State will hire contractor to supervise private embassy guards

The State Department plans to hire a personal services contractor to help supervise a private security company photographed last year hosting rowdy, alcohol-fueled parties near the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

In response to questions from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, Ambassador Eric Boswell said State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security is in the process of selecting and hiring a personal services contractor that will reside at Camp Sullivan, just outside the embassy. A Diplomatic Security special agent currently oversees the camp.

Personal services contractors are hired directly by the government, as opposed to a third-party contractor, under competitive appointments or other procedures required by the civil service laws.

Boswell said the new contractor will have a direct role in supervising employees for ArmorGroup North America, which holds the contract to provide security at the embassy, where about 1,000 Afghan nationals, American staffers and diplomats are stationed. The contractor will "further augment the [regional security officer's] contract oversight responsibilities," wrote Boswell, who is assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security.

A separate personal services contractor will be hired to oversee contract employees from Triple Canopy, which maintains a contract to guard the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.

"The personnel must have experience in managing overseas protective security programs; experience in high threat locations (preferably); and experience in contractual issues related to security operations and regulations governing the use of private security contractors," Boswell wrote in his March 1 response to the Contracting Oversight subcommittee.

The chairwoman of the subcommittee was fast to criticize State's decision.

"I am concerned that the steps taken by the department may not go far enough to ensure that there is sufficient transparency, accountability and oversight of the contract," wrote Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in a March 19 letter to Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary for management at State. "In particular, I am troubled by the decision to employ a contractor to provide contract oversight for the department."

McCaskill requested additional information about the plan as well as details of ArmorGroup's contract deficiencies.

In September 2009, photographs surfaced of ArmorGroup workers at raucous parties at Camp Sullivan. Allegations involved hazing of new employees, sexually harassing Afghan nationals, failing to supply an adequate number of guards, misuse of private property and bringing a prostitute onto the base.

The State Department fired 10 ArmorGroup employees who appeared in the photographs and announced shortly thereafter that it would not exercise the third option year of the firm's contract, which expires on July 1. State plans to solicit bids on a new contract for the guard services.

But, in his letter to McCaskill, Boswell conceded that "due to the complexity of the requirements" it will be necessary to extend ArmorGroup's performance for up to six months "to allow for an orderly transition between contractors." The cost of the extension will be $3.7 million per month, he said.

"The department will continue to maintain a schedule of quarterly program management reviews, meet weekly with AGNA management in Kabul and in Washington, and carefully document and require corrective action for all contract compliance deficiencies," Boswell wrote.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, the watchdog group that released the photos of the ArmorGroup parties, said it appeared State might not have learned from its past mistakes.

"We're distressed that the lesson that the State Department has learned from their poor management of this contract is that they need to rely on a contractor to improve their oversight of their embassy security contractor," Brian said.

State plans to employ more than 400 direct-hire government personnel to augment the surge of military and civilian forces in Afghanistan, Boswell said. The department will assign 180 of the new hires to the embassy in Kabul, including 56 new guard positions under the ArmorGroup contract.

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