Clinton Emails: Inside Response to POGO’s Kabul Embassy Exposé

Buried in a State Department dump of nearly 1,400 of Hillary Clinton’s emails on Friday—many of them heavily redacted—are a series of communications documenting the Secretary of State’s apparently deep dismay about revelations contained in a letter she received from Danielle Brian, Executive Director of the Project On Government Oversight. The letter presented detailed evidence of a growing scandal at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

That scandal, most notoriously, involved lurid photographs of members of the private force tasked with protecting the American embassy gathering naked around bonfires drinking vodka and fondling and urinating on each other. Brian’s eight-page letter, sent almost exactly three years before the terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, raised red flags about the security of what was at the time the most sensitive and at-risk American diplomatic facility in the world.

The 2009 letter documented for Secretary Clinton numerous shortcomings in Kabul embassy security and in State Department oversight of a guard force supplied by ArmorGroup, North America (AGNA), owned by Wackenhut Services, Inc. At the time, some 450 guards and supervisors, virtually all former military personnel, protected the embassy’s almost 900 staff as well supporting contractors. In response to the scandal, numerous guards and supervisors were fired; AGNA’s contract—worth as much as $189.3 million if all the option years had been exercised—was not renewed. All the while, and ever since, the State Department firmly maintained that security at the embassy had never been compromised, even as officials expressed shock at the photographs of guards run amok.

What the newly released Kabul embassy emails of Secretary Clinton explicitly show is that the State Department saw itself primarily in a battle to limit public relations damage as it scrambled to manage fallout from the developing fiasco.

POGO’s allegations appear to have reached Clinton and her immediate advisors on the afternoon of September 1 when State Department spokesman Ian Kelly emailed Jacob Sullivan, one of Clinton’s top foreign policy advisors, to ask for guidance in handling the press. In the email, entitled “POGO allegations – documents” [PDF], Kelly asked, “Are you aware of these documents? CNN apparently has them as well and will ask the briefing. We need to say something strong besides default mode ‘there’s an ongoing investigation and I can’t comment.’” Sullivan then forwarded the email to Clinton’s personal aide, Huma Abedin, who told a staffer to print out Brian’s letter for the Secretary, saying “Its very imp” and “Cheryl [Mills, chief of staff] is discussing with hrc [Hillary Rodham Clinton].”

Hillary Clinton email exchange on Kabul Embassy controversy

Late on September 1, Under Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell sent Mills an email entitled “Security Contractors” [PDF], which has been entirely redacted except for the headings “Iraq Aviation Task Order” and “ArmorGroup Kabul.” Clinton personally responded to her chief of staff early the next morning saying, “This whole issue makes me sick. Why we [REDACTED] is an open sore. I also worry that, despite porotestations [sic], State is too passive and accepting. The answer is [REDACTED]. I have some ideas about this to explore.” Clinton’s language seems to reflect views of her Department’s response to the scandal that, for whatever reason, were never expressed publicly by her or anyone else in the administration.

Hillary Clinton staff discuss POGO story

Three days later on September 4, 2009, the Department’s chief spokesman, P.J. Crowley, emailed a group of officials [PDF] that, “We are now in a battle with POGO for ownership of this issue….We need to continue this trend, forcing POGO to react to what we are doing rather than the other way around….we have established momentum on the issue. We should retain it even though it will become more challenging as Congress returns next week.”

In the email, Crowley also writes that, “I don’t necessarily buy into POGO’s Nuremberg defense, that people are exonerated because they were forced to debase themselves.” This appears to refer to a young Army veteran who had recently arrived in Kabul to join the AGNA guard force. His backside was being used for “vodka butt shots” by his supervisors.

On September 14, the “battle for ownership” went to Congress, as Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy was called to testify before the Commission on Wartime Contracting. In his prepared statement, he never once used the word “security” to describe what had happened at the Kabul embassy. He instead characterized events there as “repugnant” personal misconduct and contract mismanagement.

Kennedy would still be answering questions about the private guard force in Kabul four years later. In a series of subsequent articles in 2013 and 2014, POGO revealed contract mismanagement by a new company, Aegis Defense Services, which won the State Department contract that AGNA had lost. In that coverage, citing Aegis internal documents and interviews with guard force personnel, POGO demonstrated that the force was understaffed and that the State Department had apparently failed to levy fines and other penalties that it was legally entitled and even obligated to impose.

Kennedy was called to testify about these ongoing security concerns at the Kabul embassy, this time before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight. Kennedy denied POGO’s assertions that security was still at risk, characterizing POGO’s coverage of the issue as “sensationalized.”

In response, POGO published an article saying that Kennedy’s testimony had been “inaccurate and misleading.” However, subsequent questions for the record from Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) citing POGO’s work forced Kennedy to officially correct the record for his “misstatements.”

POGO is in the process of filing a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the emails that are related to this exchange.