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Contractors Under Scrutiny at U.S. Embassy in Kabul

September 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A nonpartisan watchdog on Tuesday charged that language barriers, overwork, and lewd behavior by U.S. government contractors are undermining security at the American embassy in Kabul. Margaret Warner reports.
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MARGARET WARNER: Just two weeks ago, outside NATO headquarters in Kabul, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-filled car at a checkpoint. The blast killed seven people and wounded 91.

But the real target, said a Taliban spokesman, was not the NATO mission, but the U.S. Embassy, part of the same huge installation just down a closed road from the NATO site. As more American troops and treasure pour into Afghanistan, there are new questions about whether one of the most tempting U.S. targets for terrorists, the American Embassy, is being adequately protected.

Today, the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog group, laid out allegations of serious misconduct and security lapses by ArmorGroup. That’s the private security company that guards the Embassy, under a $189 million contract with the State Department.

ArmorGroup, which is owned by a Florida-based firm called Wackenhut deploys a force of 450 men in Kabul. One hundred and fifty are so-called expats, former military and policemen from English-speaking countries. Three hundred are so-called Gurkhas from Nepal or Northern India.

The watchdog group’s letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today detailed allegations from more than a dozen current and former expat ArmorGroup guards.

It said: “The evidence collected calls into question ArmorGroup and Wackenhut’s ability to provide effective security of the embassy” — among the allegations, routine 14-hour days, causing severe sleep deprivation for guards, chronic understaffing, causing frequently revoked leave time, inability to communicate between English-speaking expats and Nepalese Gurkhas, ritual hazing, lewd activity, prostitute use, and alcohol abuse by some expat guards and their supervisors, and low morale, causing 90 to 100 percent annual turnover in the guard force.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project, said the security implications are enormous.

DANIELLE BRIAN, executive director, Project on Government Oversight: We are tremendously concerned because we have a guard force that is sleep-deprived. They are working 14-hour days for weeks on end, with no leave.

They are tremendously demoralized, seeing their supervisors engaged in really bizarre and deviant misconduct. So, it’s ruining the — the chain of command and the level of trust. You have guards that can’t actually speak the same language to each other. So, if there were an incident, the capacity to respond quickly is — is — is practically zero.

MARGARET WARNER: Her group released a video and photos to back up what it called a “Lord of the Flies” atmosphere at the residential camp where the guards live. It shows drunken nudity and lewd hazing of new guard recruits.

And the lewd and deviant behavior, why does that matter?

DANIELLE BRIAN: It devastating to these people, many of whom have lawn enforcement and military background, to — to show up in an environment that is so debaucherous and — and the fact that supervisors are using participation in these kinds of parties as a — as a kind of weapon.

If you don’t participate, we’re going to take you off the preferred — preferred posts. We’re going to make sure, if you have any slight infraction somewhere, we’re going to get it — get you on it.

So, it’s being used as a weapon.

Old allegations resurface

MARGARET WARNER: At the State Department today, spokesman Ian Kelly said Secretary Clinton has ordered a full investigation and has referred the charges to the inspector general as well. He would not address many of the specifics, however.

IAN KELLY, spokesman, State Department: These are very serious allegations. This is -- these particular recommendations are from this -- this particular organization. We're -- we're happy -- we're happy to consider them. But these are -- these are extremely serious questions that you're asking.

And I want to make sure that you get a good answer to it, because, as I say, the -- the security of our colleagues serving overseas is -- is an extremely -- extremely serious matter.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet the concerns about ArmorGroup are not new.

At a June hearing chaired by Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, the State Department and Wackenhut acknowledged problems over the past two years.

William Moser, deputy assistant secretary of state for logistics, said the State Department had repeatedly cited ArmorGroup for deficiencies affecting performance. Moser testified that State was satisfied with the company's response and would renew its contract.

WILLIAM MOSER, deputy assistant secretary of state for logistics management: We have always remained focused on what counts the most, the security of our personnel and facilities in Kabul. The regional security officer in Afghanistan has always reported that, despite the contractual deficiencies, the performance on the ground by ArmorGroup North America has been and is sound.

MARGARET WARNER: Sam Brinkley, vice president of Wackenhut Services, said the firm was rectifying its performance.

SAM BRINKLEY, vice president, Wackenhut Services: We are a guard company that prides itself in doing missions well. We have worked very hard over the last year to make this contract compliant. We are very proud of that. We can do this job. So, we -- from that perspective, operationally, we are proud to do that and proud to make it right.

Former guard speaks

MARGARET WARNER: That's not what this former ArmorGroup guard, a Marine veteran, said he observed as recently as August in Afghanistan.

We agreed to conceal his identity and voice.

He said the language barrier with the Nepalese is as bad as ever.

FORMER ARMORGROUP GUARD: You can't communicate with them. They are -- it's completely -- hand and arm signals don't really work, because, if they were actual military, universal hand and arm signal signs would work.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what would happen in the case of some sort of a terrorist incident? How would you make use of them?

FORMER ARMORGROUP GUARD: You -- you couldn't use them. They would be a liability.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, another one of the allegations concerned what this watchdog group called a kind of "Lord of the Flies" atmosphere out at Camp Sullivan, the place where you and the other guards lived, drunken parties, lewd hazing. Did you experience any of that?

FORMER ARMORGROUP GUARD: Yes. I -- I did not experience personally. But I have seen it out there. And they was just -- it was -- it was mind-blowing, to be honest with you. I mean, you can't believe the conduct of some of these individuals in the presence of leadership.

MARGARET WARNER: So, why does this kind of behavior, this -- this hazing and so on -- how does it actually affect the effectiveness of the force?

FORMER ARMORGROUP GUARD: Well, it affects the effectiveness of the force, I believe, in the main way is because of the turnover rate. I mean, as you can see from some of the records there, I mean, we have had over 40 guards walk off the job at one time.

MARGARET WARNER: So, finally, let me ask you, did you take -- have you taken these complaints -- before talking to the watchdog group, did you take them to the supervisors of ArmorGroup or Wackenhut, or to the State Department security officer who is supposed to be overseeing all of this?

FORMER ARMORGROUP GUARD: First, you're not allowed to speak to the State Department people. If you're speaking to a State Department RSO, and it could be anything demeaning to ArmorGroup North America, then you're fired.

MARGARET WARNER: Late today, Senator McCaskill released a letter she wrote to the State Department urging a thorough review of the allegations and demanding all documents related to ArmorGroup's performance in Afghanistan.

As for ArmorGroup and its corporate parent, Wackenhut, they did not respond to our repeated requests for comment.