September 2, 2009 in Nation/World

Afghanistan contractor investigation finds rampant misconduct

Ann Scott Tyson Washington Post
 

WASHINGTON – Private security contractors who guard the U.S. Embassy in Kabul have engaged in lewd behavior and hazed subordinates, demoralizing the undermanned force and posing a “significant threat” to security at time when the Taliban is intensifying attacks in the Afghan capital, according to an investigation released Tuesday by a government watchdog group.

The Project on Government Oversight launched the probe after more than a dozen security guards contacted the group to report misconduct and morale problems within the force of 450 guards living at Camp Sullivan, a few miles from the U.S. Embassy compound.

In one incident in May, more than a dozen guards took weapons, night vision goggles and other key equipment and engaged in an unauthorized “cowboy” mission in Kabul, leaving the embassy “largely night blind,” POGO wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton outlining the security violations.

The guards dressed in Afghan tunics and scarves in violation of contract rules and hid in abandoned buildings in a reconnaissance mission that was not part of their training or mission. Later two heads of the guard force, Werner Ilic and Jimmy Lemon, issued a “letter of recognition” praising the men for “conspicuous intrepidity (sic)” with the U.S. State Department logo on the letterhead.

“They were living out some sort of delusion,” one of the whistle-blower guards said Tuesday in an interview with the Washington Post from Kabul. “It presented a huge opportunity for an international incident,” said the guard, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution.

The report recommends that Defense Secretary Robert Gates immediately assign U.S. military personnel to supervise the guards and remove the management of the current force. It also calls on the State Department to hold accountable diplomatic officials who failed to provide adequate oversight of the contract.

The report also found that supervisors held near-weekly parties in which they urinated on themselves and others, drank vodka poured off each other’s exposed buttocks, fondled and kissed one another and gallivanted around virtually nude. Photos and video of the escapades were released with the POGO investigation.

“The lewd and deviant behavior of approximately 30 supervisors and guards has resulted in complete distrust of leadership and a breakdown of the chain of command, compromising security,” POGO said in the letter to Clinton.

The guards work for ArmorGroup North America, which has an $180 million annual contract with the State Department to secure the embassy and the 1,000 diplomats, staff and Afghan nationals who work there. The State Department renewed the contract in July despite finding numerous performance deficiencies by ArmorGroup in recent years which were the subject of a Senate subcommittee hearing in June.

Susan Pitcher, a spokeswoman for Wackenhut Services, Inc., the Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., company that owns ArmorGroup, declined to comment on Tuesday’s POGO report.

Conduct of contractors providing security in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the subject of controversy and other investigations in recent years. The government relies heavily on such contractors for security and other needs.

A new Congressional Research Service report has found that as of March, the Defense Department had more contract personnel than troops in Afghanistan.

The 52,300 uniformed U.S. military and 68,200 contractors in Afghanistan at that time “apparently represented the highest recorded percentage of contractors used by DOD (Defense Department) in any conflict in the history of the United States,” the report said.

Some 16 percent of the contractors are involved in providing security, a much higher percentage than the 10 percent that were used in Iraq. Although contractors provide many essential services, “they also pose management challenges in monitoring performance and preventing fraud,” according to Steven Aftergood, who first disclosed the congressional report on his Secrecy News Web site.


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