Embassy audit finds improper vetting of security contractors

A newly completed internal audit of security contracts at U.S. embassies abroad found that none of those examined had fully complied with vetting and other requirements for contractors who provide the first line of defense against attack.

The audit, to be released Friday by the State Department’s Inspector General, was conducted in the wake of the 2012 attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead. Local guards contracted to secure the perimeter and entry to the diplomatic compound there were found to have fled or failed to perform their duties.

Of six embassies selected for review based on location and terrorism threat level, “none . . . fully performed all vetting requirements” for local guards, placing “embassies and personnel at risk,” the inspector general audit said. Chief diplomatic security officers at five of the six were said to have performed “inadequate oversight” of local guard vetting.

The performance of local security guards was a significant factor raised by the State Department’s Accountability Review Board examination of the Benghazi incident. The ARB report said that security dependence on a local Libyan militia and an inexperienced British-based firm that hired local guards was “misplaced.”

At the time of the visit to Benghazi of U.S. ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, one of the four Americans killed in the attack, militia guards had stopped accompanying official vehicle movements because of a dispute over pay and hours, the ARB report said.

An investigation of the Benghazi attack by the Senate Intelligence Committee found that the U.S. mission had been vandalized and attacked in the months prior to the fatal assault by some of the same guards who were there to protect it.

The new inspector general audit was ordered “to determine whether security contractors had complied with Local Guard Program contract requirements for vetting the suitability of local guards at posts overseas and whether Regional Security Officers had performed adequate oversight of the local guard vetting process,” the audit said.

Although the names of the six embassies reviewed were redacted from the 49-page audit and annexes, it said they were chosen in Africa, Europe and Latin America based on “the estimated number of local guards employed and the terrorist threat level as of March 20, 2013,” among other factors.”

In redacted replies, security chiefs at each of the embassies agreed to recommended changes in their procedures.

The audit noted that compliance had been completed in about half of the recommendations and the rest were in progress but still undocumented by the embassies.

The State Department hires local guards to augment U.S. security “because of growing security threats at posts worldwide,” the audit said. Most “secure access to posts and provide building and residential security.” As of 2012, the total bill for such hires worldwide was about $556 million. In March 2013, the audit said, there were 100 active local hire security contracts worldwide.

Under a contract process centralized in Washington since 2008, vetting requirements for every prospective guard include “a police check covering criminal and/or subversive activities, a credit check, proof of successful previous employment with supervisor recommendations, and a personal residence check.”

Results must be individually approved by the RSO, the head of the embassy security office.

The audit found that 173 local guards at one embassy and about 100 at another were placed on duty by contractors before meeting vetting requirements. At a third embassy, 18 guards were placed on duty before being cleared by the embassy’s security office.

Many of the guard files were incomplete. At five of the six embassies, it said, RSOs “frequently could not demonstrate that they had reviewed or approved the local guards employed to protect their posts,” and that the process for approving guards for duty varied among the embassies.

In one instance, it said, a local guard was assigned to an embassy “for months before his criminal history and use of multiple false identities was discovered.”

At another embassy, the audit determined that a contractor was collecting as much as $l.48 million over a three-year period in wages that were not being paid to guards.

Inspector general visits to the embassies and relevant State Department offices were conducted between March and September last year, although all files were reviewed for all guards who had worked under contracts at the selected posts since October 2010.

In addition to redaction of references to specific embassies, six full pages of the document, titled “Outline for Action,” are listed as “unclassified” but are blacked out in their entirety.

In its response to inspector general recommendations, one of the posts said that checks of financial information about prospective hires were illegal under privacy laws of the country in question, and said that it had “no alternate means to conduct a credit check.”

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