The Iraqi women all took nicknames — Linda, Susan, Kathy, Mary, Angel — to make it easier for the American soldiers to remember them. They had college educations and spoke English well enough to work as interpreters with U.S. combat units, jobs that came with a high mortality rate even off the battlefield: Insurgents targeted them for assassination as collaborators.
Because of the lingering dangers for Iraqis who allied themselves with the Americans, the State Department created a special visa to allow interpreters and other workers into the United States. For most of the women, the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) became a lifeline.
But applying for the visa meant winning the approval of Christopher J. Kirchmeier, a contractor in charge of security badges and clearances on a base inside Baghdad’s Green Zone. An Army counterintelligence specialist who was fluent in Arabic, Kirchmeier had taken leave from his California National Guard unit in 2009 to work for Government Services, a Chantilly-based subsidiary of L-3 Communications.
Kirchmeier, then 26, sexually harassed at least two of the women he was charged with vetting, according to several former co-workers and the women. His alleged conduct was a violation of L-3’s ethics code, which says “physical conduct of a sexual nature is inappropriate in the work place and may be unlawful.” He also punished those who rebuffed his advances or who complained about his behavior by seizing their security badges and sabotaging their visa applications, according to the former co-workers and interpreters who recounted their experiences in a series of interviews.
Kirchmeier, reached by telephone late last year, responded only obliquely to a reporter’s account of the allegations being made against him, calling them “strange.”
“I guess I really made an impression on people,” he added. Declining to speak further without the permission of “people way above me,” he hung up and has not responded to subsequent attempts to reach him.
L-3 and its GSI subsidiary also did not respond to phone and e-mail inquiries about his employment.
Kirchmeier’s superiors at L-3 and in the military knew of his behavior for several months but did nothing about it, according to the interpreters and Maj. David Underwood, an Army officer who supports their claims of harassment. In early December 2009, Underwood, who was then recuperating in Texas from combat wounds suffered in Iraq, e-mailed the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, complaining that Kirchmeier “has been involved in the sexual harassment/intimidation of local national interpreters.”
“Five days later,” Underwood said in a recent interview, “Chris was gone.”
There the matter might have ended, except for a campaign by advocates for the women who have sought to have the government punish Kirchmeier and his superiors at L-3 and in the Army. The women’s supporters also are trying to persuade the State Department to reverse its decision barring one of the women from the United States.
The women have not filed formal charges, and any attempt to prosecute a defense contractor under military law probably would be challenged.
Still, one of the women has given a sworn statement to the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division, and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who chairs the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee on contracting oversight, formally asked Defense Department Inspector General Gordon S. Heddell to look into the allegations last month.
Citing documents provided to her office, McCaskill wrote that Kirchmeier “has engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment of Iraqi female interpreters and has used threats or intimidation to quiet individuals who would otherwise have reported his behavior to the appropriate authorities.”
A California National Guard spokesman said Kirchmeier remains eligible for redeployment to Iraq or elsewhere.
“There are no flagging actions on his file,” Capt. Jonathan Shiroma said.
Josh Phipps, a fellow L-3 counter-intelligence specialist who was Kirchmeier’s roommate at Forward Operating Base Prosperity, the facility in the Green Zone where they worked, says his erstwhile friend abused his authority by seeking retribution against interpreters who resisted his advances.
“He dug up as much dirt on people as he could and got them fired,” Phipps said.
Kirchmeier’s unit “had immense power,” said Underwood, the Army major who informed Odierno about the case, “because it did background checks [on Iraqis] for everyone” in the Green Zone, including the U.S. Embassy.
Although Kirchmeier’s relations with several Iraqi women drew notice, it was his treatment of an interpreter known as Linda, who had worked with U.S. combat units for nearly six years, that provoked particular anger.
Linda and another interpreter agreed to be interviewed on condition that they be identified only by their American nicknames.
She “was the best interpreter I ever worked with,” Underwood, who served two combat tours in Iraq, wrote to Odierno, according to copies of the e-mails Underwood provided to The Washington Post. “She was honest, loyal, and courageous. In the five years I have known her she has always been loyal to the U.S., and has a long list of former bosses who think she is an incredible person.”
After she resisted Kirchmeier’s “advances,” Underwood wrote, the contractor “had her fired and kicked off” the forward operating base.
She fled to the Danish Embassy, where she had worked part time. “After that I stayed in the embassy for about three months without going outside the embassy because I cannot move in the Green Zone without a badge,” she said in an e-mail.
The Danish ambassador, Mikael Winther, petitioned Col. Steven J. Bensend, a senior commander at FOB Prosperity, to revisit the woman’s case. Bensend declined, saying Linda had been “rightfully terminated,” partly on the basis of “an information security concern.”
In an interview in November, Bensend, now retired, declined to explain his reasons for turning down Winther’s request. “I did not do a full investigation, but other entities did. That’s as far as I’ll go on that,” he said.
Underwood’s Dec. 8, 2009, e-mail to Odierno carried the subject line: “Sir, Help, Please.” The response was nearly immediate.
“Dave, this is BG [Brig. Gen.] Joe Anderson, Gen. Odierno’s Chief of Staff,” the reply read. “[The] situation is currently under investigation and we will sort all of this out.”
Indeed, right after Underwood’s complaint, Linda says, two agents from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division tracked her down and took a statement from her, which she has retained.
“I told them the whole story about Chris, about the sexual harassment,” she said in an interview, “how he was harassing me and other females.”
When Linda asked what would happen to him, she says, “They told me Chris was already gone.”
A spokesman for the CID declined to address Linda’s case directly but said cases of sexual harassment “do not meet the threshold of criminality to warrant a CID investigation.” Instead, he said, such cases are referred to unit commanders for disposition. Through spokesmen, Odierno and Anderson declined to comment on Underwood’s account.
Underwood did not know Kirchmeier personally but had heard complaints about him from one of the interpreters and an American co-worker. Even after Kirchmeier was removed from his post, Underwood said, he felt compelled to press embassy officials repeatedly to explain their decision not to give Linda a visa.
Nomi Seltzer, the U.S. Embassy’s Immigrant Visa Unit chief, told him in a May 2010 e-mail that there was “a plethora of information regarding [Linda] to which you are not privy.”
Underwood remains unconvinced by those assertions. “Why isn’t she in prison? Why wasn’t she detained for whatever it was that was so bad?” he asked in recent interview with The Washington Post.
Another interpreter under Kirchmeier’s purview, a former PhD candidate in economics at Baghdad University, said in an e-mail to The Post that he “had relationships with many girls, brought many girls to his room” and “propositioned another girl for job.”
“If he didn’t like a girl,” the woman said, “he fired them without reason.”
After a November 2009 run-in with one of Kirchmeier’s subordinates, the interpreter’s security badge was confiscated, and she was immediately escorted to the gate.
“It was seven o’clock at night,” she said in a telephone interview from Iraq. “The situation outside the Green Zone was very bad. They didn’t care about me or what happened. I asked for 24 hours, but they would not allow it.”
She said she escaped to a hotel, then hid in a hospital for three days before making her way home.
She remains mainly in hiding, she says, out of fear that her work for the Americans, who no longer protect her, will get her killed.
After a brazen kidnapping attempt by armed men in a Baghdad shopping arcade, Linda fled to Europe with her daughter. Still fearing retribution, she asked that the country not be identified.
“I had to leave Iraq because I faced death threat many times . . . but recently the threat increased,” she said by telephone. “They said because I worked with the Americans, I betrayed my country . . . and I should be dead for that.”
She had hoped for more from the United States, she added in a January e-mail, shortly after her visa application was turned down by the embassy.
“I served them faithfully and faced death many times and I lost many of my interpreter friends who were burned by IED and explosions. I saw them in small burned pieces in black bags. I went through a lot during these years. Getting SIV visa is small reward for me to start new normal life and to make me feel that I did not waste six years of my life with people who did not appreciate my sacrifices.
“Trust me,” she added, “if I said yes to Chris and had a relationship with him, I wouldn’t be [kept] out of the States now.”
On Jan. 6, the embassy rejected her last attempt to obtain a visa. “We regret to inform you that you will not be eligible for an SIV application,” an official wrote her in an e-mail. “Thank you for your understanding.”