State Dept. Corrects Testimony POGO Exposed as Misleading
A week after the Project On Government Oversight exposed recent State Department testimony on embassy security as inaccurate and misleading, the Department has written a letter to members of the U.S. Senate acknowledging that its testimony was wrong and correcting the record.
“Upon review, there were four areas where my testimony contained misstatements, which were inadvertent on my part,” Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick F. Kennedy wrote.
But as he apologized, Kennedy left major questions unanswered.
The issue was security at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, where veterans of the private guard force have told POGO that, in the event of a terrorist attack, a variety of problems could have tragic consequences. At a July 16 hearing, members of a Senate panel expressed concern about security there. One of them, Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), cited POGO’s research—a January report titled, “A ‘Mutiny’ in Kabul: Guards Allege Security Problems Have Put Embassy at Risk,” which was published in partnership with ForeignPolicy.com—and asked Kennedy to respond.
Kennedy dismissed the report as “sensationalized,” and he essentially assured the Senators that their concerns were unfounded.
The heart of his argument was that the contractor currently responsible for providing security at the embassy has proven its effectiveness by twice rebuffing “direct attacks” on the embassy compound.
However, as POGO reported, that never happened, and Kennedy has now conceded the point in a letter to Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight.
While there were direct attacks, Kennedy wrote, “they were not on the embassy compound itself.”
“The guard force did assume defensive positions, but did not have to fire their weapons,” Kennedy wrote.
In addition, at the July hearing, Kennedy was asked about POGO’s account that members of the Kabul Embassy Security Force were required to work a minimum of 72 hours per week. Guards had told POGO that the long hours were compromising their effectiveness and that the protective force was stretched dangerously thin.
Johnson, the subcommittee’s ranking member, posed this question to Kennedy:
“And in this [POGO] report, they’re talking about the contractor [Aegis Defense Services]. Their guards were working 72 hours per week . . . . I mean, right there, that concerns me if that is true. Would you dispute that?”
Kennedy replied: “I absolutely dispute that. I absolutely dispute that.”
But not anymore, as Kennedy explained in his letter to McCaskill. Referring to his Senate testimony, Kennedy wrote, “This was not accurate, and . . . the Aegis guards do have a standard 72-hour work week, consisting of six 12-hour days.”
“We realize that this is a lengthy work week, but it reduces the number of guards that are needed to protect the embassy,” Kennedy added. “If guards worked a 40-hour week, we would need approximately twice the number of guards, which would mean twice the number of housing units, and an increased number of life support contractors, who also need housing,” he wrote.
As POGO has reported, guards allege they have been required to work much more than the standard 72-hour work week; Kennedy did not address that point.
Kennedy, a career official who oversees diplomatic security, was called to testify before a House panel this week about the deadly attack last year on the State Department outpost in Benghazi, Libya. House Republicans argued that senior State Department officials have been insulated from accountability for security failings in Benghazi; Kennedy rebutted that interpretation. The hearing did not explore the situation in Afghanistan.
In apologizing and setting the record straight about his summer testimony, Kennedy was responding to a request from lawmakers. His September 17 letter, posted late Thursday on the subcommittee web site, was written in response to a letter from McCaskill and Johnson asking him how his July testimony squared with information POGO reported.
Kennedy’s letter was noteworthy in other respects. It suggests he intends to rewrite history by editing the official transcript of his July 16 testimony. For example, on the subject of direct attacks on the embassy compound—or the lack thereof—he wrote: “I will re-word this section of the transcript to make it more reflective of conditions on the ground, and provide these edits back to the subcommittee as requested.”
The letter was also noteworthy for what it didn’t say. The Senators had asked Kennedy to explain a broader point—his assertion that the security contact for the embassy in Kabul was “well managed” and “effectively functioning.” In his response, Kennedy repeated that view but did not back it up or elaborate on it. Instead, he suggested that the subcommittee send a staff delegation to Kabul.
The Senators also noted that documents obtained by POGO apparently showed that guard shifts were understaffed. Kennedy did not address that topic.
In addition, the Senators had asked Kennedy to provide information “on any performance waivers received by Aegis or other contractors responsible for security at high-risk embassies since September 11, 2001.” POGO had cited a recent finding by a government panel that the State Department was routinely condoning exceptions to its own security standards, potentially leaving Department employees “exposed to an unacceptable level of risk.”
Kennedy did not provide any information about waivers in his letter. Instead, he concluded: “Department staff will contact your staff on the waiver documents.”