New Baghdad embassy's fire-fighting system is defective

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Hussein Ali / MCT

WASHINGTON — The fire-fighting system in the mammoth new $740 million U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is defective, according to documents obtained by McClatchy and U.S. officials, who said that their concerns were ignored or overruled in a rush to declare the complex completed.

"As far as I know, nothing's been fixed," said one State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation for speaking to the news media. "The lives of the people who are working in that building are going to be at stake" if the complex doesn't meet building codes, he said.

The 104-acre embassy complex, which has been hit at least once by mortar fire, will house more than 1,000 U.S. diplomats, coalition military officials and associated personnel. U.S. diplomats in Iraq are still headquartered in a former palace of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Green Zone and haven't moved into the new embassy complex.

Last month, 19 days before he retired, State Department buildings chief Charles E. Williams certified key elements of the embassy's fire-fighting system as ready for operation, according to the documents McClatchy obtained.

His own fire-safety specialists and an outside consultant, however, had warned Williams and his aides repeatedly about numerous fire safety violations.

Moreover, Williams' thumbs-up was based on tests run by another contractor that was hired, not by the State Department, but by the company building the embassy, First Kuwaiti General Contracting and Trading Co. State Department officials, members of Congress and others have accused First Kuwaiti of shoddy construction and questionable labor practices.

The State Department's top management official, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy, said in a telephone interview that he hasn't issued a certificate of occupancy for the new embassy complex. He said he won't do so until the fire safety systems and other functions are "validated and checked fully."

Kennedy also said that the department's own fire safety specialists have been to Baghdad to inspect the embassy. "They were the ones who uncovered the problem" in the first place, he said.

The documents obtained by McClatchy also provide further details of a Justice Department criminal investigation into contracts for the new embassy.

The Justice Department in mid-November ordered the State Department to "locate and preserve all paper and electronic documents relating to the new embassy project and related projects in Baghdad," according to a Dec. 4 e-mail from State Department lawyer Dennis Gallagher to a Williams aide.

Gallagher didn't respond to a phone call seeking comment.

Although Williams promised a House of Representatives panel last summer that the embassy would be completed by an end-of-September deadline, it's been delayed well into 2008 by numerous deficiencies.

Another State Department official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that a "facilities assessment team" is testing the new buildings' systems, work that's expected to be completed next month.

This official said that Williams and his Kuwait-based project manager, James L. Golden, jealously guarded access to the complex and to information on the status of the $740 million construction project.

Several officials confirmed that the State Department's own specialists were largely excluded from the Baghdad project starting in September. And in a major departure from normal practice, they weren't called on to certify the embassy's fire safety systems.

Access has improved now that Williams and Golden are gone, the officials said.

Williams, a retired Army major general who left the State Department on Dec. 31 under heavy criticism for his handling of the embassy project, didn't respond to a request for comment.

His former special assistant, Phyllis Patten-Breeding, said she wasn't authorized to comment on the embassy's fire safety systems.

Concerns over the embassy's fire safety systems first arose in late August, when fire safety specialists from the State Department inspected the complex. They discovered problems with the water mains, fire alarms and numerous other systems, according to a Sept. 4 trip report.

The State Department ordered Williams to bring in an outside consultant, Schirmer Engineering of Greenbelt, Md., which found the same problems, according to e-mails from Schirmer to the State Department dated Oct. 22, Oct. 27 and Nov. 1.

Williams set up a separate structure to oversee the Baghdad project. E-mail exchanges in the documents obtained by McClatchy portray his project managers as playing down potential problems and refusing to share information about the embassy's progress.

Golden, in a Nov. 2 e-mail responding to State Department requests for repairs to underground fire mains, wrote that the proposed changes were only "preferences" and do "not change the fact that the work as completed meets all reference codes and specifications."

Golden has been implicated in the Justice Department probe but has not been charged with wrongdoing.

At some point — exactly when is unclear — First Kuwaiti hired Baltimore-based Hughes Associates Inc. to test water pressure in the underground fire mains to ensure that they'd operate in the event of a fire.

Based on a certification by a Hughes contractor, dated Dec. 7, Williams declared that the new embassy met key fire codes.

But Hughes Associates is now distancing itself from the contract employee who wrote the certification.

Hughes President Philip J. DiNenno, who confirmed that First Kuwaiti hired his company, said in a Dec. 14 e-mail to the State Department that the employee did nothing more than witness a test.

"He was and is not authorized to speak on behalf of Hughes Associates or to communicate the final status of any deficiencies, and certainly he may not satisfy anything unilaterally," DiNenno wrote, adding that the firm's final report is still being prepared.

In Kuwait on Friday, Wadih al Absi, the general manager of First Kuwaiti and a co-founder of the company, refused to comment on issues concerning the embassy. He said that it's a violation of his contract to speak to the media without the State Department's permission and that he's been requesting permission for three months.

(Chris Adams in Washington and Leila Fadel in Kuwait City contributed.)

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