Embassy Scandal: A New Abu Ghraib?

Members of the Commission on Wartime Contracting say ArmorGroup's Animal House antics may fuel the Afghan insurgency.

| Mon Sep. 14, 2009 4:02 PM EDT

Will ArmorGroup's embassy scandal inflame the Muslim world in the same way Abu Ghraib did? Members of the Commission on Wartime Contracting, the independent panel established to probe contracting issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, certainly see parallels between the infamous photographs of detainee abuse and those depicting Kabul Embassy guards engaging in a range of lewd conduct. Graphic shots of ArmorGroup personnel cavorting half-naked and participating in humiliating hazing rituals, which have circulated widely online, "provide free recruiting material to the Taliban," Chris Shays, the commission's cochair and a former Republican congressman from Connecticut, said on Monday during a hearing on the State Department's oversight of contractors that focused on the recent allegations against ArmorGroup.

Dov Zakheim, a member of the commission who served as the Pentagon's comptroller during the Bush administration's first term, had a similar take on the fallout of the embassy scandal.  "This is the equivalent of Abu Ghraib," he said, adding later, "that Internet is killing us." 

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The hearing featured testimony by Patrick Kennedy, the State Department's under secretary for management; Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO); Terry Pearson, one of the whistleblowers who raised red flags about the behavior of ArmorGroup personnel in Kabul; and Sam Brinkley, a vice president at ArmorGroup North America's parent company, Wackenhut.

In prepared remarks, Brinkley said he was "personally embarrassed" by the misconduct of the embassy guards. "These personal misbehaviors by individual employees are a stain—a stain that you can trust us to cleanse."

As Zakheim pointed out, however, the taint of the scandal may be hard to get rid of, harming not just the reputations of ArmorGroup, Wackenhut, or the State Department officials on whose watch the abuses occurred, but the US mission in Afghanistan and beyond. "Those Afghans who were there are going to tell their relatives, who are going to tell their tribes, who are going to be the recruits of the Taliban, who are going to shoot our kids in Afghanistan," he said.

Kennedy was repeatedly questioned by the commission on why State Department officials had failed to uncover the misconduct of ArmorGroup employees, which included wild parties that were anything but discreet and were fueled by alcohol purchased at the embassy commissary and transported to nearby Camp Sullivan, where the guards live.

"I take responsibility for having failed to prevent them and for having not uncovered them earlier," Kennedy told the commission, while also defending his agency's decision to twice renew ArmorGroup's contract despite repeated complaints about the company's performance. Pressed several times on whether the State Department would remove ArmorGroup from the embassy contract, Kennedy gave the strongest indication to date that the agency may indeed give the company the boot. "We are seeing a very, very serious case being made for termination," he said.

But severing ties with the ArmorGroup may not prove so easy. As a lengthy paper trail of State Department warnings shows, the agency tolerated a litany of contractual infractions by the company, ranging from chronic understaffing to guard personnel who resorted to pantomime to bridge the language barrier, without taking the next step and firing ArmorGroup. Why? As Kennedy explained, the State Department has struggled to find contractors who are up to the task of safeguarding the US embassies in Kabul and Baghdad. In 2005, State was forced to rescind its contract with security firm MVM after the agency found the company unable to meet its requirements. When State looked for a replacement, it received proposals from eight firms, only two of which the agency deemed capable of actually handling the job.

In 2007, the work was awarded to the lowest of those bidders, ArmorGroup, whose parent company, Wackenhut, now says it's losing money on the $189 million embassy contract. Wackenhut—itself a subsidiary of a larger security company, G4S, which acquired AmorGroup in 2008—also bid on the embassy job, but was one of the six firms the State Department believed wasn't up to the task. The irony is that by 2008, a company the State Department rejected for the job was now in charge of correcting the numerous contract deficiencies of its new subsidiary, which had by this time failed repeatedly to remedy the issues raised by the State Department. Even so, when the embassy contract came up for renewal in 2008 and Wackenhut "committed to resolve all outstanding issues," the State Department decided to give ArmorGroup another shot, Kennedy said.

Since the embassy scandal broke, the State Department has been harshly criticized for its handling of the contract and has faced questions over how its personnel could have missed serious abuses going on right under their noses. "The State Department is utterly complicit," POGO's Danielle Brian told me.

Kennedy, and other State Department officials who accompanied him to the hearing, maintained that the agency's diplomatic security officials had never been made aware of the hard-partying ways or hazing routines of ArmorGroup personnel. Their statements are at odds with the version of events laid out by James Gordon, ArmorGroup North America's former director of operations, in a recent lawuit he filed against his former employer and Wackenhut.

According to Gordon's complaint [PDF], he and two other senior ArmorGroup staffers received reports that "recruits for guard force positions who were then in pre-deployment training in Texas had been engaging in lewd, aberrant, and sexually deviant behavior, including sexual hazing, urination on one another and equipment, bullying, 'mooning,' exposing themselves, excessive drinking, and other conduct making them unfit for service on the contract." On June 12, 2007, after they had informed top ArmorGroup officials and no action was taken, Gordon says, he and his colleagues approached the State Department's assistant regional security officer in Kabul. "They informed him that AGNA personnel were not being properly screened and vetted and complained about AGNA’s hiring of an employee 'who had been fired from a previous project for pulling a pistol on another employee while drunk.' They further complained that 'the training program run for new hires has been plagued with hazing and intimidation of students by students. This included physical threats and perversions.'" The assistant RSO, Gordon's complaint states, "advised them that given the seriousness of the concerns they had raised, he would immediately report the information to the Regional Security Officer and to the Department of State in Washington, DC." The following day, however, Gordon's colleagues were fired by ArmorGroup. Gordon says he was ultimately forced out himself. Meanwhile, the State Department failed to take action until after the Project on Government Oversight sent a public letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month, detailing a host of eye-raising charges about ArmorGroup's handling of the embassy contract.

During Monday's hearing, Kennedy insisted that his agency has "had in place a rigorous regime of oversight" for contractors. But members of the commission seemed skeptical. "If there weren't pictures, all of this stuff would be continuing," said Shays.

Terry Pearson, a 23-year veteran of the British Army who until recently worked for ArmorGroup subcontractor RAI in Kabul, gave the committee a written firsthand account of the lurid conduct shown in the photos:

One night in the summer of 2009, about 2100 hrs, I was approached by a member of Charlie shift, to see if they could use the fire hoses we had at the front gate to mix cement, to fill up swimming pools they were using at their shift party. I called up one of my staff and told them to come and get them, and fill the pools up. It was about 10 minutes later; I decided to go down myself to ensure that these hoses came back. About 30 people were present.

This was the first time I had seen one of [the] Charlie shift parties. The first thing that struck me was they had a metal container in the middle of the road, on which they were burning wooden pallets. The second thought that went through my mind was alcohol and a fire this size, looked very unsafe. Most of people there were wearing underwear, but many were also wearing coconut shell braziers [sic] and coconut shells over their groins, and were for the best part naked. Some were standing there urinating on the ground and on each other.

One person who had apparently run out of urine, took the fire hose from one of my staff and put it between his legs. It was at this stage I realized I had three Afghan nationals standing in the center of all the activity. I told them to get the hose and go back to the front gate. This was the first time I had seen one of these parties, which had been going on since morning. I was annoyed and disgusted [at] the way they were acting and the way some were dressed. I had 3 female third country nationals who worked about 30 ft away from where this was going on, and during the day, there were also about 60-plus Afghans present, two of whom were females.

Pearson says he was forced out by his employer, RAI, for blowing the whistle on the conduct of ArmorGroup personnel. The companies, he told the commission, "had a distorted honor code—Keep Your Mouth Shut." He added, "There was simply no accountability in the system, no matter how outrageous the behavior or contract violations."

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