BUILD­ING THE WORLD

( WITH THE GOVERN­MENT’S HELP)

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Priyanka Ku­mar

The Bech­tel Cor­po­ra­tion may have mas­tered the art of oil­ing the prover­bial re­volv­ing door so that it just keeps on swing­ing. For in­stance, in the early ’70s, Ge­orge P. Shultz was the U. S. Sec­re­tary of the Trea­sury. Af­ter he left govern­ment of­fice, for the next few years, he was a high-rank­ing Bech­tel em­ployee. Dur­ing the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion, Shultz was Sec­re­tary of State, af­ter which he re­turned to Bech­tel. Oth­ers who have walked through this gilded door are Casper Wein­berger, U.S. Sec­re­tary of De­fense dur­ing the Rea­gan era, and John McCone, di­rec­tor of the CIA dur­ing the height of the Cold War.

In her new book, The Prof­i­teers: Bech­tel and the Men Who Built the World (Si­mon & Schus­ter), in­ves­tiga­tive reporter Sally Den­ton de­tails how, over the past cen­tury, the Bech­tel fam­ily grew an up­start busi­ness into a global leader in con­struc­tion, en­ergy, and tech­nol­ogy. She also tells the story of Bech­tel’s machi­na­tions to land sub­stan­tial govern­ment con­tracts — from the re­con­struc­tion of Iraq to the man­age­ment of the Lawrence Liver­more Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory and the Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory — and of the com­pany’s golden-child sta­tus when feed­ing from the pub­lic trough. Den­ton is the co-au­thor of The Money and the Power and au­thor of The Plots Against the Pres­i­dent, among other books.

For its first ma­jor pro­ject, the con­struc­tion of the Hoover Dam, Bech­tel helmed a con­sor­tium called Six Com­pa­nies. Tons of con­crete were poured in to tame the Colorado River while work­ers toiled in swel­ter­ing heat and were de­nied ba­sics such as free ice, Den­ton writes. Am­bu­lance sirens were a fre­quent sound at the work site as work­ers suf­fered from de­hy­dra­tion and over­heat­ing, among other prob­lems; more than a hun­dred men died. La­bor prac­tices come up in a dif­fer­ent guise in a later chap­ter, “The Hydra-Headed Amer­i­can Gi­ant.” In a pre­sen­ta­tion to its as­pir­ing sub­con­trac­tors (for the re­con­struc­tion of Iraq), Bech­tel in­formed them to ar­range for their own se­cu­rity and their own pro­tec­tive vests, ba­si­cally sug­gest­ing that they fend for them­selves in a high-risk zone.

Speak­ing of Bech­tel’s la­bor prac­tices, Den­ton told Pasatiempo: “I don’t know how one could ex­am­ine the 2008 mas­sive lay­off of 440 ca­reer em­ploy­ees at Lawrence Liver­more Lab and find ev­i­dence of sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment in la­bor re­la­tions. Bech­tel’s long his­tory of ques­tion­able la­bor prac­tices can­not all be writ­ten off to the lais­sez-faire over­sight of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions or De­pres­sion-era con­di­tions. Al­though it can al­ways be ar­gued that ac­ci­dents will hap­pen and prob­lems arise on the most dis­ci­plined con­struc­tion projects, the fact re­mains that Bech­tel has been — and con­tin­ues to be — a leader in scor­ing gar­gan­tuan govern­ment projects but has of­ten lagged be­hind when its come to worker safety.”

As con­struc­tion projects go, Bech­tel has had some mas­sively ex­pen­sive fail­ures, in­clud­ing its $1.6 bil­lion cost over­runs on Bos­ton’s Cen­tral Artery/ Tun­nel Pro­ject, known as the Big Dig, Den­ton writes. Dur­ing the post­war re­con­struc­tion of Iraq, Bech­tel was able to com­plete less than half of its $2 bil­lion worth of con­tracts — but the Iraq projects none­the­less turned around the for­tunes of Bech­tel at a time when the com­pany was reel­ing from the dot-com bust. An au­dit by the Of­fice of the Spe­cial In­spec­tor Gen­eral for Iraq Re­con­struc­tion (SIGIR) called the re­con­struc­tion ef­fort “a legacy of waste.” A ma­ter­nal and chil­dren’s hos­pi­tal in Basra, ini­tially a $50 mil­lion con­tract to Bech­tel, was mired in cost over­runs un­til the price tag “had swelled to a fi­nal cost of $171 mil­lion, and even though Laura Bush had of­fi­cially ‘opened’ it in 2004, by decade’s end, it had never seen a pa­tient.” And yet, as Den­ton il­lus­trates, the se­cre­tive and pri­vately owned com­pany was able to evade pub­lic protests or ma­jor me­dia scru­tiny over its closed-bid re­con­struc­tion con­tract. As The Prof­i­teers makes clear, Bech­tel’s hon­ey­moon with the govern­ment never seems to end — which raises the ques­tion of how Bech­tel is able to brush off some very pub­lic fail­ures and go on to land even more mul­ti­year, multi­bil­lion­dol­lar con­tracts.

“Af­ter four years of re­search, I’ve con­cluded that Bech­tel is all but im­mune to the de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects of govern­ment over­sight for its flaws and short­com­ings due to its long- es­tab­lished and firmly en­trenched re­la­tion­ship with govern­ment de­ci­sion­mak­ers at the high­est level,” Den­ton said. “That kind of clout tran­scends sim­ple pol­i­tics and has car­ried over from one gen­er­a­tion to the next.”

Many com­pa­nies have en­riched them­selves with the in­creas­ing amount of work the U. S. govern­ment sub­con­tracts to the pri­vate sec­tor, in­clud­ing t he man­age­ment of pris­ons and even some op­er­a­tions of our Na­tional Parks. Elec­tion sea­son is rife with talk about re­duc­ing govern­ment size, but many ar­eas of the govern­ment may al­ready be fairly small. (Den­ton writes that by 2007, out of the Depart­ment of En­ergy’s 200,000 em­ploy­ees, fewer than 15,000 were govern­ment em­ploy­ees.) Is it the sub­con­tract­ing that is out of con­trol?

“I do not think the gen­eral pub­lic has a clue about how much of govern­ment has been out­sourced to pri­vate in­dus­try — from the na­tion’s nu­clear-weapons com­plex to pris­ons to the ju­di­cial sys­tem to trans­porta­tion to mil­i­tary to home­land se­cu­rity to nat­u­ral re­sources to elec­tric util­i­ties to in­fra­struc­ture and on and on,” Den­ton said. “Look at it this way: How of­ten do you hear right-wing ra­dio talk show hosts vil­ify govern­ment con­trac­tors? Govern­ment em­ploy­ees, yes, all the time. But their pri­vate-sec­tor coun­ter­parts? Rarely. The sa­cred 20th- cen­tury no­tion that govern­ment should own the na­tion’s most vi­tal in­dus­tries in the econ­omy was thrown on its head dur­ing the Rea­gan Rev­o­lu­tion, which was the apogee of Bech­tel’s mod­ern rise. A lot of the trans­fer from pub­lic to pri­vate has oc­curred with sleight of hand. As MIT pro­fes­sor and so­cial critic Noam Chom­sky once put it, the stan­dard tech­nique of pri­va­ti­za­tion is to ‘ de­fund, make sure things don’t work, peo­ple get an­gry, you hand it over to pri­vate cap­i­tal.’ ”

While t he Iraq War was on­go­ing, t he Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion also de­cided to sub­con­tract the U.S. nu­clear-war­head com­plex, in­clud­ing LANL and Lawrence Liver­more Labs. Den­ton ar­gues that the spy case against Chi­nese-Amer­i­can LANL sci­en­tist Wen Ho Lee was “trumped up,” in part to jus­tify the govern­ment’s de­ci­sion to pri­va­tize the labs’ op­er­a­tions. “Many things sur­prised me dur­ing my re­search, but a cou­ple of things re­ally stung,” Den­ton said. “One is the cru­elty with which Los Alamos sci­en­tist Wen Ho Lee was treated — shack­led and in soli­tary con­fine­ment for 278 days with­out fac­ing trial be­fore be­ing ex­on­er­ated — and how his case was used to jus­tify the pri­va­ti­za­tion of the nu­clear labs. In that same vein I was stunned at the stealth and alacrity with which the na­tion’s nu­clear war­head com­plex was pri­va­tized un­der the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, al­most

Bech­tel is all but im­mune to the de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects of govern­ment over­sight for its flaws and short­com­ings due to its long- es­tab­lished and firmly en­trenched re­la­tion­ship with govern­ment de­ci­sion-mak­ers at the high­est level. — Sally Den­ton

com­pletely away from the spot­light. Which goes to the largest sur­prise to me: the abil­ity of Bech­tel to march across Amer­i­can his­tory with barely a flicker of pub­lic scru­tiny. I was as­ton­ished by the dam­age that can be done on the world stage when a cor­po­ra­tion be­comes so pow­er­ful and so closely as­so­ci­ated with our pub­lic of­fi­cials that it es­sen­tially wears the stars and stripes wher­ever it goes.”

The Santa Fe New Mex­i­can re­cently re­ported that Los Alamos Na­tional Se­cu­rity, a con­sor­tium in which Bech­tel is one of the “pri­mary play­ers,” lost the “lu­cra­tive $2.2 bil­lion-a-year con­tract to man­age the lab that it has held for nearly a decade.” Among the causes were an elec­tri­cal ac­ci­dent in which nine work­ers were in­jured, im­proper haz­ardous waste man­age­ment, and miss­ing en­riched ura­nium. “The most costly in­ci­dent oc­curred in 2014, when a con­tainer of ra­dioac­tive waste repack­aged at the lab later rup­tured in the na­tion’s only un­der­ground nu­clear waste repos­i­tory, con­tam­i­nat­ing work­ers and cost­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of tax­payer dol­lars to clean up.”

In the past, only Bech­tel’s ex­pen­sive mis­steps at the tax­pay­ers’ ex­pense at, say, LANL or the Big Dig in Bos­ton have brought the com­pany to the me­dia’s and the pub­lic’s at­ten­tion. But this kind of at­ten­tion tends to fade as head­lines do. “The daily press has al­ways had dif­fi­culty cov­er­ing com­plex is­sues and ‘big pic­ture’ sto­ries,” Den­ton said. “In fair­ness, much of what Bech­tel does winds up off the radar, whether in Wash­ing­ton or in Bagh­dad. Its pri­vate cor­po­rate sta­tus, cou­pled with its his­toric tra­di­tion of se­crecy, only added an­other layer of opac­ity that pub­licly traded com­pa­nies don’t share. The role of Bech­tel and other multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions in events lead­ing up to, through­out, and af­ter the Iraq War em­bod­ies Dwight Eisen­hower’s fa­mous warn­ing against the mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex and ‘ the po­ten­tial for the dis­as­trous rise of mis­placed power.’ Still, such a rise could only oc­cur if so­ci­ety’s watch­dogs — the press and Congress — were asleep on the job. When one con­sid­ers the con­spic­u­ous ab­sence of le­gal or pub­lic re­la­tions chal­lenges be­tween what one would think would be com­pet­i­tive ‘ri­vals’ in this com­plex — the multi­na­tional be­he­moths that are also thriv­ing at the pub­lic trough — the depth and breadth of this rigged sys­tem is pal­pa­ble.”

When La­ton McCart­ney pub­lished Friends in High Places: The Bech­tel Story — The Most Se­cret Cor­po­ra­tion and How It En­gi­neered the World, Bech­tel ex­ec­u­tives threat­ened to lit­i­gate against McCart­ney’s pub­lisher. Casper Wein­berger wanted to be erased out of the book. If McCart­ney went on a live ra­dio in­ter­view dur­ing his book tour, some Bech­tel of­fi­cial would call in to at­tack him.

When Pasatiempo con­tacted Bech­tel, Char­lene Whee­less, prin­ci­pal vi­cepres­i­dent of global cor­po­rate affairs, made this state­ment about Den­ton’s book: “Based on our lim­ited re­view of a gal­ley of the book, it con­tains many fac­tual mis­state­ments and sig­nif­i­cant er­rors. Fun­da­men­tally flawed, the gal­ley said we did things we never did in places where we never worked. The au­thor made no se­ri­ous at­tempt to get in­put from Bech­tel or to check facts.” Asked to point to spe­cific er­rors, Whee­less did not pro­vide any, in­stead of­fer­ing an ad­di­tional state­ment: “We take on the world’s tough­est projects and de­liver them col­lab­o­ra­tively and re­spect­fully for the ben­e­fit of our cus­tomers and the com­mu­ni­ties where we work and live.”

Den­ton called Bech­tel’s crit­i­cism non­sense. “I gave them an ad­vance gal­ley four months ago out of an abun­dance of fair­ness. I then took ev­ery com­ment from the com­pany into full con­sid­er­a­tion and gave them a month to pro­vide any clar­i­fi­ca­tion.” She said she also sought in­ter­views with com­pany prin­ci­pals Stephen, Ri­ley, and Brendan Bech­tel, who all de­clined.

Given the com­pany’s re­sponse to McCart­ney’s book, Den­ton said she ex­pects sim­i­lar at­tacks, but isn’t wor­ried.

“To use a hack­neyed ex­pres­sion, this is not my first rodeo,” she said. “The Prof­i­teers is my eighth pub­lished book, all of which have dealt with what I call un­com­fort­able truths. If I be­gan wor­ry­ing about crit­i­cal re­sponse at this late stage of the game, I wouldn’t be do­ing what I do.”

“The Prof­i­teers: Bech­tel and the Men Who Built the World” by Sally Den­ton is pub­lished in March by Si­mon & Schus­ter. Den­ton talks about her book on Tues­day, March 8, at Col­lected Works Book­store.

SALLY DEN­TON

ON THE BECH­TEL COR­PO­RA­TION

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