Profiting in Afghanistan

Walter Pincus
Reporter February 22, 2012

The U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command on Feb. 1 approved a $330 million five-month extension on a five-year contract.

That contract now totals $2.3 billion and provides more than 8,000 interpreters working for U.S. forces at 200 sites in Afghanistan.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

The Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) contract extension is another reminder of the varied expenses of this war and how some people are profiting.

In Columbus, Ohio, in 2004, a police officer and two Special Forces reservists who spoke Arabic started Mission Essential Personnel (MEP). The goal was to provide language and security training to the U.S. government and corporations focused on the Middle East.

MEP really began to grow in 2005 with a 30-month State Department contract for interpreters and security services at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. But the big breakthrough came in 2007, when MEP, as a “small business,” won the contract that INSCOM extended last week.

The original ceiling was to be $703 million, but as more troops kept coming, the ceiling rose by $78.5 million in March 2010 and by $679 million in May 2010. By last March there was an additional $525 million.

The Army wanted to put out a new contract for competition in late 2010, but a series of appeals and threatened court actions by prospective bidders delayed the final offering. The result was the latest extension for MEP.

Meanwhile, as the Army said in its justification document, “the need for linguists in theater evolves on a daily basis while remaining critical to current and future operations.”

Afghanistan’s population is spread out, with a high illiteracy rate and “dozens of languages and dialects.” The number of linguists needed by U.S. troops far “exceeded the number of locals that could take jobs,” according to the Army.

In addition, there are three types of interpreters needed — locals and others who have no security clearances; U.S. citizens who have secret clearances; and U.S. citizens with top-secret clearances and “capable of supporting continuous operations on a 24/7 basis in austere/hostile locations throughout Afghanistan,” according to the Army.

Salaries can range from as low as $900 a month for an Afghan to $200,000 or more a year for an American working at forward operating positions. It is a dangerous business, and even more so for Afghans, who become special targets for the Taliban.

MEP in September said that over the years 73 of its employees had been killed, with 312 injured and 10 missing.

In January 2010, one of its interpreters, Nasir Ahmad Ahmadi, went on a rampage and killed two U.S. soldiers at a fire base and wounded another. Ahmadi, a 23-year-old Afghan who had immigrated to the United States in 2009, was in turn fatally shot by a U.S. Army sergeant.

A wrongful-death lawsuit was filed last year against MEP by relatives of the dead soldiers who claimed that Ahmadi had been hired without proper vetting. The company said that Ahmadi had been thoroughly vetted and that his actions were “entirely unforeseeable.” The case is pending.

Meanwhile, MEP is rising on Washington Technology’s list of the 100 biggest defense contractors. It was No. 42 last year, up from No. 62 in 2010. The company was even mentioned at a July 26, 2010, hearing of the Commission on Wartime Contracting.

Former representative Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), co-chairman of the panel, noted that MEP got its interpreter contract increased without competition. Although Shays said that MEP had received at that point more than a billion dollars and “was a great American success story,” he added that it hadn’t had any audits. “Whatever your costs are, you get something plus,” he said, meaning that the company gets a fee and whatever its operating costs are.

MEP’s then-chief executive Chris Taylor responded that the Defense Department’s auditors were at the company’s offices and that the firm was current on its invoices to the Army.

One element in MEP’s growth that imitates what other big defense contractors have done is to create a “board of advisers” and stock it with former government officials.

Among the current advisory board members are retired Adm. Eric T. Olson, former head of the U.S. Special Operations Command; Michael Chertoff, former secretary of homeland security; John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security and a member of the Defense Policy Board; and David Kilcullen, senior counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David H. Petraeus during the 2007 surge and adviser to the Afghanistan International Security Assistance Force in 2009 and 2010.

According to the Army, there are five applicants for the new Afghanistan interpreter contract, which is scheduled to run for another five years, from 2012 to 2017. MEP is one of the bidders.

It will be interesting to see who wins.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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