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Russ Knocke, public affairs officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is an affable and definite true believer. His job is to field media queries about DHS, and he does this in good order, if at breakneck speed.
He speaks in sentences that are quick, somewhat repetitive, bureaucratic, occasionally condescending and sometimes kind of funny.
Asked about the DHS's "request for proposal" contract for the border fencing out of Laredo that apparently awards Houston-based Kellogg Brown & Root (Halliburton) a starring role in the first phase of fence work, Knocke insists that has been "misconstrued" by South Texas officials.
"As it relates to the contract, I think that's another area...that has been unfortunately misconstrued. It could be that local officials are not familiar with some of the federal bureaucracy and admittedly it's a little bureaucratic, the federal bureaucracy as it relates to contracting. That contracting process is inevitably going to be different than it would be at the state or local level. What we've done is we have entered into a contract that is sort of the overreaching contract that we would need to have in place so that when we are ready to move forward with infrastructure plans in a given location along the South Texas border, we would have the contracting structure in place. That does not mean that we have put out a contract to build X miles of fencing at X size for X amount of dollars in X location. It means we have the architecture to be able to actually issue those contracts when those decisions are made already in place."
All of which sounds, well, okay, except, um, why was KBR's name on it? So, wading in, I asked:
If it is just the "architecture" for it, why was a specific firm mentioned in it?
Because you have to contract with an entity.
So Halliburton does have a contract?
I'm not confirming that. I'm just saying that one would have to contract with an entity to be able to have a contract.
But if what you're doing is setting up the structure so that you're ready to go, okay, so why would you have a specific company's name in that? I'm just not understanding that.
I'm not sure where you're getting the specific company from.
From looking at the RFP (okay, some screaming going on inside my head now). It has KBR in it.
Okay, so then that would be one potential vendor with whom we could contract, but it's a structural contract. That doesn't change the fact that it's not a contract to initiate fencing or initiate border infrastructure. It is an overall architecture and that is, yes, admittedly and seemingly a little bureaucratic, but that's how federal contracting works when you're talking about as massive an infrastructure project as we're talking about.
But would KBR/Halliburton oversee it?
That remains to be seen.
From there, we moved on to the leaked fence map.
Is it real? (Or were they still denying its authenticity?)
Is it real? Was there an e-mail that I believe contained a map with some projections of possible places for border infrastructure, yeah, I think there was one that was sent.
You haven't seen it?
I personally have not seen it, no.
Really? I mean, I've seen it. I have a copy of it. A lot of people have seen it. How could you not see it? Wouldn't you want to see it, so you could verify it?
I have spoken with colleagues who have verified the existence of the map for me. I don't know if I need to personally look at the map to be able to talk to you about the map. I think you probably are also aware there was follow-up correspondence that sought to clarify that original e-mail and that was sent to dozens of border officials up and down the southwest border talking to them again about our commitment to work with them, our commitment to hear them, to listen to their concerns but also to reiterate that we do have to move forward with the border infrastructure projects.
And in fact the border patrol came and met with the leaders and said the fence is going in?
We're certainly going to be moving forward with border infrastructure, but we do want to continue to dialogue with border officials as we move forward. You would be surprised to the extent that people in this department go to in terms of listening to the local officials and hearing their concerns and doing everything possible to ensure that those concerns are ultimately reflected in what we do. But that does not change the fact that we have a mandate to secure our borders and part of that mandate includes border infrastructure. We're very serious about fulfilling the mandate of securing our borders.
Just for grins, I ran the part about local officials maybe not understanding the intricacies of federal contracts by McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez.
"Our budget has a $250 million fund balance, and we have no general obligation debt. So when someone tells me I don't understand business and contracts, I am insulted."
He called it especially humorous given that "this is a government that got us into $8 1/2 trillion of debt.
"I don't know what school of business they went to, but that kind of debt is not reflective of sound business decisions."