Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks at a news conference Tuesday. The Defense Department has said it will strengthen protections for contractors working overseas.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks at a news conference Tuesday. The Defense Department has said it will strengthen protections for contractors working overseas. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Defense Pledges to Do a Better Job of Sharing Security Information With Overseas Contractors 

The State Department has yet to respond to an industry association letter expressing concern over contractor safety. 

The Defense Department has responded to a national industry association’s request for increased coordination and communication to better protect federal contractors working overseas, but the State Department has yet to issue a reply. 

On Jan. 6 the Professional Services Council, which has over 400 member companies who contract with the federal government, wrote to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and State Secretary Mike Pompeo following the recent deaths of U.S. contractors in Kenya and Iraq. PSC asked for a joint statement to address contractor security and improve how contractors are informed about threats. The Defense Department responded to PSC on Jan 8, but as of Friday afternoon—11 days after the letter was sent—the State Department had not, the contractor group said. 

Defense pledged its commitment to civilian employees, military members and contractors. “My team is working within the department including with the combatant commands and assessing methods to improve sharing of security-related information with our contractor workforce,” wrote Defense Undersecretary for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord. “We continuously assess the best ways to share this information...We will synchronize efforts with our colleagues at the Department of State to ensure the best outcomes.” PSC applauded the response.

Paul Murphy, Bloomberg Government contract analyst, told Government Executive that in fiscal 2019 there were about 97,451 domestic parent vendor entities and about 19,550 foreign ones. He noted that “many companies perform both domestic and overseas work, so the two counts contain duplicates.” 

The United States has become increasingly reliant on contractors for military operations in the post-9/11 era. “Even as the U.S. tries to end those wars and bring more troops home, contractors can stay behind in large numbers to manage the aftermath,” wrote Kathy Gilsinan in The Atlantic on Friday.  

The State Department has been largely silent on other related matters as well. After the contractor was killed in Iraq, tensions increased between the United States and Iran and the United States killed a top Iranian military official, Qasem Soleimani. The Trump administration said Iran had planned to attack four U.S. embassies prior to Soleimani’s killing, but Pompeo did not show up to a hearing on Tuesday to explain the Trump’s administration's conflicting accounts of exactly how many embassies were at risk. The agency also “abruptly canceled two classified congressional briefings Wednesday that were supposed to focus on embassy security and the U.S. relationship with Iran,” Politico reported on Wednesday.

Following CNN’s report on Tuesday that “State Department officials involved in U.S. embassy security were not made aware of imminent threats to four specific U.S. embassies,” some experts questioned the claim that there were specific threats in the first place.

“Sharing threat information is such an established practice,” said Scott Anderson, Brookings fellow, senior editor and counsel for Lawfare and former U.S. diplomat. “I have trouble believing that if the threat information were so specific and viewed as a concrete threat that the embassies need to respond to that it wouldn’t have been passed along on to them in a relatively short order.”

A former senior security State Department official agreed. “I have some doubts that there’s actual actionable intelligence that there were four other embassies that were [targeted] to be attacked,” the former official told Government Executive. “If there was credible threat information ... the four embassies would have been warned. There is something called ‘duty to warn.’ It is a requirement that if anybody in the federal government picks up threat information you must share it with the proper people, the proper mechanisms that are there.”

A State Department spokesperson told Government Executive that the department took “‘all appropriate and prudent” action to protect employees. “State sent a worldwide security warning to every embassy alerting them of potential escalation with Iran and their proxies,” the spokesperson said. “We followed up by calling every Regional Security Officer in the [Gulf Cooperation Council] and Levant to make sure they understood the gravity of the situation. We also asked them if they needed additional [department] assets, agents, or additional resources.  As the secretary has stated, ‘We had specific information on an imminent threat, and those threats ... included attacks on U.S. embassies. Period. Full stop.’ ” Pompeo repeated the claims about the imminent threats in an interview on Friday.

However, the spokesperson could not comment on whether or not the department sent out specific warnings to the four embassies alleged to be under threat of attack.

On Friday afternoon, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, set a new date of Jan. 29 for Pompeo to appear before the committee and said he would subpoena him, if necessary.