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State Department’s Lax Contractor Oversight an Enduring Problem

Republican_Palace_Baghdad.jpg
Republican_Palace_Baghdad.jpg

Blackwater Security guards U.S. State Department employees in Baghdad. (Flickr: jamesdale10)

It remains one of the great ironies of the past eight years of war: while the government’s use of private security contractors has garnered no end of criticism, few realize that the highest-profile blunders and abuses have come from companies that work not for the Pentagon, but for the State Department.

Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, whose employees drunkenly shot a bodyguard for an Iraqi vice president and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in September 2007. It remains one of the recipients of State’s Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract.

Nationalsecurity.jpg
Nationalsecurity.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

ArmorGroup, the company that hired employees who sexually harassed their Afghan colleagues and engaged in a series of hazing rituals, is still entrusted by State to guard the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

The Defense Department’s contracting branch is hardly without flaws, as years of revelations about diverted funds or missing weapons shipments in Iraq have demonstrated. But many of those revelations came from Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, who focused a harsh eye on the Defense Department for credible allegations of waste, fraud and abuse. “DOD is very proactive in addressing the problems,” said one defense-contracting insider who declined to speak for the record.

The State Department, though, has come under comparatively less scrutiny. “There’s certainly a different perception in the quality of State and Defense security contractors in particular,” said Steve Aftergood, a contracting expert with the Federation of American Scientists. “DOD on the whole seems a little bit more disciplined. The more egregious cases, including the latest, seem to involve State Department contractors.”

This latest case comes in the form of a letter from the Project on Government Oversight to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about ArmorGroup, which holds what’s called a “static security” contract estimated to be worth $180 million to $200 million to guard the perimeter of the U.S. embassy in Kabul. (A separate State contract, to guard diplomats as they move throughout a given area, is currently split between three other security companies: Xe, Triple Canopy and DynCorp.) After receiving numerous anonymous complaints from ArmorGroup employees, POGO executive director Danielle Brian wrote to Clinton on Tuesday to warn of “a pattern of blatant, longstanding violations of the security contract, and of a pervasive breakdown in the chain of command and guard force discipline and morale.” Numerous incidents of physical and sexual harassment were reported to have occurred.

But only half of Brian’s memo focused on ArmorGroup. The rest of it accused the State Department of lax contractor oversight, an atmosphere contributing, Brian alleged, to the abuses. It noted that State officials had placed ArmorGroup on notice for two years, “but its threats have been empty,” as indicated by State re-awarding the static security contract to the company in June 2008 despite having issued it two official notices that the company’s “deficiencies were endangering the performance of the contract.” One of those notices, from 2007, explicitly stated that ArmorGroup’s laxity put “the security of the US Embassy in Kabul … in jeopardy.” Brian’s recommendation was to take embassy security out of the hands of the State Department entirely and give it over to the military.

In a press briefing yesterday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly conceded that the department had warned ArmorGroup of lax discipline and disturbing incidents for years. “We have pointed out to them some of the deficiencies,” Kelly said. “And I can’t answer right now from this podium exactly what they have done in response to this letter.” Yet he said Clinton would have “zero tolerance” for the abuses Brian detailed.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the chairwoman of the Senate’s subcommittee on contractor oversight, wrote Tuesday to Ambassador Patrick Kennedy, the State Department’s undersecretary for management, urging him to “conduct a thorough review of the performance, management, and oversight of this contract.” A spokeswoman for McCaskill, Maria Speiser, said the senator was “quite disappointed” with State’s oversight of ArmorGroup’s contract.

Additionally, the State Department will soon re-award its contract to protect diplomats in conflict zones, known as the Worldwide Protective Services Contract. Despite having been kicked out of Iraq following the shooting incident at Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007, Xe — which is presently the only security company hired by State to protect diplomats in Afghanistan — told The Washington Independent last month that it would seek to retain that contract, estimated to be worth $1.2 billion to the controversial company.

Spokespeople for the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security have repeatedly delayed answering TWI’s questions about the propriety of letting Xe resubmit its bid. Nor did anyone respond to repeated requests to discuss ArmorGroup. But in a previous email to TWI, spokesman Brian Leventhal said the bureau had “increased its staffing levels in Afghanistan to ensure appropriate oversight” — precisely what Brian’s letter questioned — and had placed Diplomatic Security agents in all diplomatic protective details run by security contractors in Afghanistan, alongside “video and audio equipment” in many of them to deter wrongdoing.

Aftergood could not answer why it was that so many problems have persisted with State’s contractors. “It’s not clear who is dropping the ball, but certainly someone is,” he said, speculating that perhaps the Defense Department has had “more time to establish and enforce expectations of a sort that would preclude the total chaos that seems to prevail with some of the State Department’s contractors.”

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