Brown & Root: A Company with a History

Roundup: Media's Take

John Burnett, reporting for NPR about the history of Kellogg, Brown & Root, the construction company at the center of controversy in Iraq (Dec. 24, 2003):

I'm standing here below Mansfield Dam, 12 miles west of Austin in the Texas hill country. This massive concrete structure holds back 370 billion gallons of water above the Colorado River . The dam was constructed by the Brown brothers, Herman and George, between 1937 and 1941. It is the breakout project that transformed them from road builders into superbuilders, and it's emblematic of the daring jobs on which their company built its reputation. And the dam would not have been possible without the assistance of a young, ambitious Texas congressman named Lyndon Johnson.

Working inside Congress, LBJ helped get the dam legalized, authorized and enlarged. In so doing, he taught the Browns the crucial value of federal connections, a lesson the company has carried forward through the decades.

Is there a historical continuum between Brown & Root's cultivation of people in power from Lyndon Johnson to Dick Cheney?

Mr. JOE PRATT ( Historian/Author): I would say there is a historical continuum from the first day Herman Brown entered construction to what we're seeing in Iraq today, and that continuum is public sector contracting is a tricky business, and personal contacts are a very important part of it.

BURNETT: That's Joe Pratt, a historian at the University of Houston who has co-written a biography of the Brown brothers. Their lifelong friendship with LBJ was based on mutual affection and pragmatism. They donated millions of dollars to his political campaigns over the years, and won it all back and more in lucrative government construction projects. Robert Caro wrote in his first volume on Johnson, "The Path to Power," 'Brown & Root became an industrial colossus thanks to Lyndon Johnson.'

(Soundbite of phone conversation)

President LYNDON JOHNSON: Hi, George. How are you?

Mr. GEORGE BROWN: Pretty good.

Pres. JOHNSON: I just wanted to check in with you.

Mr. BROWN: Well, I'm glad to hear you, my friend.

Pres. JOHNSON: I was kind...

BURNETT: This is an excerpt from a phone conversation between President Johnson in the Oval Office and George Brown at his office in Houston . Their friendship had already begun to cause them problems when they spoke here on Valentine's Day 1964. They discussed the controversy that had erupted over two huge construction projects the government had awarded to Brown & Root, NASA's Manned Space Center outside of Houston , later renamed the Johnson Space Center , and a massive never-completed scientific project to drill down to the Earth's mantle, known as Project Moho.

(Soundbite of phone conversation)

Pres. JOHNSON: Did you see the Mark Shaw's column on Brown and Johnson on NASA and Moho?

Mr. BROWN: NASA and Moho--Johnson...

Pres. JOHNSON: Said you had a 500 million one on NASA.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah. (Laughs) I just told him I never had talked to you about NASA or Moho neither. Never had been mentioned to me. I didn't know what Moho was. And I never talked to anybody, never heard of it, but that didn't make any difference. Went ahead and printed it anyway.

BURNETT: At the time there was wide suspicion among newspaper columnists and the Republican minority in Congress that Brown & Root's contributions to Johnson earned it the inside track on multimillion-dollar contracts.

The sharpest criticism would come from its work in Vietnam . Brown & Root was part of a consortium of four big construction companies known as RMK-BRJ. They were contracted by the Navy to build ports, airfields, bases, ammunition depots and hospitals in South Vietnam . It was the first time the US military had assigned private contractors on a large scale to do work usually performed by combat engineers and Navy Seabees. Brown & Root's portion of the contract would be worth $380 million.

Dan Briody is a Connecticut-based author who's writing a book about Halliburton.

Mr. DAN BRIODY (Author): While they were in Vietnam , you know, the situation is not unlike it is in Iraq right now. There was a lot of looting and problems with keeping equipment in their hands, and also the consortium was criticized for overspending and overstaffing, much like it has been criticized in Bosnia and is being criticized right now by Henry Waxman.

BURNETT: By 1967, the General Accounting Office faulted the Vietnam builders, as they were called, for massive accounting lapses and allowing thefts of materials. The grunts' nickname for the company, Burn & Loot, seemed to ring true. Congressional critics were howling for investigations into cost overruns and alleged political payoffs. Out in the streets, anti-war protesters railed against Brown & Root as the embodiment of what President Dwight Eisenhower had called the military-industrial complex.

James Carter is a doctoral student in history at the University of Houston who has been researching nation-building in South Vietnam during the 1950s and '60s.

Mr. JAMES CARTER (University of Houston): You could draw the parallel line to Iraq that the anti-war movement has picked up on immediately the way contracts are let, and the enormous sums of money that are being given away to Halliburton, Kellogg Brown & Root, in order to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure when Brown & Root and others, Morrison, Knudson and Raymond--they were given large sums of money in the 1960s to rebuild southern Vietnam infrastructure which had been destroyed by years of war and neglect. The parallels are just endless.

(Soundbite of drumming)

BURNETT: Last spring, a new generation of anti-war protesters, such as this group in Austin , rediscovered Brown & Root, which is now called Kellogg Brown & Root.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Man #1: And it's one, two, three. What are we fighting for?

Unidentified Man #2: Iraq .

Unidentified Man #1: Don't ask me, I don't give a damn. The next stop's Iraq again.

Unidentified Man #2: That's right.

Unidentified Man #1: And it's five, six, seven...

BURNETT: One of the most striking echoes of history is the reappearance of Donald Rumsfeld. As Defense secretary, today's he's a staunch supporter of reconstruction contracts in Iraq awarded to KBR. In August 1966, as a young Republican congressman from Illinois , Rumsfeld stood up in Congress and excoriated the Johnson administration for the stench of cronyism. Rumsfeld's speech in the congressional record could easily have come from the current Halliburton critic, Congressman Henry Waxman, the California Democrat. Again, James Carter.

Mr. CARTER: Donald Rumsfeld was overtly critical of Johnson's handling of the war. And I'll read a short passage from this. Quote, "Why this huge contract has not been and is not now being adequately audited is beyond me. The potential for waste and profiteering under such a contract is substantial," unquote.

BURNETT: The parallels extend even to the construction of detention facilities. In the '60s protesters denounced Brown & Root for building detention cells for the US military in South Vietnam to hold Viet Cong prisoners. As historian Joe Pratt explains, they came to be derisively called tiger cages.

Mr. PRATT: They were very small. They were very--they looked inhumane and the protests centered on the profits that Brown & Root and other companies made in building them.

BURNETT: And today Brown & Root has constructed the detention facility in Guantanamo for suspected terrorists.

Mr. PRATT: Yeah. It looks a little less inhumane than the tiger cages, so they might have learned a lesson from the Vietnam War experience there.

BURNETT: Brown & Root learned some other lessons as well. Hang tough, keep the client happy, do good work and massage the public relations. The criticism will blow over. The presidents and their parties will come and go, but Brown & Root outlasts them all.

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Augo Knoke - 1/19/2004

Ladies and gentlemen:
Robert A. Caro in his excellent three volume biography of Lyndon Johnson's describes in detail the relationship between LBJ and the Brown brothers. There can be no doubt that without their money, LBJ would not have become a congressman, let alone senator or president. (Sadly enough, he would have been an excellent president domestically had it not been for Viet Nam!) Conversely, Brown & Root would not have become the "success story" had there not been Lyndon Johnson. It all started with the Mansfield Dam, as you mention, and it goes on with the Naval Air Base at Corpus Christi. Neither for dam building nor for air bases did Brown & Root any previous experience.
For somebody from abroad, it is fascinating reading and a lot to be gained for understanding even today's politics.
Sincerely yours
Augo Knoke