It’s PMC Déjà vu All Over Again

March 26, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Huffington Post on March 26, 2010.

Thanks to the dedicated folks over at the Project on Government Oversight, who just last September broke the story about drunken party antics and serious security lapses by Armor Group North America contractors at the U.S. embassy in Kabul we now have ANOTHER example of lack of proper U.S. government oversight of a private military contractor at an American embassy.

In July 2005, Triple Canopy was awarded the Baghdad Embassy Security Force contract. From the start of the contract in July 2005 until September 2009, DS has obligated to Triple Canopy a total of $438 million. Currently, Triple Canopy has more than 1,800 employees dedicated to the contract in Baghdad. Approximately 1,600 of these employees are guards from Peru and Uganda.

The POGO press release says:

A previously unreleased report by the Department of State Office of Inspector General (IG), obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), found that the State Department has failed to properly oversee the contractor responsible for guarding the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The IG found problems similar to those POGO uncovered at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

The IG discovered that security is undermined by significant training and language deficiencies in the Embassy Baghdad guard force, in violation of the contract held by Triple Canopy ( www​.triple​canopy​.com ). The IG also found that conditions for guards at Camp Olympia were “unsafe,” and included “four times the acceptable number of guards residing in a room” and “frayed electrical wires in high traffic areas.” In the most serious case, there was an electrocution death in September 2009.

According to the report, in the areas in which State conducted the most oversight, Triple Canopy performed well. But in the areas in which State had little oversight‐​such as training and English language proficiency‐​the contractor’s performance failed to meet contract requirements. “No random language proficiency checks were carried out,” the report stated.

“As a result, Triple Canopy has been able to hire and employ guards and guard supervisors with insufficient language ability.”

In addition, Triple Canopy’s guards reported working an average of 10 to 11 consecutive days, and the IG found that some worked as many as 39 days in a row.

POGO has posted the State Department IG report, “The Bureau of Diplomatic Security Baghdad Embassy Security Force: Performance Audit here so people can read it for themselves. Thus far, it is not available on the Middle East Regional Office portion of the State Department Inspector General website, which is where such a report should be.

Now, it is worth remembering that Triple Canopy did its job reasonably well with respect to its core contract function, i.e., keeping the embassy safe. The very first finding in the IG report says:

The Baghdad Embassy Security Force (BESF) provided through a contract with the private security company, Triple Canopy, has been effective in ensuring the safety of chief of mission personnel in Baghdad’s volatile security environment.

Also the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) generally manages the Triple Canopy contract well, although it could improve its oversight of personnel attendance and language qualification.

But the IG report also states the contracting officer’s representative in Baghdad does not verify either the guards’ attendance at their posts or the accuracy of personnel rosters (muster sheets) before they are submitted, to ensure contractor charges for labor are accurate.

In addition, DS does not ensure that personnel have required English language proficiency.

It does not take a PhD to understand that if your guards do not speak English it is going to be difficult for their Western managers to communicate with them. As the report says on page five, “Due to their low levels of proficiency, some guard supervisors are unable to adequately communicate with their subordinates, which could lead to serious problems during an emergency.” In case you think this is theoretical nitpicking here is what the report says:

Nine English‐​speaking Ugandan guards told the OIG team they could not communicate with their Spanish‐​speaking Peruvian supervisors. When the Ugandan guards need to speak to their supervisors, they must find a bilingual guard to interpret. According to the regional security office, during an emergency or threat, guard supervisors are expected to lead, take charge, and issue orders to subordinates. Without English language proficiency, they would be unable to adequately function during an emergency. OIG believes the Peruvian supervisors’ low level of English language proficiency undermines guard force effectiveness.

The report notes in the comments it received from DS that:

The methodology used by the DS program office to determine language proficiency is not clear, but OIG’s detailed review of the supervisors’ training files indicated that not all of the supervisors possessed Level 2 English language proficiency for their position as required by the contract. Numerous supervisor files included signed letters from Triple Canopy management requiring them to attend Level 0 or Level 1 English classes. Also, in discussions with Triple Canopy’s training instructors, OIG learned that Triple Canopy was aware that not all of the guards who were promoted to supervisory positions possessed the required Level 2 English proficiency.

Hopefully someone will ask Triple Canopy when it became aware of the lack of English proficiency and what, if anything, they were planning to do about it.

The IG report also found that DS lacks standards for maintaining training records. As a result, Triple Canopy’s training records are incomplete and in disparate locations making it difficult for the Bureau to verify whether all personnel have received required training.

The BESF contract requires Triple Canopy to maintain employee training records that may be reviewed by the contracting officer’s representative (COR). OIG found that Triple Canopy does not adequately maintain training records for all employees. Specifically, through an examination of records, OIG was unable to determine whether all guard supervisors had taken and passed the required supervisory training course. Additionally, training records are not consistently formatted or housed in a central location, making it difficult for the COR to review them. Lastly, OIG determined that the Triple Canopy training department in Baghdad does not follow any standard operating procedures for training data collection and storage. (p. 16)

Another problem is that there are several weaknesses in the canine explosive test procedures carried out by Triple Canopy’s subcontractor, RONCO Consulting Corporation.

RONCO could not confirm whether it is testing for all scents required by the contract. In addition, possibly expired and contaminated materials are used to train and test the canines, although fresh testing materials are required. Finally, the way in which these materials are stored may lead to cross‐​contamination.

More troubling is thta DS representatives at Embassy Baghdad do not have criteria for the number of consecutive days guards can work without a day off. The Office of Inspector General found that some guards had worked as many as 39 days without a break.

This is similar to what happened with the ArmorGroup guards in Afghanistan, when they were found to be working 12 hour shifts without a break. How hard is it to understand that a tired guard is an unsafe guard?

Then there was the matter of unsafe working conditions.

Triple Canopy BESF guard housing is unsafe and in violation of the contract, several safety codes, and Department of State (Department) regulations. Specifically:
Triple Canopy houses guards in unsafe conditions. Guards live in crowded barracks and shipping containers that exceed occupancy limits by more than 400 percent. Barracks lack required sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers, and two exit points.

Barracks’ exits also exceed the minimum safe distance, and are sometimes blocked by objects. The barracks and containers do not have required fire alarms, smoke detectors, emergency lighting, or exit signs. Currently, no entity is overseeing housing safety, although both Triple Canopy and the Department are required to do so.

Interestingly, Triple Canopy is a member of IPOA, a private military contractor trade association. Triple Canopy joined IPOA in July 2008.

IPOA has a Code of Conduct, albeit largely toothless, which its member companies are supposed to follow. And Triple Canopy has its own Code of Conduct and Business Ethics that employees are expected to follow.

With respect to IPOA’s Code Section 6.3 states, “Signatories shall utilize adequately trained and prepared personnel in all their operations in accordance with clearly defined company standards that are appropriate and specific to their duties undertaken and the environment of operations.” Having guards who lack the proper language proficiency would seem a violation.

Similarly 6.4 states, “Signatories shall properly vet, supervise and train personnel.” That suggests Triple Canopy has failed insofar as it knew it had personnel who lacked the required language skills yet was not doing anything to remedy it.

In theory IPOA could undertake an investigation of Triple Canopy. IPOA has a mechanism for filing complaints against its member companies. But, as it states, “The SCOPe shall not be legally binding. It is intended that it serve as a guide for the Standards Committee in its monitoring of Member Company compliance with the IPOA Code of Conduct (“the Code”).” Given that IPOA’s budget comes, in large part, from its member companies it does not have any incentive to investigate them. Even if it did its tiny, albeit well paid permanent staff, does not have much time or organizational resources to do so. It seems it is easier for IPOA to dismiss people who report bad news as “sometime‐​cynics” then to take seriously its own self‐​proclaimed mission to “promote high operational and ethical standards of firms active in the peace and stability operations industry.”

Still, taking the larger view, Triple Canopy represents progress. Unlike ArmorGroup in Iraq, where the contractors potentially put the embassy in danger, Triple Canopy did keep the Baghdad embassy safe at all times. And at least no guards were drinking vodka shots off someone’s ass. Slow progress perhaps, but progress nonetheless.

Finally, just to end where we started, after POGO blew the whistle on ArmorGroup last year, the State Department fired eight guards and announced it would not renew the contract of ArmorGroup after it expires in July, but would grant it a six‐​month extension “to allow for an orderly transition between contractors.” But since ArmorGroup is still on the job until the end of this year, the State Department wants to toughen its oversight of the private security contractor, and it intends to do that by hiring other contractors to oversee this one. Talk about hiring the fox to guard the henhouse.

About the Author