Watchdog alleges abuses of Afghanistan security contract

By Robert Brodsky

September 1, 2009

Contractors hired to guard the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, claim their co-workers and supervisors hazed them, engaged in behavior that left the embassy vulnerable and required them to work lengthy shifts in violation of their State Department contract, according to a new report from a Washington-based watchdog group.

The report by the Project on Government Oversight -- based on accounts of current and former employees of ArmorGroup North America Inc.-- stated that security contractors were forced to participate in a variety of lewd activities or risk losing their jobs. E-mails and photographs shared with POGO showed security contractors and their supervisors urinating on themselves and in various stages of nudity at parties, fondling each other. The alleged abuses took place at Camp Sullivan, a few miles from the U.S. embassy, where roughly 1,000 Afghan nationals and American staffers and diplomats are stationed, and reportedly have been an ongoing issue for 18 months.

Though the participating workers were not on duty at the time of the activities, the incidents posed security risks, said Danielle Brian, POGO's executive director. "If there was a real crisis, you don't want people in this state for any purposes," she said. Some of the activities allowed outsiders access to the camp. For instance, a supervisor allegedly arranged for prostitutes to be brought onto the base for his birthday, in violation of Afghan and U.S. law, as well as security protocols.

Brian said the situation also could violate ArmorGroup's State Department contract, which specifies, "Each contractor employee or subcontractor employee is expected to adhere to standards of conduct that reflect credit on themselves, their employer, and the United States government." POGO urged the State Department to consider initiating suspension and debarment procedures against ArmorGroup and to allow the military to provide security at the embassies in Kabul and Baghdad.

The watchdog group on Tuesday sent its findings to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, various senators and the Commission on Wartime Contracting. During a press briefing on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Clinton is aware of the allegations and the report has been turned over to the agency's inspector general.

"These are very serious allegations and we are treating them that way," Kelly said. He added that State had "zero tolerance for the type of conduct that is alleged in these documents."

Kelly said State has been "talking to the contractors too, asking them to redress some of these deficiencies."

The POGO report stated that Afghan nationals also took part in some of the behavior despite Muslim law prohibiting alcohol consumption and public nudity. On Aug. 1 a supervisor and four others reportedly entered a dining facility on the base wearing short underwear and brandishing several bottles of alcohol, the report said. Before leaving the facility, the supervisor allegedly grabbed the face of an Afghan national employed as a food service worker, and began abusing him with foul and sexual language.

Witnesses told POGO that high-level ArmorGroup managers in Kabul were aware of the activities but did nothing to stop them. In some cases, company officials allegedly participated. Company executives reportedly allowed two supervisors allegedly involved to resign. The witnesses claim those supervisors now work on other government contracts.

Wackenhut Services Inc., which owns ArmorGroup North America, declined to comment on the allegations.

POGO said the alleged abuse has taken a toll on ArmorGroup employee morale and resulted in staff turnover. According to a report released in June by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, nearly 90 percent of security guards on the contract left the job within six months.

Wackenhut Vice President Sam Brinkley testified during a June subcommittee hearing that "the Kabul contract has been fully staffed since January 2009." But the report said Brinkley might have misled lawmakers. POGO investigators learned that in March 2009 about 50 Camp Sullivan guards confronted Brinkley and complained to him directly about staff shortages, the report stated.

U.S. Embassy Guard Force Commander Werner Ilic told a State Department official in an April memorandum that guards were suffering from "chronic sleep deprivation" from habitual 14-hour work cycles. The State Department contract stipulates that guards cannot be on duty for longer than 12 consecutive hours. But POGO found that short-staffing frequently resulted in the denial of contractually guaranteed leave and vacation; those who did not comply with the schedules reportedly were threatened with termination or fired outright.

"When we have to work guys overtime or ramp up extra manpower [during scheduled off days] due to increased threat conditions … we further compound the issue of sleep deprivation," Ilic wrote. "This ultimately diminishes the [Local Guard Force's] ability to provide security."

On Tuesday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chairwoman of the subcommittee, sent a letter to State Department Undersecretary of Management Patrick Kennedy requesting documents on the guard contract. McCaskill also urged Kennedy to conduct a "thorough review of the performance, management and oversight of this contract."

Concerns about the ArmorGroup contract are not new. In July 2007, State issued a "cure notice," advising the firm of 14 specific deficiencies that were endangering the performance of the contract, including failure to provide an adequate number of guards, relief personnel and armored vehicles. Officials sent another cure notice in April 2008. But two months later, State decided to extend the contract for an additional year.

Problems with the contract, particularly concerning staffing, persisted and in September 2008 the department threatened to terminate it. But in July, State renewed the contract through 2010, with an option to extend it through 2012. The contract is worth $187 million annually, Brian said.

POGO found other security risks with the Kabul embassy contract. This spring, guards allegedly participated in an extended reconnaissance mission outside the embassy perimeter that appeared to be beyond the scope of the contract. Photographs posted on the Facebook pages of some guards show workers hiding in abandoned buildings, armed and dressed as Afghans, according to e-mails by current and former workers. The contract requires that guards be in uniform when on duty. Nonetheless, ArmorGroup management awarded a commendation, bearing the State Department seal, to 18 participants in the exercise.

In addition, nearly two-thirds of the guard force is made up of non-English speaking Gurkhas from Nepal and Northern India. The language barrier has forced both English and non-English speaking sides to use pantomime to communicate.

"One guard described the situation as so dire that if he were to say to many of the Gurkhas, 'There is a terrorist standing behind you,' those Gurkhas would answer, 'Thank you sir, and good morning,' " POGO's letter to Clinton said. "Clearly this is an unacceptable situation, especially given that security emergencies require immediate response."

By Robert Brodsky

September 1, 2009