Six civilian KBR truck drivers, along with two US soldiers, died April 9, 2004 when their convoy came under attack as it ferried fuel to the Baghdad Airport. One soldier and a seventh contractor remain missing.
The tragic incident became the basis for KBR and military investigations, provided grist for Congressional hearings, and sparked a major lawsuit by the families of the contractors killed that day.
While the families have charged that KBR disregarded reports indicating constant attacks on the route the ill-fated convoy was scheduled to take, KBR has defended itself by claiming that it relied solely on the US military's guidance when deciding to green light the deliveries that day.
T. Christian Miller of the LA Times has now gotten his hands on a wealth of new e-mails and other communications that shed light on the behind-the-scenes decision-making process that day.
Miller cites a key e-mail from the head of the Army's 13th Corps Support Command (Coscom), who 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."
However, Miller also discovered that KBR's security staff was strongly advising against dispatching the convoy--warnings that led the manager of trucking operations to nearly resign.
" think we will get people injured or killed tomorrow," warned KBR regional security chief George Seagle, citing "tons of intel," though he also acknowledged: "Big politics and contract issues involved."
But KBR's security staff had no authority to halt convoys, since the company had just days prior transferred that power to Keith Richard, chief of KBR's trucking operations, and his boss, KBR General Manager Craig Peterson.
Miller's account makes Peterson sound like the main driver behind the decision to send out the convoys. After a meeting with military commanders, Peterson had briefed his colleagues on their discussion, writing that he had been reminded during the meeting 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."
Though Richard ultimately gave the convoy the order to roll out on its delivery, the day before the ambush he sounded on the brink of resignation at the prospect.
"I cannot consciously sit back and allow unarmed civilians to get picked apart," Richard wrote. "Putting civilians in the middle of a war is not in any contract, policy or procedure. I will not allow this to happen."
After the attack, Miller reports one of KBR's security advisers wrote in an e-mail: "I cannot believe this has happened; the ones responsible should be held accountable for this."
Trying to appropriately place blame for a multi-pronged failure of good judgment and decision-making is difficult, but Miller's latest piece offers a good starting point for assessment.