Commentary

Commentary on the Commission on Wartime Contracting Hearings (Part 2)

In the second of a 3-part series David Isenberg, columnist, analyst, researcher and author of Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq provides analysis and commentary on the transcripts of testimony from the recent hearings by the Commission on Wartime Contracting which took place on the 14th of September in Washington.

Part I | Part II | Part III (coming soon)

Like my previous posts, what I have done below is to copy various excerpts from the hearing. Each excerpt is italicized and indented. Each excerpt is usually followed by my comment in bold. Sometimes I make observations. Sometimes I ask questions. In some cases I feel the excerpt is so fascinating in its own right that it stands on its own and I make no comment.

PANEL II OF A HEARING OF THE COMMISSION ON WARTIME CONTRACTING SUBJECT: THE DEPARTMENT OF STATE AND SECURITY CONTRACTOR MISCONDUCT CHAIRED BY: CHRISTOPHER SHAYS AND MICHAEL THIBAULT WITNESSES: DANIELLE BRIAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT (POGO); TERRY PEARSON, FORMER OPERATIONS SUPERVISOR IN KABUL, RA INTERNATIONAL LOCATION: 2247 RAYBURN HOUSE OFFICE BUILDING, WASHINGTON, D.C. TIME: 11:53 A.M. EDT DATE: MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 2009

MS. BRIAN:

The issue here is really not about obscene pictures and drunken men. It’s about a contractor that has been entrusted with a profoundly important mission — protecting our diplomats and embassy in an increasingly violent war zone — and a federal agency that has utterly failed to oversee that contractor.
What is truly obscene is that ArmorGroup knowingly under- performed in its mission in order to maximize its profits, endangering the diplomats and its own employees in the process, and the Department of State knew about it.
We now know that, as far back as 2007, an earlier generation of ArmorGroup whistleblowers vigorously pressed management to address all the concerns that have been raised today. When these concerns were dismissed by ArmorGroup, the whistleblowers reported the misconduct to a State Department official. They were fired the next day. This may answer some of the questions you have about why other whistleblowers later didn’t go to the State Department. Not only were those people fired, but the State Department never followed up to interview any of those claims that were being made back in 2007.

AG to employees: The truth will only get you fired.

Fast-forward to August 2009, when POGO started hearing from ArmorGroup guards. We discovered a demoralized workforce in crisis because they feared they were incapable of properly carrying out their mission. Because ArmorGroup failed to hire an adequate number of guards, leave was often revoked and the guards were working 14-hour-a- day work cycles for as many as eight weeks in a row. The guard force commander himself described the entire guard force as sleep-deprived.

Indeed, as any military officer would tell you, putting aside whether an attack happens or not, having guards work a 14 hour shift is inherently a security risk.

I have to say I am disturbed that so far in this hearing, as Commissioner Ervin noted, the State Department kept trying to limit the issue to two or three parties. The down side to having those photos is it makes it easy to focus just on those parties, overshadowing what we think are equally significant issues. But I also find it amusing, because we actually have photos of other parties of other dates, and we’re happy to share whatever is of interest to the commission.

Yes, please do share.

But for the past two years, the State Department’s response has consisted mainly of written reprimands and the renewal of ArmorGroup’s contract. Weak government oversight creates festering sores that breeds misconduct, as we see in this case.
Frankly, infuriatingly in response to the recent revelations, the State Department continues to repeat baseless statements that at no time was security jeopardized. Based on what facts can they possibly make those assurances?

To answer Ms. Brian’s question I think we previously established they can’t.

As some of the commissioners have noted, four times between June 7th and March 29th, the State Department itself told ArmorGroup that the inadequate number of guards, quote, “put security in jeopardy,” quote, “negatively impacted the security posture,” caused, quote, “serious and grave concerns” and, quote, “gravely endangers the performance of guard services.”
Nothing has changed since those statements were made. Yet the State Department is now assuring the Congress and the Wartime Commission that security at the embassy is sound.
I have last week’s shift schedule. I know they are still operating on a schedule that their own commander described as unsustainable. These public assurances by State are not supported in fact and make clear the department has not yet recognized its own role in this public-policy failure.

What can one say? Just freaking incredible!

And with regards to the hazing, let me quote one of the guards himself. He wrote to us, “I’m convinced the greatest threat to the security of the embassy is the erosion of the guard forces’s trust in its leadership and ultimately the Department of State.
The drain on morale, along with the systemic retaliation against guards, who did not participate in the unprofessional activities, has resulted in a near 100 percent annual turnover rate. This turnover rate feeds back into the guard shortage that causes the excessive overtime.

And now the guard force has to trust the State Department to fix the problem? Can we say Catch-22?

So these other issues do in fact have a direct impact on security. Furthermore Undersecretary Kennedy’s statement to the media that most of these problems were identified, in State Department correspondence with ArmorGroup, and therefore, quote, “there was oversight present,” makes a mockery of oversight, unless what he meant was the other meaning of oversight, which is meaning to overlook.
Simply documenting a problem and even imposing a fine is not effective oversight, if the problems continue to occur.

Oversight is no sight. No doubt Orwell is laughing.

The failed oversight also extends to the State Department’s inspector general, whose office, we now know, was contacted two years ago by Senator Lieberman’s staff, yet they never interviewed the whistleblowers to determine the extent of the problems.

Oops, never mind what I wrote earlier regarding using the State Department IG hotline.

Additionally, in testimony before the Senate in June, ArmorGroup parent company Wackenhut Vice President Sam Brinkley provided testimony that was also inconsistent with the facts. He asserted that the guard force for the U.S. embassy had been fully staffed since January. However, that March, nearly 50 guards stood before him at Camp Sullivan to point out the guard shortages that required them to be overworked and have their leave revoked. And now Wackenhut is taking some of their guards from our U.S. nuclear weapons facilities to try to patch up this guard shortage.

Ah well, why bother guarding a nuclear power plant?

At that hearing, State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Moser echoed Wackenhut’s false assurances. Who will hold these officials accountable?

To paraphrase King Henry II on Thomas Beckett, will nobody rid me of these incompetent overseer’s?

And finally, it may be necessary to bring the military in to oversee the performance of the security.

Yes, I’m sure they will be happy to, just as soon as they can take a break from training the Afghan army and national police.

On a final note, I would like to thank the more than 20 whistleblowers, who came forward at great personal risk. The risk they took, and continue to take, is breathtaking. In return for their bravery, they have been called rats by some of their colleagues, woken up to posters on their doors with threats to their jobs and families, all while working 14-hour shifts and literally having bombs explode outside the gates of their compound.

Is the Commission talking to these people? One can only hope so.

In response to the scandal, the State Department did ask ArmorGroup to remove all the supervisors on this contract. However, incredibly, those supervisors, after being fired, were not actually removed for days, and continued to act in their official capacity; creating an untenable work environment for the many whistleblowers still on the guard force.

It just gets better and better.

As of today, not all the bad actors have been removed, and retaliation continues. State has issued warnings that retaliation won’t be tolerated, but what will they actually do to protect the whistleblowers? I continue to lose sleep worrying about them. But from their public comments, however, I sense the State Department is perhaps losing sleep focusing more on their own reputation.

Just how bad is it?

MR. THIBAULT: Well, the reason that’s important is, so often in whistleblower cases, there’ll be one or two individuals that bring the whistle and allege wrongdoing, and they’re kind of — the history says sometimes they’re summarily dismissed as disgruntled employees, or about-ready-to-be-fired employees. And in this case, it’s not everyone, but it’s — you know, have you experienced that kind of referral in your past?
MS. BRIAN: That’s a great question. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and there has not been a circumstance that I can point to where such an enormous percentage of individuals have come forward essentially as whistleblowers. It’s — it’s — out of 150 English- speaking guards, we’re speaking to 20 of them. I mean, it’s really quite extraordinary. So it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and it’s a testament to the magnitude of the problem.
David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs and a US Navy veteran. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, and the author of a new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.