Private guards responsible for protecting what may be the most at-risk U.S. diplomatic mission in the world -- the embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan -- say security weaknesses have left it dangerously vulnerable to attack.
In interviews and written communications with the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), current and former guards said a variety of shortcomings, from inadequate weapons training to an overextended guard force, have compromised security there -- security provided under a half-a-billion-dollar contract with Aegis Defense Services, the U.S. subsidiary of a British firm. “[I]f we ever got seriously hit [by terrorists], there is no doubt in my mind the guard force here would not be able to handle it, and mass casualties and mayhem would ensue,” a guard serving at the embassy wrote in a late November message to POGO.
“[I]f we ever got seriously hit [by terrorists], there is no doubt in my mind the guard force here would not be able to handle it, and mass casualties and mayhem would ensue.”
In July, dissatisfaction boiled over when more than 40 members of the embassy’s Emergency Response Team signed a petition sounding an alarm about embassy security, people familiar with the document said. The petition, submitted to the State Department and Aegis, expressed a “vote of no confidence” in three of the guard force leaders, accusing them of “tactical incompetence” and “a dangerous lack of understanding of the operational environment.” Two guards say they were quickly fired after organizing the petition, in what they called “retaliation.”
A State Department document obtained by POGO describes a “mutiny” among guards who defend the Kabul embassy -- an apparent reference to the petition, though the document does not explicitly mention it. Dated July 18, 2012, and labeled “SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED,” the document says that the mutiny was “baseless” but that it “undermined the chain of command” and “put the security of the Embassy at risk.”
The allegations made by the Kabul guards in their interviews with POGO are all the more disturbing in the wake of congressional and public outcry over the lax security that may have contributed to the deadly attack on Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others in Benghazi, Libya, last September. The official post mortem released by the State Department’s independent commission last month painted the Benghazi facility as a casualty of bureaucratic neglect, and the assistant secretary for diplomatic security resigned. But the situation described by guards in Kabul suggests that diplomatic security problems go far beyond a makeshift, overlooked outpost in eastern Libya.
Following the Benghazi attack, the State Department dispatched teams to assess security at a number of diplomatic posts -- but not to the Kabul embassy because, according to the department, security was already heightened there.
The guards’ charges are simply the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the Kabul embassy.
In 2009, Aegis’s predecessor as the security contractor there, ArmorGroup North America (AGNA), became embroiled in controversy after POGO documented security shortcomings similar to those alleged by Aegis guards -- from a breakdown in the chain of command to long hours, low morale, and alleged retaliatory firings. The organization’s investigation also brought to light lurid photographs of guards engaged in nude, apparently drunken revelry and sexual hazing.
Testifying before a federal commission in September 2009, an executive of AGNA’s parent company said there were “no excuses” for the guards’ “misbehavior” and he was “not here to defend the indefensible.” Though AGNA “suffered from many contractual compliance issues,” Wackenhut Services vice president Samuel Brinkley said in written testimony, “the security of the Embassy was never at risk.”
The State Department chose a replacement for AGNA in 2010 only to conclude months later that that company would be unprepared to begin work on schedule. Aegis was awarded the task in July 2011 and finally took over Kabul embassy protection in June 2012. But, according to the Aegis guards, it rapidly became clear that the security situation was untenable.
Aegis declined to answer questions for this report. "Per our contractual obligations, all questions and inquiries regarding this contract should be directed to the Department of State's Public Affairs Office," company spokesman Joshua C. Huminski wrote.
In a written response to questions, the State Department said that a regional security officer has assessed operations at the embassy and “determined that security policies and procedures are sound.”
The department said it takes seriously the concerns of Aegis personnel. After receiving the petition, the embassy conducted roundtable discussions “with those who wanted to voice their concerns.” According to the department, it “did not request the removal of any contract personnel for voicing their concerns or signing the petition.” Some individuals, it said, “have been removed for other reasons.”
Private Force, Public Duty
An atmosphere of danger pervades everyday life for U.S. personnel in Kabul. Almost a year to the day before the Benghazi attack, insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades at the U.S. compound in Kabul. And on Nov. 21 a Taliban suicide bomber claimed three victims only blocks from the American embassy. A former senior U.S. official who served at the embassy said that security is designed to defend the facility “against direct assaults, one or two or more.... But a...breach in the [embassy] wall followed by a group of suicide bombers, that would be a close call...that would be a bad day.”
The sprawling, heavily fortified facility reflects the threat -- barbed wire, bomb-sniffing dogs, machine gun emplacements, perimeter walls, and towers. The lives of about 1,500 embassy employees -- American and local staff -- are on the line.
As in American embassies around the world, there is a small contingent of U.S. Marines, but their main mission is to protect the chancery and destroy classified materials in the event of a breach. The defense of the embassy falls principally to American and foreign contract guards -- including approximately 100 members of the Emergency Response Team, according to guards POGO interviewed -- overseen by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
In Kabul, the embassy guard force is run by Aegis Defense Services under a federal contract that the State Department said has a “current value” of $497 million. (The full scope of that contract, awarded in July 2011, is unclear; the State Department said it is for security services in Kabul “for one base year plus four option years,” but the department has not responded to a request for clarification.) Aegis has also provided a variety of security services to U.S. efforts in Iraq.
In interviews and emails for this report over the past few months, about a dozen current or former ERT personnel -- all of whom said they are former law enforcement officials or U.S. military veterans who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan -- said they have been worried about the state of security at the embassy. They requested anonymity to avoid retaliation or career setbacks.
One of the biggest problems, guards say, is that their team has been stretched dangerously thin by long hours for days on end and too few people to do the job. Guards have worked 14- and 15-hour workdays, for six or even seven days a week, with limited days off or leave time, sources said. That, in turn, has led to high job turnover, low morale, and other problems, they said.
“It wears you out,” said a former guard and Special Forces veteran now in the United States. “People’s concentration goes away . . . they can’t maintain focus at all.”
“The impact on security is that people are glazed over and they can’t protect the facility.”
“The impact on security is that people are glazed over and they can’t protect the facility,” he added.
A 2010 Bureau of Diplomatic Security document says that the normal government-prescribed workweek for private guards overseas was 72 hours -- 12 hours per day for six days per week. It said contractors were responsible for ensuring that their personnel did not exceed those standards -- except under emergency conditions and with authorization.
Guards said that they were directed to record 12-hour workdays, even though they actually worked for 14 hours or more per day. They said that, after working a six-day week, they have often worked a seventh day without pay. In comparison, for Marine security guards, a State Department manual posted on the department's Web site contemplates "an individual guard workload factor of 36 to 42 hours per week."
The State Department told POGO that no Aegis guard is scheduled to work more than 12 hours per shift. However, during the initial transition from AGNA to Aegis, the department said, “some contract personnel were required to work additional days, partly due to the need for intensive in-service training.”
“Through Government oversight, contract adjustments, and Aegis’ adherence to contract requirements, the number of hours and days the guards worked were limited to contract requirements, and the Department maintained its primary objective of ensuring the safety and security of the Embassy,” the department said.
Several members of the protective force also said they and other guards were rarely if ever given an opportunity to go to the firing range to “qualify” in their use of weapons -- in other words, demonstrate an ability to hit targets. In addition, they said they were often prevented from “zeroing” -- or properly sighting -- guns and optical scopes. One alleged that even “sharpshooters on the embassy roof did not have zeroed weapons.”
“Without a zeroed weapon, I can’t defend myself or the embassy,” said a former guard.
According to one guard who left last summer, some of his colleagues had “never fired their own weapons.”
Others said they were alarmed by a failure to properly inspect vehicles for explosives as they entered the embassy compound. “The whole bomb detection operation at the embassy is disorganized and needs to be looked at to prevent a major incident,” said a veteran dog handler who left Kabul in August. “This is a Pandora’s box. The embassy is a target where they could have another Benghazi, or worse.”
The State Department said all canine alerts are “backed-up by technical means” to determine what steps should be taken.
The department acknowledged that the number of “designated defensive marksmen” --sharpshooters -- declined at one point, adding that it “utilized alternate DDM assets to augment security.”
As for time on the firing range, the department said that the availability of ranges in Kabul “is dependent on the security situation, and Aegis had to adjust scheduled re-qualifications.” But the department denied that any Aegis personnel have been prevented from re-qualifying “on their assigned weapons systems.”
“All weapon systems are calibrated before being put into service,” the department said.
Guards said they voiced concerns about embassy security in regular daily meetings with State Department officials and Aegis supervisors.
In July -- about a month after Aegis had officially begun protecting the embassy -- they put their fears in writing, having quickly determined that the situation was unsafe.
Their petition, signed by some 40 guards, began by accusing leaders of creating “a hostile divided work place.” For example, it alleges that guard force leaders live in comfort at the embassy while the rank-and-file are confined to Spartan barracks several miles away and forced to eat unhygienically prepared food that guards have told POGO regularly made them ill.
More significantly, the petition speaks broadly of leaders’ “tactical incompetence” and “dangerous lack of understanding of the operational environment.”
One of the most serious allegations in the petition describes a senior Aegis security supervisor who posted details about the embassy’s defenses on the social media site LinkedIn. The disclosure included “exact force protection numbers,” the petition says. The petition calls the disclosure “an operational security violation” that “threatens the lives” of the guards and “placed hundreds of American personnel at the Embassy in potential harm’s way, should it end up in the hands of any anti-American extremist.”
POGO obtained a copy of what was said to be the LinkedIn posting. If it was posted on the site, it has since been removed.
The petitioners pleaded for help from the government and their employer. “It is the duty of DOS [Department of State] and AEGIS to protect those Embassy personnel and the ERT [Emergency Response Team] that may have been placed in harm’s way.”
The petition does not explicitly discuss some of the fears that came across most forcefully in POGO’s interviews with guards -- such as their assertion that the guard force has been stretched dangerously thin.
The text of the petition concludes by invoking The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, which, under certain circumstances, shields from retaliation government employees who expose mismanagement, abuse of authority, or danger. Unfortunately for the petitioners, only recently have federal whistleblower protections been extended to State Department contractors.
One guard who helped organize the petition told POGO that shortly after the document reached the State Department and Aegis, he was summoned to appear in front of half a dozen Kabul-based Diplomatic Security officers and an Aegis supervisor. He said he was “grilled” for roughly 90 minutes about what had happened and his own role. That night, he said, he worked a regular shift, only to be awakened the next day and told he would be fired and had 90 minutes to get on a plane out of Kabul.
Roughly a week later, on July 18, the State Department addressed a “MEMORANDUM for Record” to Aegis calling for the “release” -- apparently meaning dismissal -- of another guard who has been described to POGO as a leader of the petition drive and a veteran of the U.S. Army and federal law enforcement.
That memo, a copy of which was obtained by POGO, said the guard held “a critical leadership position.” It added that he “was instrumental in leading a baseless mutiny against the senior operational leadership of the guard force, which undermined the chain of command and ultimately put the security of the Embassy at risk.”
“I was definitely retaliated against,” the guard named in the memo said. “I was bringing up issues to the [State Department’s] Regional Security Officers that they did not want to hear about. They asked me, ‘Did I sign the petition.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ Then I got fired.” The guard did not want to be named in this report to avoid professional repercussions.
Two guards who said they did not sign the petition but were nevertheless critical of embassy security at staff meetings say they were told that if they did not leave the Kabul guard force voluntarily, they would be fired. They have since returned to the United States. "I was terminated for telling the truth,” one of them said.
Partly as a result of the scandal involving Aegis’s predecessor, the congressionally mandated bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan held a hearing and warned in 2009 that the system was broken, in part because it called for approving the lowest acceptable bid. This in turn encouraged companies to “under-bid” to win awards and then “use every means possible to limit costs.”
Though Congress subsequently allowed security contracts, including the Aegis contract, to be awarded on a more subjective basis, the allegations from the Kabul embassy guards suggest that problems with private contractors persist.
Last month, as a review board reported its findings about the Benghazi fiasco, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote that after the attack “we took immediate steps to further protect our people and posts in high threat areas, working closely with the Department of Defense.”
Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides later testified that some 225 Marines would be sent to so-called medium and high-threat posts, “where they will serve as visible deterrents to hostile acts.” The State Department is also seeking to hire more than 150 additional diplomatic security personnel, an increase of 5 percent, he said.
However, it remains unclear what specific steps have been or will be taken to reinforce security at the embassy in Kabul. A State Department spokeswoman declined to say.
“We do not release details about our security procedures,” the department said.
As part of the broader response to the Benghazi killings, Nides testified that the government dispatched teams to assess security at 19 posts in 13 countries.
Apparently, the embassy in Kabul was not one of them.
The State Department told POGO that security was already heightened at that post and therefore “it was determined that the inter-agency assessment teams would be best utilized at other locations.”
When asked about increased security at the Kabul embassy, one guard wrote POGO on December 21, saying, “No I have not seen an increase of security at all, in fact probably a decrease with everyone quitting and such."
Clinton, who has been recovering from a concussion and blood clot, is scheduled to testify about Benghazi to Congress next week.
This report also appeared in Foreign Policy magazine.
Image: U.S. Forces return fire during a Sept. 13, 2011 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. By Flickr user DVIDSHUB