HOUSTON – Senior managers for U.S.-based defense contractor KBR rejected the advice of their own security advisers in April 2004, ordering their truck drivers to speed through a 5-mile (8-kilometer) combat zone in Iraq to deliver jet fuel to the U.S. military, according to a newspaper investigation.
At least six civilian drivers and two U.S. soldiers died after that decision, raising questions about the military's reliance on civilian contractors in war zones.
The families and some survivors of the doomed convoy are suing the Texas-based company and are requesting a federal investigation of KBR's role.
The Los Angeles Times reviewed e-mails cited in a May 22 letter the plaintiffs' lawyers sent to the U.S. Justice Department. The newspaper also interviewed KBR truck drivers and former military officials and reviewed internal memos, e-mails, court-sealed depositions and an Army report about the deaths.
KBR attorneys and company officials declined to comment to the Los Angeles Times and requested the newspaper "refrain from publishing" the material under court seal.
In a written statement provided to The Associated Press on Monday, KBR spokeswoman Heather Browne said the company's "top priority remains the safety and security of all employees" and that the company remains "saddened by the events of April 9, 2004."
She declined additional comment, citing the lawsuit.
Documents show that on April 8, 2004, a day before the deadly attacks, KBR's security advisers were united in telling their bosses to suspend convoys. One KBR driver had died and 70 more had been attacked that day.
KBR regional security chief George Seagle wrote in an e-mail that day that KBR should halt convoys for at least a day because "I think we will get people injured or killed tomorrow." Seagle added that there "is tons of intel stating tomorrow will be another bad day."
Keith Richard, the head of KBR's trucking operation, agreed in an e-mail, writing, "Another day like today and we will lose most of our drivers." He also wrote that KBR's civilians are different from soldiers and that truck drivers who signed up with the company expected dangerous conditions "but they did not expect to be in the middle of a war."
But documents indicate those concerns ran counter to the wishes of top officials at KBR, which today is a separate company but then was a subsidiary of Halliburton, the company once run by Vice President Dick Cheney. They were under pressure to fulfill KBR's multibillion-dollar contract with its top customer, the U.S. Army, according to the newspaper.
Craig Peterson, KBR's top official in Iraq, said KBR could not decide on its own to suspend convoys and must respond when the military called for delivery of supplies. "Only the army can stop convoys," he wrote in an e-mail.
On April 9, Richard ordered that no convoys were to move out. But 25 minutes later, a separate order from the company's communications system told the convoys to proceed as planned, the newspaper reported.
Later that morning, a mile-and-a-half-long convoy of 26 vehicles — 19 KBR trucks and seven military vehicles — headed for the airport to deliver fuel, driving through a combat zone. Just six KBR trucks eventually reached the airport.
Six KBR drivers and two U.S. soldiers died. Most other drivers were wounded, another driver was kidnapped and yet another went missing and is presumed dead.
A third soldier was captured by insurgents and is listed as missing. The kidnapped driver later escaped and returned to the United States.
In an e-mail he sent to an Army general shortly after the incident, Peterson wrote, "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?"
Peterson declined to comment to the Los Angeles Times. He is now senior vice president of IAP Worldwide Services, a Florida-based military contractor.
Families of the dead truck drivers sued KBR in 2005. Last September, a U.S. District judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying courts have no jurisdiction over cases involving military orders. Deciding the case would require "the court to examine the policies of the executive branch during wartime, a step the court declines to take," Miller wrote.
The families' lawyers have appealed, arguing that KBR has authority over the civilian truck drivers it employs.