A General’s False Testimony

Will the Pentagon correct Major Gen. Jerome Johnson’s tainted testimony on the contaminated water KBR provided to the troops?

Brian Beutler, The Media Consortium

When Major Gen. Jerome Johnson appeared under oath before a congressional committee last year, he told enough untruths about KBR’s work for the military that the U.S. Army took the unusual step of retracting a portion of his testimony. Now it appears that Johnson also misled members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on another KBR-related matter: its provisioning of contaminated water to U.S. troops in Iraq. 

Nearly three months ago, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), chair of the Democratic Policy Committee, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the subject of Johnson’s testimony, but he has yet to received a reply. This was either an attempt by General Johnson to deliberately deceive the Congress, or a display of negligent disregard for facts,” Dorgan wrote in the March 12 letter. I hope you will review this matter and take appropriate action.” 

In April 2007, Johnson, then the commanding general of the U.S. Army Sustainment Command, which is responsible for providing food, lodging, and a range of logistical support to the troops, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to answer questions about the Pentagon’s primary logistics contract in Iraq. During the hearing, the committee’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), alleged that the Army had reimbursed KBR, then a Halliburton subsidiary, for the cost of overpriced trailers the company had purchased through a subcontractor. 

[T]he [Defense] department has not paid KBR the $100 million for the trailers,” Johnson told Levin. As a matter of fact, KBR’s cost is still suspended.” Johnson went on to say that the Department of Defense document from which Levin drew his information was inaccurate.” But it was Johnson who didn’t have his facts straight. 

More than seven months passed before the Army acknowledged Johnson’s misstatement. We sincerely regret the confusion that arose during the testimony and apologize for any impact to the Committee’s deliberations,” wrote Claude Bolton, assistant secretary of the Army, to Levin. In his correction for the record,” Bolton wrote that the Army had indeed paid KBR for the trailers, even though the Defense Contract Audit Agency had called the purchase unreasonable due to KBR purchasing the [trailers] from someone other than the low bidder without…adequate justification.” 

The media paid little attention to the slip-up and subsequent correction, perhaps in part because, as the Army Times noted, Bolton’s letter ends the argument between the Army and Levin’s committee because there is no way to recoup the money.” 

Overlooked entirely, though, was a different part of Johnson’s testimony, when he claimed the Army was unaware of reports that KBR had also been supplying military bases with contaminated water. Because of their negligence, a 2006 investigation by Dorgan’s policy committee found soldiers had unwittingly bathed in and brushed their teeth with water that, by the senator’s account, was more polluted than the Euphrates river. The committee’s findings prompted Dorgan to request an investigation by the Pentagon’s Inspector General. 

When Levin raised Dorgan’s charge that water provided to troops in Iraq had tested positive for E. coli and other bacteria common to animal feces, Johnson disputed the allegations [PDF]. Acknowledging the inspector general’s then-ongoing investigation, Johnson told the committee, No issues have been found thus far that I’m aware of.” Johnson did confirm that allegations had been raised about contaminated water at Camp Ar-Ramadi, a base about 70 miles west of Baghdad, but said we found no issues with the water there. After an inspection, we did not confirm the allegations that were made.” 

Johnson even denied that KBR had anything to do with the provision of water to troops at the base. KBR was not operating the water site,” he told the panel. But this March, when the inspector general’s office released its report, investigators noted that the Pentagon had been notified on March 31, 2007, three weeks before Johnson’s testimony, of KBR’s role in providing polluted water to military bases, which may have degraded to the point of causing waterborne illnesses among US forces.” 

Investigators found that KBR was indeed in control of water quality at Camp Ar-Ramadi, and that at three of four U.S. bases subject to inspection, including Ar-Ramadi, KBR had shirked its contractual obligation to test the water it supplied. 

At a meeting with reporters last month, Dorgan described his efforts to uncover the extent of the unsanitary water conditions at U.S. bases in Iraq in the face of denials from both the Army and its contractor, KBR. It’s clear everyone was lying, including [Gen. Johnson], who came to the Senate committee and deceived the committee,” Dorgan said.

At press time, Levin had not responded to a request for comment. 

Johnson now serves as deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Army Forces Command in Fort McPherson, Georgia. The Pentagon declined to comment on Johnson’s testimony or why Dorgan’s letter to Gates has gone unanswered.

Brian Beutler is the Washington Correspondent for the Media Consortium, a network of progressive media organizations, including In These Times.
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