Liz Cheney and Arianna Huffington recently clashed about the propriety of Halliburton’s operations in Iraq. (ICYMI, Cheney’s father was the CEO of Halliburton until he became Vice President of the United States.) Huffington said Halliburton “defrauded the US government…[of] hundreds of millions of dollars in Iraq.” Then this:
Cheney: “Arianna, it is absolutely not true. It is absolutely not true.”
Huffington: “Okay, I’m so glad PolitiFact is going to be checking this. I’m so glad.”
Cheney: “Good, good.”
How could Politifact resist an invitation like that? Their conclusion: Huffington’s remarks were Half True.
It’s a complicated story, so I really recommend reading the entire Politifact report. Here are the key points: In the previous decade, Halliburton, through its subsidy KBR, received $31 billion in military contract. Government auditors have found that $553 million in payments to KBR (around 3% of the total) should be disallowed. But there is no indication that these charges resulted from bad intentions. Politifact concludes:
In evaluating Huffington’s statement, we’re most bothered by her use of the word “defrauded.” Some of the overbilling in Iraq appears to have been done from haste or inefficiency, or even in a desire to please military officials in the field without regard for cost. Whether the waste in contracting constitutes fraud is still being examined.
“It’s a lot money being spent in a region of the world where we don’t have a lot of infrastructure for accounting for how the money is being spent. It will take years before we fully determine how we spent the money,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow for defense budget studies at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Interestingly, just three months ago, the Department of Justice filed an actual lawsuit against KBR accusing them of actual fraud, although KBR responds that the US government was actually in breach of contract. Even so, I’d say that Politifact is being fairly generous to Ms. Huffington, since I doubt she specifically had the April lawsuit in mind.
Of course, Huffington sees things very differently. Rather than being grateful for the fact check she requested, she is now bashing Politifact for its timid conclusions:
The “fact check” turned into a model of how to avoid the truth.
This is a favorite trick of those in positions of power: using ambiguity and complexity as a sort of chemical dispersant on the truth. Dilute it enough and it becomes unrecognizable.
This isn’t to lump PolitiFact in with Liz Cheney, but its attempt to bend over backwards to find the comfort of the middle ground is part of the problem it was presumably formed to combat.
What makes this particularly troubling is that PolitiFact’s “fact check” was well-researched and well-sourced. The truthiness part was that PolitiFact’s facts clearly supported a conclusion different than the one its editors came to.
Let me close with a personal note. I spent four months working for the US military in Iraq, where I depended on KBR’s services everyday. The capabilities they provide are both impressive and indispensable. There is no excuse for waste, but any judgment of their waste should entail a comparison to the efficiency of other parties — including the Pentagon — who found it equally hard to be a model of efficiency in the midst of a warzone.
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