to use civilian contractors in a war zone? Was it wise to send the convoy along the route [to Baghdad airport] on April 9, 2004?" Miller wrote. "Answering either question and the many questions in between would require the court to examine the policies of the executive branch during wartime, a step the court declines to take."

Lawyers for the families contend that KBR retained full authority over its civilian convoys and have appealed.

t.christian.miller@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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