Commentary

Sex and Security in Afghanistan

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in the Asia Times on October 6, 2009.

A report by the Washington, DC, Project on Government Oversight recently released publicly tells of the wild naked antics of members of ArmorGroup (AG), which has a United States State Department contract to provide security for the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Hardly mentioned is the use of local bordellos by some contractors. It took a lawsuit filed on September 9 by James Gordon, a former ArmorGroup director of operations, and subsequent whistleblower, against ArmorGroup North America and associated defendants - ArmorGroup International (AGI), Wackenhut Services Inc (WSI), and various management individuals - to bring details to light. Among other things he charges that AG:

  • Allowed AGNA managers and employees? to frequent brothels notorious for housing trafficked women in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and shutting down the plaintiff’s efforts to investigate and put a stop to these violations.
  • Deliberately withholding documents relating to violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act allegedly committed by AGNA’s program manager and other AGNA employees when responding to a document demand from US Congressman Henry Waxman on behalf of the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

This is not the first time issues of private military and security contractors and sex have come up. But the pattern of not doing anything when offenses are reported remains depressingly familiar.

As an article in the winter issue of the Wisconsin International Law Journal recounts, in 2000, employees of DynCorp Inc, a Virginia-based private military security company (PMSC) employed by the United Nations Police Task Force in the Balkans, were accused of participating in a Bosnian sex slavery ring. Kathryn Bolkovac, a DynCorp employee working as a UN Police Force monitor, reported to her supervisors that her male colleagues had made comments about women they owned. Bolkovac was fired soon after.

It is worth noting that investigations of DynCorp had begun before Bolkovac became involved. In 1999, Bosnian police launched an investigation after local media reported that five male DynCorp employees had purchased female prostitutes from a Serbian organized crime outfit. The Bosnian government informed the commander of the US Regional Task Force of the allegations and the army requested that DynCorp remove the five men within 48 hours.

DynCorp transferred the accused to Germany for investigatory interviews in response to evidence that the accused employees had not only consorted with local mobsters and warned them of imminent raids, but had actually engaged in trafficking themselves. Having effectively removed them from the jurisdiction of the Bosnian police, DynCorp then released the employees without alerting American or international law-enforcement officials of the allegations against them. This satisfied the army.

But at least seven other DynCorp employees, including a supervisor, continued to engage in sex crimes. After overhearing a fellow helicopter mechanic brag, “My girl’s not a day over 12,” then-DynCorp employee Ben Johnston reported this and other trafficking-related activities to the Army Criminal Investigative Command (CID) at Camp Comanche in Dubrave, Bosnia.

The CID began an investigation, but quickly determined that the American military did not have jurisdiction over UN contractor employees. Alerted by CID, the Bosnian police began an investigation, but mistakenly believed that they, too, lacked jurisdiction to arrest UN Task Force contractor employees. By the time the Bosnian police did move to make arrests, the employees in question had been transferred beyond the reach of local authorities. Like Bolkovac, Johnston was fired. His supervisors claimed that he had discredited the company by bringing unsubstantiated charges against his coworkers and that he had “brought discredit to [Dyncorp] and to the US Army”.

In late 2002, Bolkovac won 10,000 pounds sterling (US$16,000 at the current rate) in damages after a British tribunal found that DynCorp Aerospace UK Ltd, a subsidiary of DynCorp, violated the United Kingdom’s whistle-blowing statute - the Public Interest Disclosure Act of 1998 - when the company fired her. DynCorp then agreed to settle a suit brought by Ben Johnston two days before the case went to trial in Texas. The amount of his settlement is confidential.

Nine of the employees investigated by CID and transferred out of the country by DynCorp were Americans. Only seven were fired and none were criminally prosecuted. The employee who had claimed to own a 12-year-old sex slave was among those investigated and allowed to remain with the company. CID agents escorted another man to the airport from where he was flown out of the country.

While still in Bosnia, the man had admitted that he had purchased a Moldovan woman and an Uzi from a local bartender active in the Serbian mob. The employee was subsequently released from his job with DynCorp but was never charged with any crime. Unless the implicated employees return to Bosnian jurisdiction, they cannot be arrested or tried for the trafficking and related sex crimes they committed in 2000.

In a foreshadowing of the current situation with ArmorGroup, Dyncorp denied any culpability. However, it did admit to a battle to control its employees. Back then, DynCorp’s selection procedures for choosing employees to work in Bosnia, which the company claimed was very rigorous and detailed, and subsequent procedures for checking their conduct in the field, failed to separate, or later identify, those who were likely, or did, take advantage of the situation and purchased prostitutes.

DynCorp was not particularly hurt by the scandal. A few weeks after Bolkovac won her damages, the British government announced a Ministry of Defense contract award to a consortium that included DynCorp to supply support services for military firing ranges.

In 2003, it a won multi-million-dollar contract to help train Iraqi police in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Although mindful of what happened in Bosnia, personnel recruited had to acknowledge in writing that human trafficking and involvement with prostitution “are considered illegal by the international community and are immoral, unethical and strictly prohibited”.

For all the claims of the private military and security sector that they don’t condone such behavior, it is important to note the difference between the private and public sectors. A 2005 study “Barracks and Brothels: Peacekeepers and Human Trafficking in the Balkans” by the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that in 2004, the US Department of Defense (DoD), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations each adopted a zero-tolerance policy on trafficking. It also noted that each of these organizations “has been reluctant to address the security implications of misconduct by uniformed service members and civilian contractors, especially involving human rights abuses”.

The report noted that the DoD’s Inspector General’s formal investigation in 2003 into complicity of DoD personnel in the Balkans was superficial and pro forma. Had DoD personnel followed the leads they were given, they would have found evidence of civilian contractor complicity in human trafficking.

In August 2007, there was a brief flap when “Tori” the Escort, from Atlanta, Georgia, announced she was going to be in Baghdad’s Green Zone for an extended tour. Her post on an escort review message board read, “While in the IZ, I am in a unique position of entertaining from a secured compound. I’m entertaining all members of the PMC [private military contractors] community registered with PSCAI [Private Security Company Association of Iraq] with a few stipulations. My compound is within the central population and easy to find.”

In a statement, Lawrence Peter, director of PSCAI, said Tori’s use of the group’s name and logo were unauthorized. “We have not, nor ever will, condone the type of activity suggested,” he said. “We are currently investigating the source of these allegations and any association member found promoting, condoning or participating in these activities will be immediately expelled.”

With events like these as background it is instructive to consider current events.

According to Gordon’s lawsuit on or about November 8, 2007, ArmorGroup North America deputy program manager Jimmy Lemon informed Gordon and Puja Power, the acting director of Human Resources, that AGNA’s armorer (the official in charge of the upkeep of small arms, machine guns and ammunition) was not properly performing his duties and had recently been forcibly removed during work hours from a brothel in Kabul. Gordon instructed Ms Power to initiate action to terminate him at once.

A short time later, Power reported to Gordon that when she confronted the armorer about his misconduct, he stated that he could not be terminated because program manager Nick du Plessis and medic Neville Montefiore had frequented these brothels with him.

Gordon knew that the procurement of commercial sex acts by AGNA employees violated the laws of the United States and the Kabul Embassy contract. He was concerned both because the frequenting of brothels by AGNA personnel raised security concerns about the guard force’s ability to safeguard the US Embassy and because it was well known that young Chinese girls were trafficked to Kabul for commercial sexual exploitation, in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The act and its implementing regulations prohibit contractors, like ArmorGroup and their employees, from engaging in severe forms of trafficking in persons and from procuring commercial sex acts during the period of performance of the contract.

According to the US State Department’s 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report, Afghanistan is a destination for women and girls from China, Iran and Tajikistan trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation. Afghan children also are trafficked within the country for sexual exploitation.

Gordon was especially alarmed because the program manager himself, the top manager in Kabul overseeing the guard force, had been identified as a participant in these unlawful activities. Gordon realized that if AGNA did not conduct a thorough investigation and terminate the wrongdoers, members of the guard force would perceive AGNA’s inaction as a license to engage in similar unlawful activities.

Gordon immediately reported the information he had received from Power to AGNA president Karl Semancik and to the Department of State (DoS) and recommended that AGNA’s corporate management commence a thorough investigation of the matter. Gordon proposed that either he or AGNA’s deputy director of operations, Gregory Vrentas, a former US Army Lieutenant Colonel with the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan, direct the investigation. Semancik concurred that this was the appropriate course of action.

But AG International, the parent corporation, obstructed Gordon’s efforts to ensure that AGNA conduct a full investigation and report all information to DoS. Shortly after receiving his recommendation, Semancik informed Gordon that AGI officials had rejected his plan for either him or Vrentas to direct the investigation, and instead decided that AGI chief operating officer Noel Philp and AGI director of operations Nick Powis would handle the investigation themselves. This plan of action was in direct contravention of both AGNA’s policies and the FOCI program requirements.

Around the same time, Chris Duffy, a temporary medic for AGNA who had relieved Montefiore while he was on leave, noted that there had been an outbreak of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among AGNA workers in 2007. Duffy reported this to Powis in London, who in turn informed Gordon during a routine telephone call that these issues had been uncovered.

Subsequently, Philp and Powis claimed to conduct an investigation into the allegations that AGNA employees, including the program manager, had violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Gordon was denied access to the investigative reports or any information about the nature or extent of the investigation. The only document provided to Gordon was a three-page report of the findings by Philp and Powis. The report stated that Du Plessis was aware that “some members of the workforce had abused the MWR [Moral, Welfare and Recreation] policy for the purpose of seeking out prostitutes, but this represented only a minority against the overall net benefit of having a ‘light-touch’ MWR policy.” No mention was made of the fact that the conduct at issue violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s blanket prohibition of the procurement of commercial sex acts and the DoS’s “zero tolerance” policy for violations of this law.

The only corrective action taken per the report was to direct the program manager to revise the MWR policy, which had allowed AGNA personnel to frequent bars, restaurants and other places in which human trafficking activity occurred.

In a letter dated December 13, 2007, US Congressman Henry A Waxman, then chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a letter to AGI requesting information about ArmorGroup’s security services in Iraq and Afghanistan from January 1, 2003, to the present, as part of the committee’s ongoing investigation into the role of private military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Waxman requested:

all incident reports, investigative reports, correspondence and other documents relating to … (b) all incidents involving improper or unprofessional behavior by company personnel, including all incidents resulting in termination or other disciplinary action against security contractor personnel … (c) all incidents that could reflect negatively on the company or its clients, including all incidents that led to complaints or allegations of misconduct by company personnel. AGI was to provide “a written certification by an authorized company official that ArmorGroup has provided all [responsive] information and documents”.

On or around January 3, 2008, Gordon learned that an AGNA trainee who had previously worked under Du Plessis’ supervision for another security contractor in Kabul had bragged to other employees in training that his primary reason for returning to Kabul was to take advantage of the human trafficking activities there.

This trainee boasted that his friend in Kabul owned a brothel and six Asian women and that he (the trainee) was considering purchasing a woman for US$20,000, thus enabling him to start making a profit on this purchase after a month. Another student who was privy to this conversation reported it to AGNA officials. In addition, a DoS investigator, David Lydek, was on site when the issue was reported and was aware of the allegation.

Gordon promptly obtained a statement from the witness and reported the incident to a DoS official, and to AGNA senior management, including James D Schmitt, then vice president of business development for AGNA, and Jerry Hoffman, then interim chief executive officer of AGNA. In discussions with Schmitt, Gordon insisted that AGNA needed to take decisive action to investigate and repudiate these activities. While they both paid lip service to the seriousness of the allegations, neither took appropriate action to investigate whether such conduct was in fact occurring among the current AGNA guard force.

In mid-to-late January 2008, AGNA formulated a response to Waxman’s document demand that deliberately omitted inclusion of any documents relating to the allegations that AGNA’s program manager, armorer and medic frequented brothels, the outbreak of STDs among the workforce, or the incident involving the trainee referenced above.

Gordon discussed the submission with Schmitt, who had assumed responsibility for preparing the report to Waxman. In response to Gordon’s objections, Schmitt responded that AGNA decided that those items “were best left out of the report”, as it would “not look good for the company”.

On February 27, 2008, according to Gordon, Schmitt provided false testimony to the US Congress about AGNA’s business practices during his appearance before a hearing of the United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The hearing was titled “An Uneasy Relationship: US Reliance on Private Security Firms in Overseas Operations”.

At one point, Schmitt stated, “In the case of ArmorGroup, we have long established formal corporate programs to ensure that company employees act at all times within the relevant international and local legal and humanitarian frameworks, including an employee code of conduct, a stringent ethics policy, and an ethics review board.”

Schmitt further testified, “We ensure our employees are trained and certified on the tenets of international humanitarian law as well as the local laws of the countries in which they operate.” He further gave examples of corporate ethics programs, such as “full adherence to and mandatory induction and continuation training on US and host nation local laws and international human rights and humanitarian law”, fully knowing that AGNA had been woefully deficient in providing armored vehicles, legally procured weapons, and other items necessary for effective security management and with the knowledge that AGNA employees had violated local, US, and international laws with impunity.

Ironically, in light of Gordon’s current allegations, Schmitt also said:

As private security contractors, or PSCs, it is the actions we do, good or bad, and the image we project, that influence and shape how the local civilian populations view our nation. Perceptions matter. The conduct and disposition of private security contractors is the striking canvas from which we, as a nation, are viewed by local inhabitants … We implement deliberate leave rotation, provide personal insurance and welfare policies, and we teach cultural training to ensure our employees, whom we refer to as our “quiet professionals”, are prepared to provide our protective services in an ethically sensitive fashion in the most complex of environments.

And in a comment that can only be viewed as prescient in light of the current ArmorGroup scandal he also said, “As to the question on whether there is a need to establish government-wide standards, licensing requirements, or contract provisions for security providers, the answer can only be ‘Absolutely yes’.”

Interestingly, in 2007, Schmitt served as the chair of the Private Security Industries Association in the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), a leading US trade association for both private military and security contractors. ArmorGroup has been a member company of IPOA since August 2003.

On September 14, the Commission on Wartime Contracting, a congressionally established body mandated to study wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, held a hearing. Among the witnesses was IPOA founder and president Doug Brooks. He said, “Membership in IPOA is not automatic and requires disclosure and information not typical of trade associations. Companies can be expelled if they violate the association’s code of conduct.”

IPOA’s code, currently in its 12th version, adopted on February 11, 2009, states:

3.2. Signatories shall support effective legal accountability to relevant authorities for their actions and the actions of their personnel. Signatories shall proactively address minor infractions, and to the extent possible and subject to contractual and legal limitations, fully cooperate with official investigations into allegations of contractual violations and breaches of international humanitarian and human rights laws.

3.3. Signatories shall take firm and definitive action if their personnel engage in unlawful activities. For serious infractions, such as grave breaches of international humanitarian and human rights laws, Signatories should report such offences to the relevant authorities.

6.12, Signatories shall not engage or allow their personnel to engage in the act of trafficking in persons. Signatories shall remain vigilant for instances of trafficking in persons and, where discovered, shall report such instances to relevant authorities.

6.13. Personnel shall be expected to conduct themselves humanely with honesty, integrity, objectivity and diligence.

11.4. Signatories shall have an effective mechanism for personnel to internally report suspected breaches of international humanitarian and human rights laws and violations of other applicable laws or the IPOA Code of Conduct. Signatories shall not retaliate against any person who reports in good faith and on reasonable grounds such suspected violations.
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.