When the State Department under secretary responsible for diplomatic security appeared before a House committee today, the questioning focused on Benghazi—what happened a year ago when a U.S. ambassador and several other Americans were killed there, and whether senior officials have been held accountable.
But as lawmakers of both parties worry about future Benghazis, some questions were left unasked. The next time Patrick F. Kennedy, the under secretary of State for management, is called to testify before Congress, there is much that could be explored about another U.S. diplomatic post—the embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, where veterans of the embassy’s private protective force have told the Project On Government Oversight that security problems could lead to another tragedy.
In testimony at a hearing in July, Kennedy told senators: “Currently in Kabul we have a well-managed, effectively functioning contract that provides security to protect our people and facilities.”
But, as described below, people who have served on the front line of embassy security in Kabul have told POGO a different story. Their fears are described in two reports POGO has published this year, which are available here and here.
In addition, as POGO recently reported, Kennedy gave inaccurate and misleading testimony at the July hearing as he dismissed senators’ concerns about security at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The centerpiece of his argument was that the contractor now protecting the embassy had twice proven itself in battle against enemy attackers. But that didn’t happen.
With context from POGO’s reports on conditions in Kabul, here are nine questions for Under Secretary Kennedy.
1. After the Benghazi attack, the State and Defense departments dispatched teams to assess security at a number of diplomatic posts -- but not to the embassy in war-torn Afghanistan. Why didn’t they send an assessment team to Kabul? Who made the decision not to? Was it the right decision?
As part of the broader response to the Benghazi killings in September 2012, the government sent teams to assess security at 19 posts in 13 countries, Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides testified in December. When POGO asked what, if anything, those teams found in Kabul, the State Department answered that security was already heightened at the embassy in Kabul and, therefore, “it was determined that the inter-agency assessment teams would be best utilized at other locations.”
Had a team been sent to Kabul, it might have learned that dozens of guards at the Kabul embassy signed a petition expressing no confidence in guard force leaders. The petition spoke of leaders’ “tactical incompetence” and “dangerous lack of understanding of the operational environment,” and it accused them of creating “a hostile divided work place.” Some people who described themselves as organizers of the petition allege they were fired in retaliation. A State Department document obtained by POGO seemed to be referring to the protest when it described a “mutiny” among guards that “undermined the chain of command” and “put the security of the Embassy at risk.”
In addition, an assessment team might have heard the same concerns people who have served on the security force in Kabul have expressed to POGO: that the protective force has been stretched dangerously thin by long hours for days on end, receives inadequate training, and has a shortage of guards, among other problems.
2. Was the so-called “mutiny” in the guard force—again, that was the State Department’s word—a reflection of problems with the guard force members, or problems with their overseers, either at the State Department or at the contractor responsible for protecting the embassy, Aegis Defense Services?
In a January interview, former Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who co-chaired the federal Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, put it this way:
“If the accusations are accurate, you’ve got a management problem. If they are not accurate, you’ve got a problem with those who are doing the work. But in either case you’ve got a problem.”
3. What do you know about alleged staffing problems on the Kabul Embassy Security Force, and how long have you known about them? What if anything have you done to address those concerns?
POGO recently reported that internal Aegis documents – nightly staffing rosters—showed fewer guards “working” than “needed.”
In interviews with POGO, former guards say understaffing has been a persistent problem and that it continued long after the attack in Benghazi brutally reminded Washington of the risks. From POGO’s Sept. 9, 2013 report:
J.P. Antonio, a medic who said that in June he left Aegis in good standing for another job, said that understaffing and other security problems were chronic since he began working for the company in Kabul in May 2012. Antonio said that throughout his tenure there were recurring shortages of medics, supervisors, and members of the Emergency Response Team (ERT), a unit composed largely of U.S. Special Forces veterans responsible for security in the event of a crisis.
“If the embassy were attacked, we’d have a huge problem and I don’t want to think about the casualties,” Antonio said.
Thomas Boggs, a former Aegis shift leader for the ERT, echoed Antonio’s account. Boggs said he joined the Aegis guard force in June 2012 and returned to the United States a year later after clashing with Aegis management and being fired. He told POGO that, in the weeks before he left Kabul, the guard force was significantly short of ERT members and other key staff, including supervisors.
“This understaffing just degrades the security of the embassy, and it’s been a constant,” Boggs said. “I can’t remember a time when we had enough people, and it just went on and on.”
4. Is it true that members of Aegis’s Kabul Embassy Security Force have been required to work, at least at a minimum, a standard schedule of 72 hours per week?
Guard employment contracts from 2012 and 2013 specify a standard workweek of 72 hours—12 hours a day for six days per week. That information matches the standard the State Department promulgated during its solicitation for contractors under the Worldwide Protective Services Program. But in a federal lawsuit filed in January against security contractor Aegis Defense Services, guards allege they have worked much more than 72 hours per week. (Aegis has been fighting the lawsuit, and the matter is now in court-ordered arbitration.)
In January, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, Hillary Schwab, told POGO that guards she represents were "overworked, fatigued, and exhausted, which made them unable to carry out their assigned duties protecting the embassy.”
Nonetheless, Kennedy seemed to dispute the 72-hour workweek in his July 16 testimony. Here’s an excerpt from a hearing transcript:
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.): “And in this report, they're talking about the contractor. Their guards were working 72 hours per week, when the State Department's guidelines would be 36 to 42 hour per week. I mean, right there, that concerns me if that is true. Would you dispute that?”
Under Secretary Kennedy: “I absolutely dispute that. I absolutely dispute that.”
5. Is it true, as guards have alleged, that they have been directed to under-report the number of hours they actually worked to avoid revealing that they have been on the job up to 18 hours per day? Is it true, as guards have alleged, that Aegis supervisors “regularly edited employees’ timesheets so that they did not reveal any work beyond the Regular Schedule”? What if anything have you done to look into or address the guards’ allegations?
The allegations are contained in a lawsuit filed in federal court. A copy can be found here.
6. What deficiencies, if any, has the State Department identified in Aegis’s performance under its Kabul embassy security contract? For example, has the State Department issued to Aegis any show cause letters, cure notices, corrective action requests, or similar communications since Aegis was awarded the contract? Are the American people entitled to know these answers about a security contract the State Department has valued at $497 million?
POGO has been unable to obtain this information from the State Department.
7. Has the State Department assessed any administrative sanctions against Aegis, including but not limited to deductions to its pay, fines, or other penalties, financial or non-financial? If so, please provide details. Has the State Department determined that it had grounds to assess any administrative sanctions against Aegis, including but not limited to deductions to its pay, fines, or other penalties? If so, please provide details.
The State Department has confirmed that it has the power to dock contractors’ pay, but it would not tell POGO whether it has used, or had a basis to use, that power with respect to Aegis in Kabul.
“Pursuant to FAR 42.1503,” a federal regulation, “public disclosure of past performance information could cause harm to the government and to the competitive position of the contractor,” the Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security said in an August statement to POGO.
Based on briefings they said they received in Kabul, former guards have said they were concerned that the State Department was letting Aegis off the hook.
8. Has the State Department waived any security standards for Aegis Defense Services or the U.S. embassy in Kabul? If so, please provide details.
A new report on diplomatic security by a panel convened by the government found that the State Department was routinely condoning exceptions to its own standards, according to a copy of the report recently posted by Al Jazeera America.
“Waivers for not meeting security standards have become commonplace in the [State] Department,” the report said, adding that “Department employees, particularly those in high threat areas, could be exposed to an unacceptable level of risk.”
9. Did you testify accurately on July 16 when you said the contractor currently responsible for protecting the U.S. embassy in Kabul has twice rebuffed direct attacks on the U.S. embassy compound there? If so, on what dates did those attacks occur? Please provide a detailed description of the attacks and whatever the contractor, Aegis Defense Services, did to rebuff them.
Here’s what Under Secretary Kennedy said at the July 16 hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight:
“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. And so part of it is, the proof is in the pudding. We were attacked, and we warded off those attacks with no injuries to U.S. government personnel on our compound.”
As POGO recently reported, here is additional information:
POGO asked the State Department to provide dates and details of the “two direct attacks on our embassy compound” to which Kennedy was referring. In an emailed response, an aide to Kennedy cited two incidents involving the embassy compound, but neither of those occurred during the tenure of the current contractor, Aegis Defense Services. Both took place while another company was protecting the embassy.
The Kennedy aide also listed two attacks during the tenure of the current contractor, but neither of those targeted the embassy compound. One, on June 11, 2013, focused on Afghanistan’s Supreme Court. Another, on June 25, 2013, involved a facility known as the U.S. Embassy Annex, which is almost half a mile from the embassy compound. Neither the Supreme Court nor the Annex is covered by the embassy security contract, a point that the Kennedy aide, Christina A. Maier, acknowledged.
“The Embassy guard force in Kabul is not responsible for the Supreme Court or the Embassy Annex across from the Presidential Palace,” Maier wrote.
Image from the Department of State.