As the nation braces for any retaliation a U.S. military strike on Syria could trigger, interviews with security personnel and documents obtained by the Project On Government Oversight show gaps in the defenses at the U.S. embassy in war-torn Afghanistan long after a deadly attack in Benghazi brutally reminded Washington of the risks.
In the past, in interviews and correspondence with POGO, people who served on the Kabul embassy guard force described security problems only on condition of anonymity. Now, some have agreed to be identified by name to call attention to conditions that they fear will lead to tragedy.
In addition, POGO has obtained a series of previously unpublished internal documents generated by Aegis Defense Services, the contractor responsible for protecting the embassy, that buttress those claims by illustrating guard shortages, especially in key slots.
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.”
The guards’ assessment and the documented gaps in guard force shifts contrast with the account a senior State Department official gave in recent Senate testimony.
“Currently in Kabul we have a well-managed, effectively functioning contract that provides security to protect our people and facilities,” Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy said on July 16.
The new information is all the more remarkable because, in the year since a U.S. ambassador and other Americans were killed in Benghazi, government officials have said they were focused on diplomatic security. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor, John Kerry, have spoken forcefully of the need to bolster protection for U.S. diplomatic installations around the world. The State Department temporarily closed 19 posts last month for fear they could be targets of terrorist attacks. The issue is as timely now as ever—not only because of the situation in Syria, but also because this week marks the anniversary of the 2012 killings in Benghazi, a 2011 assault on the Kabul embassy, and the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on Washington and New York.
In the Afghan capital, Aegis has been protecting the U.S. embassy since the middle of last year. The company is operating under a State Department contract that the Department has said could be worth $457 million over multiple years. As of several months ago, about 1,500 diplomats and staff members were working at the U.S. embassy compound.
It’s a dangerous neighborhood.
As high turnover has allegedly afflicted the heavily armed Kabul Embassy Security Force (KESF), Taliban terror incidents have produced scores of casualties in and around the city. When word of an attack on NATO headquarters spread among defenders of other U.S. installations in June, the Kabul embassy moved to high-alert, including a lockdown status known as Force Protection Condition Delta, according to one report from the scene supplied to POGO.
The embassy itself never came under fire in that episode. If it had, a guard said, the situation could have been dire. The guard emailed: “From my point of view this embassy won’t survive a direct attack.” He added: “I can’t do this much longer .... I’m not dying for these people.”
What the Documents Show
Aegis documents obtained by POGO include staffing rosters sent to guards, supervisors, and State Department overseers of the KESF. They show both the number of personnel “needed” to do the job as well as those actually “working” in a variety of job categories.
Documents from February and March 2013 make clear, for example, that the night shift of the protective force often included only about 86 percent of “needed” staff. According to guard force members interviewed by POGO, personnel shortages were also a problem during daylight hours, a time when heightened traffic in and out of the embassy requires additional security personnel whom, they say, Aegis was often unable to supply.
The personnel gaps shown in documents include highly sensitive functions which, according to supervisors and guards, have a direct impact on embassy security. Only half of “needed” medics are shown as being present, for example. “This means that if there’s an attack, you cannot treat wounded, depending on the number of casualties,” one former Aegis supervisor told POGO.
The records also show another recurring deficit: shortages in the number of guards on the ERT, a key defensive unit.
Citing examples of the staffing rosters, POGO asked the State Department to explain why shifts were understaffed, the full extent of the understaffing since Aegis took over embassy security in mid-2012, any effects of the understaffing, and what the Department has done about it.
“The Department has reviewed all task order compliance documentation and department oversight reports for the dates in question and concludes that effective levels of security programs at U.S. Embassy Kabul were maintained,” the Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security said in an August 16 written response.
Aegis referred all questions to the State Department.
Stephan J. Young, who said he worked as an Aegis shift supervisor in Kabul before returning to the United States in January, also described persistent security weaknesses at the embassy.
The 21-year Marine Corps veteran said he has stayed in regular touch with guards at the embassy, who have continued to report personnel shortages, forcing some to work seven days per week in an attempt to fill gaps in the protective force. Young said that, as recently as the first week of September 2013, he was in contact with a KESF colleague in Kabul who said that staff shortages persist.
“There were many times we were critically short of medics, members of the Emergency Response Team, and regular guards,” Young continued. A supporting force of Nepalese troops hired by Aegis to supplement the American presence was often well below strength, he added.
“In the event of attacks, the embassy and its staff are at risk because in many cases there just aren’t enough guards to do the job,” Young told POGO. At one point last December, “they were pulling guys off night shift duties to fill holes during the day, and it went on for days and days,” he said.
Paying a Price?
A State Department solicitation from 2010 describing what the Department required of contractors in its Worldwide Protective Services program said the Department would deduct from payments to contractors if they provided too few guards. The State Department would not say whether Aegis has incurred deductions.
In a section headlined “PRICE DEDUCTION FOR LESS THAN 100% STAFFING,” the document said staffing shortfalls “have been a major problem” and, therefore, “this contract will have strong incentives to . . . retain high staffing levels throughout the program.”
“If staffing falls below the minimum allowable, or the correct number of personnel are not deployed on time,” the document said, “then in addition to not being able to invoice the hours/days not worked, a reduction in the award price will be made by deducting the shortage amount from the invoice reflecting the staffing shortfall.”
According to the document, the amounts to be deducted were significant. For example: “The deduction amount for guards and support personnel is $1,200 per day.”
Though it is unclear whether the terms spelled out in 2010 have been revised with respect to Aegis, the State Department confirmed that it still assesses damages “in accordance with the deductions clause.”
However, the Department would not say whether it has withheld any money from Aegis.
“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.
POGO also asked the State Department whether it has identified any deficiencies in Aegis’s performance under its Kabul embassy security contract. The Department declined to answer that question in March, citing the same regulation.
Separately, however, a new report on diplomatic security by a high-level independent 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 posted last week 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.”
Veterans of the Kabul Embassy Security Force told POGO that, in meetings, Aegis supervisors informed them that the company could face financial consequences for its staffing levels. According to former guard force personnel, Aegis supervisors would also say that because the State Department believed Aegis was doing a good job, it had decided not to make Aegis pay those consequences.
This happened again and again, guards say. For example, a number of supervisors and guards said that in December 2012, word circulated among KESF members that the State Department was pulling punches to avoid placing a financial burden on Aegis. As one guard who returned from Kabul early this year told POGO: “That’s all anyone [guards] was talking about back in December .... We all heard that the State Department let Aegis off the hook for a lot of money.”
More recently, according to Antonio, the medic, and Boggs, the former shift leader, a Deputy Detail Leader told guards during a morning briefing in June that “we’re doing a great job, so they’re waiving” the financial consequences.
Boggs said he and others were upset to hear that the State Department was letting Aegis off the hook, because they believed that would remove any incentive for Aegis to provide the needed manpower.
Guards Sue Aegis
In January, Aegis became the target of a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of guards who have charged the company with breach of contract and unjust enrichment and are seeking more than $5 million in damages. Among other things, guards claim that Aegis directed them to under-report the number of hours they worked to avoid revealing that they were on the job up to 18 hours per day.
According to a contract filed as an exhibit to the lawsuit, Aegis employees in Kabul were generally supposed to work 72 hours per week—12-hour shifts for six day per week. The lawsuit says they regularly exceeded that, on many occasions working 14- to 18-hour days for six or seven days per week.
Aegis is contesting the matter. Based on a clause in the guards' employment contracts, a judge has ordered the matter into binding arbitration, where the outcomes of disputes are typically kept under wraps.
In June, however, Aegis asked guards to sign a new, one-year contract that contains some significantly different wording. The new contract also calls for six shifts of 12 hours each per week. But it makes clear that even more is expected of the guards. The document, a copy of which was obtained by POGO, says: “[A] typical work day will include some time before and after your shift engaged in Pre- and Post-Shift Activities. However, you will be paid only for each shift worked, regardless of the length of the shift or the amount of time devoted to Pre- or Post-Shift Activities.”
This language amounts to “an admission that there will be significant amounts of uncompensated work,” according to Hillary Schwab, a lawyer for guards who are suing Aegis.
Based on the new contract, for what may be the parts of their job where they are most exposed to attack—when they travel by armored convoy between the embassy compound and the camp where they live—the guards are essentially off the clock.
According to people who say they were offered a chance to sign the new contract, the document was placed on a ping pong table for their inspection and they were given three days to make up their minds.