Problems With Embassy Security Contract Crept Up Long Before ArmorGroup

Created: September 04, 2009 18:12 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

A helicopter flies over Afghanistan (U.S. Army photo) A helicopter flies over Afghanistan (U.S. Army photo)

A private security company hired to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul lost its contract with the State Department in 2007 over the failure of its guards to speak English, according to two senior diplomats who worked in the embassy at that time. Yet ArmorGroup, which was hired by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security to replace that company  — and which is currently embroiled in a physical and sexual harassment scandal — was allowed to keep its contract despite exhibiting exactly the same deficiency that those diplomats said jeopardized the security of the embassy.

In late 2006, shortly after the Virginia-based security company MVM took over the protection of the embassy from the British firm Global Risk, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan began to notice problems with the company’s guards. The guards demonstrated “an inability to understand instructions in English that prevented following orders in an emergency situation,” said Ronald Neumann, who served as ambassador in Kabul from 2005 to 2007. Yet that same lack of proficiency in English that Neumann felt endangered the embassy was allowed to recur with ArmorGroup.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

While no security incident in 2006 occurred that overwhelmed the language skills of the guards, Neumann decided to take action. Working with the embassy’s regional security officer, who reported to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Neumann sent out a formal notice, back to the State Department that MVM’s performance “was not adequate for our security.” The State Department sent a “special team” from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security to investigate. Their findings were so evidently serious that MVM lost its contract — something that didn’t even happen after guards working for Blackwater killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in September 2007.

A second senior diplomat, who declined to speak for attribution, who worked in the Kabul embassy at the time confirmed Neumann’s account. “We were sufficiently concerned” about MVM, the second diplomat said, that ultimately the contract of MVM’s predecessor for embassy security, Global Risk, was extended on an interim basis until the contract was re-awarded.

Private security contractors routinely hire non-English speaking guards from the developing world who are willing to work for comparatively little. A former ArmorGroup official, James Sauer, sued the company for unjust termination in 2008, and claimed in an ongoing lawsuit that the guards ArmorGroup hired to protect the embassy in Kabul were “nothing more than slave labor.”

In testimony to a Senate subcommittee in June 2008, William Moser, the deputy assistant secretary of state for logistics management, said that the State Department “terminated a contract with MVM” for securing the Kabul embassy “due to the contractor’s failure to meet contract requirements.” But he did not elaborate to say that a major reason for that termination was the inability for MVM to provide guards with proficiency in English. No one at MVM’s Ashburn, Va. headquarters responded to phone calls seeking comment.

After MVM lost its contract, State awarded the contract for embassy security to ArmorGroup North America, based in McLean, Va. But the language-barrier problem quickly recurred. In April 2008, the State Department sent ArmorGroup a formal advisory that deficiencies with how it did its job were endangering its contract. Among them: “a lack of English proficiency in a large portion of the guard force,” according to a letter sent on Tuesday to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton by Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, summing up a series of whistleblower allegations and Senate investigations brought to the good-government advocate’s attention. But in July 2008, the State Department extended its contract with ArmorGroup for another year — a contract worth $189 million.

That letter disclosed a number of additional alarming claims about ArmorGroup, including widespread physical and sexual harassment of employees, and threats made against Afghan employees. The State Department’s inspector general has opened an inquiry.

A spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Jim Finkle, said the bureau could not comment until after the Labor Day holiday on how the State Department could have allowed ArmorGroup to repeat the same language-proficiency problems that it fired MVM for exhibiting. The Washington Independent will print that explanation when the agency provides it.

But the language-barrier problem extends beyond even the Kabul embassy. According to a senior government official intimately familiar with the operations of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, many of the guards employed by contractor Triple Canopy — also overseen by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security — to protect the embassy similarly have little proficiency with English. “There is a language problem with the guards at the embassy in Iraq,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They are employees Triple Canopy, chiefly from Peru, and they speak virtually no English. That has certainly presented a problem with respect to certain crisis situations. I’m aware of a few, wherein the guards themselves were difficult to call upon in crisis situations.”

The fact that the language barrier for security contractors has existed before ArmorGroup in Afghanistan and persists beyond it in Iraq demonstrates that the Bureau of Diplomatic Security has “not demonstrated in the last several years an ability to overcome these challenges by making hard decisions that could improve the security situation,” said a second senior government official who also requested anonymity. That official attributed those challenges to budgetary constraints placed on the Bureau.

“It shows they haven’t learned the lessons from the past,” said the first senior government official, “namely that an essential element of a good guard at the gate of an embassy is that that guard speak English. That was previously recognized in Afghanistan, that that weakness presented a threat. But in trying to solve the problem, the department instead perpetuated it.”

Brian, the executive director of POGO, said she could not explain how State could fire a security company for hiring guards who could not speak English but then award its contract to a different company that exhibited the same problems. Nor could she explain how lack of English was once a firing offense but killing civilians, as Blackwater did, was not. “It’s impossible to explain State’s behavior,” she said. “There is no logic behind any of these actions.”

She said these failures raise questions about the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s basic competence with reigning in its contractors. “It’s hard to see [the Diplomatic Security bureau] having any role in overseeing contracts anymore,” she said.