By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
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 a time when the Taliban is intensifying attacks in the Afghan capital, according to an investigation released Tuesday by an independent watchdog group.
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) 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 who live at Camp Sullivan, a few miles from the embassy compound.
The report highlighted occasions when guards brought women believed to be prostitutes into Camp Sullivan and videotaped themselves drinking and partially undressed. It also outlined communications problems among the guards, many of whom don't speak English and have trouble understanding orders from their U.S. supervisors.
"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 a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton outlining the security violations.
The report recommends that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates immediately assign U.S. military personnel to supervise the guards. It also calls on the State Department to hold accountable diplomatic officials who failed to provide adequate oversight of the contract.
"These are very serious allegations, and we are treating them that way," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said. "The secretary and the department have made it clear that we will have zero tolerance for the type of conduct that is alleged in these documents.
The guards work for ArmorGroup North America, which has a $180 million annual contract with the State Department to protect the embassy and the 1,000 diplomats, staffers and Afghan nationals who work there. The State Department renewed the contract in July despite finding numerous performance deficiencies by ArmorGroup in recent years that were the subject of a Senate subcommittee hearing in June.
At the time, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William Moser acknowledged "deficiencies" by the contractor but said "performance on the ground by ArmorGroup North America has been and is sound." Subcommittee Chairman Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) agreed to the renewal of ArmorGroup's contract, though she said she had reservations.
Susan Pitcher, a spokeswoman for Wackenhut Services, the Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., company that owns ArmorGroup, declined to comment on Tuesday's POGO report.
In one incident in May, the report says, 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 the letter to Clinton. 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 duties. Later, two heads of the guard force, Werner Ilic and Jimmy Lemon, issued a "letter of recognition" praising the men for "conspicuous intrepidity" with the State Department logo on the letterhead.
"They were living out some sort of delusion," one of the whistleblower guards said in an interview with The Washington Post from Kabul. "It presented a huge opportunity for an international incident."
The guard, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said he feared retribution, said, "It's insane here. If you didn't go along with the game plan you eventually were going to make a mistake and put yourself in a position" to be let go.
The report said 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.
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 said that as of March, the Defense Department had more contract personnel than troops in Afghanistan.
The 52,300 uniformed U.S. military personnel and 68,200 contractors in Afghanistan at the time of the research "apparently represented the highest recorded percentage of contractors used by DOD in any conflict in the history of the United States," the report said.
About 16 percent of the contractors are involved in providing security, compared with about 10 percent 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 Tuesday.
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.