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Project on Government Oversight

Testimony of Danielle Brian before the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan

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September 14, 2009 | By: Danielle Brian

Testimony of Danielle Brian, Executive Director
Project On Government Oversight (POGO)
before the
Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan
on Oversight of Department of State Security Contracts

I want to thank the Commission for so quickly taking up the important matter of security at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and for asking the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) to testify. The issue here is not about obscene pictures and drunken men. It is about a contractor that has been entrusted with a profoundly important mission—protecting our diplomats and embassy in an increasingly violent war zone, and a federal agency that has utterly failed to oversee that contractor. What is truly obscene is that, practically from Day One, ArmorGroup North America knowingly underperformed in its mission in order to maximize its profits, endangering the diplomats and its own employees in the process—and the Department of State knew about it.

We now know that as far back as 2007, the first year of the contract, an earlier generation of ArmorGroup whistleblowers vigorously pressed management to address all the concerns that have been raised today. When these concerns were dismissed by ArmorGroup, the whistleblowers, the most senior managers running the Kabul Embassy contract at the time, reported the misconduct to a State Department Regional Security Officer. They were fired the next day.

Fast forward to August 2009, when POGO started hearing from ArmorGroup guards.  We discovered a demoralized work force in crisis because they feared they were simply incapable of properly carrying out their mission. Because ArmorGroup failed to hire an adequate number of guards, leave was often revoked and the guards were working 14-hour-day work cycles for as many as eight weeks in a row. The Guard Force Commander himself described the entire guard force as "sleep deprived." In another contract violation, most of the Gurkhas, who make up two-thirds of the guard force and who by all accounts are otherwise conducting their work professionally, require translators when communicating with their English-speaking colleagues. That fact alone makes this a dysfunctional guard force, especially in light of the constant threat of attack. Then we have the deviant behavior by some supervisors and guards, who not only preyed on the young new recruits—many straight out of our military—but who also drew Afghan national employees into behavior forbidden to Muslims. All this in a conservative Muslim country, creating exactly the kind of Sodom and Gomorrah the Taliban depicts America to be.

An analysis by Senator McCaskill's Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, and our own subsequent investigation of whistleblower allegations conclude that responsibility for this serious misconduct by ArmorGroup ultimately lies with the State Department. Time and again, the State Department was made aware of misconduct and contract violations by ArmorGroup. In the first year of the contract alone, the State Department was notified of problems on numerous occasions. For example, according to a complaint recently filed in federal court and documentary evidence reviewed by POGO:

  • The State Department's Assistant Regional Security Officer was informed both verbally and in writing on June 12, 2007, about how the contractor was prioritizing profit over safety concerns.
  • The State Department was told on June 12, 2007, that ArmorGroup trainees were being subjected to hazing, including physical threats and perversions.
  • The State Department was told that ArmorGroup had falsified language qualifications.
  • The State Department was told on February 22, 2008, that members of the guard force were frequenting places where human trafficking was occurring.
  • The State Department received reports in writing on October 26, 2007, that ArmorGroup had violated International Traffic in Arms Regulations.
  • The State Department received an e-mail on September 6, 2007, from an ArmorGroup official reporting that "For now we are OK but if one person gets sick or slips on a banana peel the whole thing falls apart like a cheap suit."

A CBS story last Thursday, "When Did U.S. Know about Embassy Problems?" also indicated that the State Department had been informed of problems at the U.S. Embassy Kabul. Senator Joe Lieberman's office provided a statement to CBS about a meeting between the Senator and yet another whistleblower: "Senator Lieberman's staff met with Mr. Gorman on November 7, 2007, regarding problems with a guard contract for the Kabul embassy. Concerns about this contract have long existed and involved more mundane issues than the sexcapades that are currently making the news. The concerns, for example, focused on not having enough guards, too high of a guard turnover, not enough guards with the ability to speak English, etc. etc. The Senator's staff turned over the information it received from Mr. Gorman to the State Department Inspector General." [Emphasis added]

In addition to the numerous occasions the State Department had been informed of problems, the Department itself issued a number of cure notices and show cause letters citing grave concerns about the performance of the contract.

For the two years of this contract, State's response to whistleblowers' substantiated complaints and to its own findings of severe non-compliance consisted mainly of written reprimands and the  renewal of ArmorGroup's contract.

Throughout POGO's work conducting oversight of federal contractors, we have always believed the onus is on the overseeing governmental body to ensure that a contractor is properly performing. Weak government oversight creates festering sores that breed misconduct. In this case, there is now abundant evidence that the State Department has been incapable of properly handling a contract—or correcting performance—that it has known for two years to be grossly deficient. And it remains stubbornly defensive in not recognizing its failures.

Infuriatingly, in response to the recent revelations, the State Department has repeated baseless statements that "at no time was security jeopardized." Based on what facts can they possibly make those assurances? Four times between June 2007 and March 2009, the State Department itself told ArmorGroup that the inadequate number of guards put "security in jeopardy," "negatively impacted the security posture," caused "serious" and "grave concerns," and "gravely endangers the performance of guard services." NOTHING has changed since those statements were made. Yet the State Department is now assuring the Congress and the Wartime Commission that security at the Embassy is sound? I have last week's shift schedule. I know they are still operating on a schedule that their own commander described as unsustainable and causing sleep deprivation. These public assurances by State are not supported in fact, and make clear the Department does not yet recognize its own role in this public policy failure.

In addition to the inadequate number of guards hired by ArmorGroup, the ongoing failure of two-thirds of the guard force to speak English adequately and the deviant hazing and debaucherous partying also directly affect the security of the Embassy.  Inability to communicate with each other puts the guard force in an impossible situation if they are called to respond to an attack.  With regards to the parties, let me quote one of the guards himself: He wrote to us, "I am convinced the greatest threat to the security of the Embassy is the erosion of the guard force's trust in its leadership and ultimately the Department of State. The failure… to protect those [guards] they have been tasked to lead is unacceptable, and if not held accountable will further compromise our mission." The drain on morale, along with the systematic retaliation against guards who did not participate in the unprofessional activities, has resulted in a near 100% annual turnover rate. This turnover rate feeds back into the guard shortage that causes the excessive overtime. So these other issues do, in fact, have a direct impact on security.

Furthermore, Under Secretary Kennedy's statements in the media that most of these problems were identified in State Department correspondence with ArmorGroup, and therefore "there was oversight present" makes a mockery of oversight. Unless, what he meant was the other meaning of oversight—meaning to overlook.  Simply documenting a problem or even levying a fine is not effective oversight when those same problems continue to occur. The failed oversight also extends to the State Department's Inspector General, whose office, we now know, was contacted two years ago by Senator Lieberman's staff yet never interviewed the whistleblowers to determine the extent of the problems at the U.S. Embassy Kabul.  The many subsequent whistleblowers would not have had to turn to POGO if the IG had done its job.

Even if, as POGO has learned, the State Department is planning to transition security of the U.S. Embassy Kabul from ArmorGroup to trained Afghan nationals over the next three years, that doesn't solve the problem. Nor does simply canceling the ArmorGroup contract (which should be done) or even debarring ArmorGroup, or their parent company Wackenhut, from future government contracts (which should also be done).  A side note on this point: State has evidently believed it had no choice but to continue to rely on this contractor.  However, it is important to remember that when a government contract is terminated, the bulk of the employees—in this case—the guard force, generally are not removed; it is just a handful of people in the management structure that are replaced. Another immediate solution to inadequate State Department oversight is to bring the military in to oversee the performance of the current security contractor. 

At least three problems at the State Department have to be fixed. First, the State Department Regional Security Officers (RSO) must rotate less frequently and have a presence at Camp Sullivan. This will make it more likely that the RSO will have the institutional knowledge, and the proximity, to properly oversee the contract and the contractor's performance. Second, the State Department must stop taking contractors' reports of compliance at face value, and must perform more frequent audits and independent verifications of contractors' compliance. Third, the culture at the State Department must change to one that prioritizes accountability. This cultural shift will be aided by canceling contracts when the contractor consistently underperforms—which will have the added benefit of acting as a deterrent to future contractors—and by disciplining the State Department officials who are responsible for the failed oversight of the ArmorGroup contract.

The larger question is whether or not the security of a U.S. embassy in a combat zone should be identified as an inherently governmental function, and thereby ineligible to be contracted out. Frankly, we don't know. My initial reaction when I began working on this investigation was that maybe the security should be declared inherently governmental; but as I have learned more, as is often the case, the answer has become less clear. On the one hand, the use of private contractors for security in a combat zone poses several dilemmas: the inherent tension between the effective performance of a mission and the financial interests of the contractor – a recent legal filing quotes an ArmorGroup Vice President as dismissing whistleblower concerns because the company is "a publicly held corporation" and that its "ultimate responsibility" is to its investors;  the threat of work-stoppages, which has occurred at the U.S. Embassy Kabul at least twice; and the laws in place do not adequately hold contractors accountable when they violate rules and endanger security in combat zones. On the other hand, the U.S. military is tied up fighting two wars, and let us not forget that we only know about this crisis because of brave private security contract employees who took their mission so seriously that they reached out to us. This question of inherently governmental functions is clearly one that requires careful consideration.

On a final note, I'd like to thank the more than 20 whistleblowers who came forward at great personal risk. The risk they took, and continue to take, is breathtaking. In return for their bravery, they have been called "Rats" by some of their colleagues and woken up to posters on their doors with threats to their jobs and families, all while working 14-hour shifts and, literally, having bombs explode outside the gates of their compound. In response to the facts made public in our letter to Secretary Clinton, the State Department did order ArmorGroup to remove all the supervisors on this contract. However, incredibly those supervisors—after being fired—were not actually removed for days and continued to act in their official capacity, creating an untenable work environment for the many whistleblowers still on the guard force. As of today, not all the bad actors have been removed, and retaliation continues. State is now on site and is asking questions, as well as issuing warnings that retaliation won't be tolerated.  But what will they actually do to protect the whistleblowers? I continue to lose sleep worrying about them. From their public comments, however, I do not get the sense that there is commensurate concern for them at State Department headquarters. Another step towards healing this wound would be for the State Dept to re-hire the whistleblowers who were forced to resign or were fired in retaliation simply for raising concerns or refusing to participate in the misconduct.

Thank you again for looking into this matter. I look forward to answering any questions you may have, and continuing to work with the Commission on your investigation.

____________________________
Additional Resource

POGO Letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding U.S. Embassy in Kabul, September 1, 2009.

 

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