Animal House in AfghanistanPosted: September 2, 2009
by Daniel Schulman
Published: Sep. 01, 2009 – Mother Jones
Drunken brawls, prostitutes, hazing and humiliation, taking vodka shots out of buttcracks— no, the perpetrators of these Animal House-like antics aren’t some depraved frat brothers. They are the private security contractors guarding Camp Sullivan, otherwise known as the US Embassy in Kabul.
These allegations, and many more, are contained in a letter sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday by the Project on Government Oversight, which has been investigating the embassy security contract held by ArmorGroup North America (a subsidiary of Wackenhut, which is in turn owned by the security behemoth G4S). The contractor was the subject of a congressional probe earlier this summer that found serious lapses in the company’s handling of the embassy security contract, which internal State Department documents said left the embassy compound “in jeopardy.” Nevertheless, the government opted to extend the company’s 5-year, $189 million contract for another year.
Underscoring the scope of the problems within ArmorGroup’s Afghanistan operation, POGO says that nearly a tenth of the company’s 450-man embassy security force contacted the watchdog group to “express concerns about and provide evidence of a pattern of blatant, longstanding violations of the security contract, and of a pervasive breakdown in the chain of command and guard force discipline and morale.”
In the letter to Clinton, POGO executive director Danielle Brian writes:
This environment has resulted in chronic turnover by U.S./ex-pat guards. According to the State Department, “nearly 90% of the incumbent US/Expats left within the first six months of contract performance.” According to POGO sources, the U.S./ex-pat guard turnover may be as high as 100 percent annually. This untenable turnover prevents the guard force from developing team cohesion, and requires constant training for new replacement recruits. The guards have come to POGO because they say they believe strongly in the mission, but are concerned that many good guards are quitting out of frustration or being fired for refusing to participate in the misconduct, and that those responsible for the misconduct are not being held accountable.
Brian’s letter suggests that Wackenhut Vice President Sam Brinkley, who testified before a Senate panel in June about ArmorGroup’s performance of the embassy contract, may have misled Congress.
Despite Wackenhut Vice President Sam Brinkley’s sworn Senate testimony that “…the Kabul contract has been fully-staffed since January 2009…” the truth is that chronic understaffing of the guard force continues to be a major problem. And evidence suggests Mr. Brinkley knew that. Around March, according to numerous participants, he was confronted by some 50 guards at Camp Sullivan who complained to him directly about a severe, ongoing guard shortage. Then, in an April 2009 memo to a State Department official, U.S. Embassy Kabul guard force Commander Werner Ilic reported that guard shortages had caused chronic sleep deprivation among his men. He described a situation in which guards habitually face 14-hour-day work cycles extending for as many as eight weeks in a row, frequently alternating between day and night shifts. He concluded that “this ultimately diminishes the LGF’s [Local Guard Force’s] ability to provide security.” The contract with the State Department specifies that guards may not be on duty for longer than 12 consecutive hours. Interviewees and documents reveal that short-staffing frequently results in the denial of contractually guaranteed leave and vacation, and that those who do not comply are threatened with termination or actually fired.
But criticisms of failing to meet manpower obligations are nothing compared to the bacchanalian activities ArmorGroup’s personnel were allegedly engaged in.
Guards have come to POGO with allegations and photographic evidence that some supervisors and guards are engaging in near-weekly deviant hazing and humiliation of subordinates. Witnesses report that the highest levels of AGNA management in Kabul are aware of and have personally observed—or even engaged in—these activities, but have done nothing to stop them. Indeed, management has condoned this misconduct, declining to take disciplinary action against those responsible and allowing two of the worst offending supervisors to resign and allegedly move on to work on other U.S. contracts. 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.
Numerous emails, photographs, and videos portray a Lord of the Flies environment. One email from a current guard describes scenes in which guards and supervisors are “peeing on people, eating potato chips out of [buttock] cracks, vodka shots out of [buttock] cracks (there is video of that one), broken doors after drnken [sic] brawls, threats and intimidation from those leaders participating in this activity….” Photograph after photograph shows guards—including supervisors—at parties in various stages of nudity, sometimes fondling each other. These parties take place just a few yards from the housing of other supervisors.
Multiple guards say this deviant hazing has created a climate of fear and coercion, with those who declined to participate often ridiculed, humiliated, demoted, or even fired. The result is an environment that is dangerous and volatile. Some guards have reported barricading themselves in their rooms for fear that those carrying out the hazing will harm them physically. Others have reported that AGNA management has begun to conduct a witch hunt to identify employees who have provided information about this atmosphere to POGO.
These allegations raise serious questions about why ArmorGroup has been allowed to retain this important contract, which gives the company the responsibility for protecting the lives of the hundreds of diplomats, officials, and others who work within the embassy compound. Also in question is the State Department’s ability to provide adequate oversight of contractors under its jurisdiction. It should at least be able to ensure that its embassy doesn’t provide the backdrop for a Contractors Gone Wild video.
POGO is calling on the State Department to launch an independent investigation of the Kabul embassy contract and to “consider initiating suspension and debarment proceedings against the companies ArmorGroup North America.” As for the State Department officials who were supposed to be providing oversight, the watchdog says they, too, should be held accountable. Perhaps as punishment they ought to be forced to watch the buttcrack vodka shot video.
UPDATE: The State Department responds. Plus: Why did a top State official tell Congress in June that ArmorGroup’s performance in Afghanistan “has been and is sound” when internal documents suggest he had reason to belive otherwise?