Washington, DC

Liza Featherstone may have a point about the vapidity of Labor Day, but she’s repeating a historical canard [“Will Labor Come Back?” Sept. 20]. The September Labor Day was not created by union bosses as an alternative to May Day, since it was created two years before May Day by the New York City labor federation. May Day, however, was created by American labor bosses–in fact, the AFL–to initiate the eight-hour day. But it was used instead to commemorate the dead of the Haymarket riot in Chicago, a holiday that then caught on in Europe while the New York City Labor Day became a US national holiday.



San Francisco

Christian Parenti’s “Fables of the Reconstruction” [Aug. 30/Sept. 6] purports to provide a firsthand account of reconstruction woes in Iraq. Fable is most assuredly the operative word, because the account is based as much on fiction as fact. In assessing the progress in rebuilding an infrastructure of a country the size of California, Parenti leaves largely unreported the challenges and complexities of accomplishing this task. Years of war, sanctions and neglect left much of Iraq’s infrastructure in a state of disrepair beyond even the ingenuity of Iraqi engineers to repair. Subsequent looting and hostile action have made renovations all the more challenging.

Under contract to USAID, Bechtel is helping restore basic living necessities in Iraq. To do the job as efficiently as possible, we are employing thousands of Iraqis at all levels–from construction workers to engineers and plant managers. To suggest otherwise, as the article does, is simply wrong. Wrong, too, is the characterization of who decides what reconstruction projects are undertaken. USAID evaluates projects for viability and value. USAID seeks advice not only from Bechtel but also from Iraqi officials, whose input plays a critical role in whether a project proceeds.

Parenti ignores the substantial progress Bechtel has achieved in the water sector, including restoration in November 2003 of a treated water system to 40,000 residents of Safwan; the dredging, cleanout and restoration of the Sweet Water Canal reservoirs this past March, which more than doubled the drinking-water supply to Basra; and the restart in May of one-third of the Kerkh Waste Water Treatment Plant, enabling sewage treatment in Baghdad by the plant for the first time in many years. This list does not include our many accomplishments in repairing transportation, power and telecommunications facilities.

Parenti’s article also deprives readers of a factual account of the contract award process used by USAID for Iraq infrastructure reconstruction work. Contrary to the article’s assertion that “as soon as Baghdad fell, Bechtel was in Iraq making deals with USAID,” contracts for reconstruction work were awarded to Bechtel in April 2003 and January 2004 after multiple bidders competed for the work. Each competitor was judged on competence, performance, experience and capabilities. According to USAID, Bechtel was selected each time by career professionals because it demonstrated the highest technical competence and was among the lowest in cost.

GREG PRUETT, public affairs manager
USAID Iraq Infrastructure Reconstruction Project


Brooklyn, NY

Greg Pruett’s letter encapsulates perfectly the dynamics shaping, or misshaping, reconstruction in Iraq: an article documenting Bechtel’s corruption and incompetence is answered by an errand boy from the US government. Or does he work for Bechtel? His letter’s return address is “c/o Bechtel,” but he signs himself as a USAID PR official. Reality is creepier than fiction. But this much is clear: The American people, like the Iraqi people, pay for this disaster with treasure and blood while our government does PR damage control for the giant firms sopping up billions in US tax money meant for rebuilding Iraq.

Pruett’s letter is as windy and flimsy as most statements from the Green Zone bunkers in Baghdad. He doesn’t take issue with any of my main points, perhaps because the most damning indictments come from US government and UN audits. Instead, he lamely quibbles about details. In order: Pruett says I didn’t report Bechtel’s progress in Basra and Safwan, essentially a complaint that I didn’t visit every single job site in “a country the size of California.” True, I did not. But I visited many. And I will not repeat official assertions from the likes of Pruett if I can’t independently verify them. The reason is simple: USAID and Bechtel officials have lied to me so often, I can no longer trust what they say.

An example: USAID and Bechtel officials told me that repairs at the Rustimiyah South sewage treatment plant were well advanced, that the plant was on the verge of going back online. But when I got into the plant, that turned out to be false. It was at least half a year from completion, even according to Bechtel’s schedules, posted in the plant manager’s office. I was told similar lies about hospitals and power plants.

As for the Job Order process: Pruett doesn’t actually deny the fact that Bechtel generates its own Job Orders, then gives them to USAID for approval. The closed-circuit-style process that I reported was described to me by a Bechtel rep and a USAID man in DC. Job Orders (which for reasons of “security” are treated as veritable state secrets) are generated by Bechtel, then submitted to USAID and almost always approved. More important, the initial “needs assessment survey,” which guides Bechtel in creating its Job Orders, was created by Bechtel itself. In essence, USAID knows only what Bechtel tells it.

Pruett asserts, “USAID seeks advice not only from Bechtel but also from Iraqi officials, whose input plays a critical role in whether a project proceeds.” What’s the proof? Every Iraqi official I interviewed, from the deputy ministerial level to the local public works administration to engineers on the job sites, said the opposite. They all described US arrogance, incompetence and lack of respect for Iraqi know-how. They described being harassed by US officials like Pruett when they spoke out. If Iraqis are so important to US decision-making, why did the CPA’s Program Review Board, which approved contracts during the first year of occupation, include only one Iraqi with voting power?

Pruett’s claim that a sewage treatment plant had not been treating sewage for many years before the war is contradicted by the plant’s staff. His letter insinuates that the Tigris was a sewer well before the US invasion. I visited the main plants and the villages nearby and heard the same story from farmers, fishermen, managers and engineers everywhere: Baghdad’s sewage treatment infrastructure was run-down but working until around April 7 and 8, when fighting took the plants offline, and further damage was caused by looting. Can Pruett find a single report from the UNDP or any other credible international source with pre-war involvement in Iraq that can prove his claim? I doubt it.

Regarding contract awards, Pruett takes issue with my assertion that Bechtel was in Baghdad making insider deals with USAID as soon as Saddam fell. But the only evidence he offers confirms my point: The first restricted-bid, cost-plus contract that Bechtel received was signed on April 17. That’s less than ten days after Saddam’s statue was pulled down by Marines in Firdos Square. More important, primary contracts were offered in a politically vindictive fashion that favored select US firms like Bechtel, Halliburton and Washington Group International. Most EU and Asian firms were excluded. To date the vast majority of contracts have gone to US companies (check the Center for Public Integrity’s website for details). This hogging of plum contracts has led to a lack of military support from many European and Asian countries, which has further fueled instability. (But don’t get me wrong; I oppose even a “well run” invasion and occupation.)

The point is, the contractors have had plenty of time and money and have squandered both. The botched reconstruction process is a major cause of the escalating violence in Iraq. In the coming years, when we read about Iraq as a “failed state” or about its Islamic revolution or the “tragedy” of the US defeat there, we will recall how the reconstruction racket helped create this disaster and screwed over the people of Iraq and the United States.




Los Angeles

In his “Fear of a Brown Planet” [June 28] Roberto Lovato states: “The Sierra Club recently fended off a hostile takeover by a new breed of well-heeled, anti-immigrant, anti-Latino activists who believe they’re defending American civilization against the balkanizing and breeding barbarians from the South.” That is sheer fabrication; consider, for example, the words “well-heeled.” The old guard who have been running the Sierra Club for decades spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the 2004 Sierra Club election and maintain their iron grip on power. Their “well-heeled” opponents spent a minuscule fraction of this amount. Lovato has stood the truth on its head.

The Sierra Club has a national campaign-finance-reform committee, in part to change the political system so the Republicans don’t hugely outspend the Democrats and so third-party candidates have some kind of financial fighting chance. Through their record-high internal Sierra Club campaign expenditures, the old guard has made a mockery of the idea of campaign finance reform. What hypocrites.

Lovato missed the boat on what’s been going on inside the Sierra Club. Progressive forces, initially allied with our late icon, David Brower, have been trying to improve its effectiveness since at least the early 1990s. There is a wide range of opinions regarding immigration among these reformers. But we all agree that, since the 1980s, the SC has been ineffective at the national level under its old leadership. We are trying to make it stronger and more effective. By publishing lies, The Nation is not making our task any easier.

Board of Directors, Sierra Club


Los Angeles

Ben Zuckerman provides a textbook example of how inverting the meaning of words and phrases is fashionable in this new age of “pre-emptive” wars for peace and perpetual searches for internal enemies. Take, for example, his reference to “progressive forces” inside the Sierra Club. How Zuckerman can refer to himself and other “reformers” in the Sierra Club with the “progressive” designation baffles. I know of no progressives who distribute letters–as Zuckerman did–written by certified hate groups like V-DARE, letters that refer to “Hispandering politicians” who do nothing about the Latino menace Zuckerman and others regularly blame for overpopulation, disease, crime and other societal ills. If this is what “progressive forces” sound like, then it’s time to find new labels, new language.

“Well-heeled” refers to the new types of better-organized, better-funded and mainstreaming organizations of the growing anti-Latino right (as opposed to older, poorer and more marginal organizations of the racist past.) “Well- heeled” refers to the fact that Zuckerman and other “reformers” belong to the Californians for Population Stabilization and other groups funded by extreme-right millionaires like John Tanton, who has done more to fund and found anti-immigrant, anti-Latino groups than any American. In what Sierra Club leaders and others believe was a takeover plot hatched in the mid-1980s, Tanton predicted in a secret 1986 memo that “the Sierra Club may not want to touch the immigration issue, but the immigration issue is going to touch the Sierra Club!”

No “progressive” I know would, like Zuckerman, describe Tanton as a “courageous human being” or write letters defending him as “a great environmentalist.” Rather than use old terminology of race and bigotry to describe Zuckerman and his methods, I prefer to use a term gaining renewed vigor in a time of perpetual search for new internal enemies: dangerous.