Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

State Department Management Chief Under Fire for Statements on Kabul Security

Sen. McCaskill and nonprofit watchdog challenge assertion of effective protection.

Employees of a private security contractor helping protect the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan have come forward with assertions that their team was dangerously understaffed, casting doubt on a more upbeat portrayal of the protections in place given this summer by a top State Department official.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, sent a letter demanding clarification from Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of State for management, following publication of results of an investigation of Afghanistan-based contractors by the nonprofit Project On Government Oversight.

“I request that you provide a detailed explanation of any inaccuracies or inconsistencies in the testimony you gave to the subcommittee or in information previously provided to the subcommittee related to the security of the embassy,” McCaskill wrote in the letter dated Sept. 11. She said documents obtained by POGO, along with interviews with the security contractor Aegis, “appear to show that Aegis was unable to meet the necessary staffing levels required by its contract with the department.” Those included shortages of protective guards, medics and emergency response team members on both the day and night shifts.

POGO also cited findings from an independent panel on diplomatic security that State had been routinely granting waivers to contractors who “fail to adequately perform contracts,” the senator wrote.

Kennedy had said at McCaskill’s July 16 hearing that “currently in Kabul, we have a well-managed, effectively functioning contract that provides security to protect our people and facilities.” Kennedy added: “There have been two direct attacks on our embassy compound in Kabul during the tenure of this current contractor. Both of those attacks were rebuffed and the contractor, along with the diplomatic security colleagues there performed superbly.”

McCaskill said POGO was unable to find evidence that such attacks occurred.

The senator noted newly enacted requirements that State and the U.S. Agency for International Development conduct risk assessments associated with the use of private contractors for embassy security. She asked for a response from Kennedy by Sept. 18.

“We need to take a very hard look at who’s providing security at high-risk embassies and whether we should continue to contract out these functions, or have them performed by the United States military or diplomatic security,” she said.

POGO’s analysis of its interviews with personnel from Aegis’ operations in Afghanistan was presented in the context of the anniversary of the much-disputed terrorist attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, and subsequent promises from State officials to beef up embassy security.

“The weaknesses in the embassy’s defenses are especially troubling because they have continued long after last year’s deadly attack in Benghazi focused Washington on the stakes,” POGO wrote. “Now, U.S. diplomatic posts around the world face heightened risks amid threats of retaliation for a potential U.S. strike on Syria, the one-year anniversary of Benghazi and the anniversary of 9-11.”