By David S. Hilzenrath
A senior State Department official recently reassured lawmakers that the U.S. embassy in the capital of war-torn Afghanistan is well protected. The centerpiece of his explanation was that the contractor now protecting the embassy had twice proven itself in battle against enemy attackers.
“[T]he proof is in the pudding,” Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy told a Senate panel.
But, in reality, the pudding he described contains no such proof. Under the current contractor, there have been no such tests of the Kabul embassy guard force.
Kennedy delivered his testimony at a July 16 hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight. Subcommittee Chairman Claire McCaskill (D-MO) raised the subject of Kabul embassy security in her opening statement.
“I continue to have serious concerns regarding that contract,” McCaskill said.
Kennedy, who oversees diplomatic security, rejected those concerns.
“Currently in Kabul we have a well-managed, effectively functioning contract that provides security to protect our people and facilities,” he said.
Pressed further, he added:
“There have been two direct attacks on our embassy compound in Kabul during the tenure of this current contractor. Both of those attacks were rebuffed, and the contractor, along with the diplomatic security colleagues there, performed superbly. And so part of it is, the proof is in the pudding. We were attacked, and we warded off those attacks with no injuries to U.S. government personnel on our compound.”
The Project On Government Oversight asked the State Department to provide dates and details of the “two direct attacks on our embassy compound” to which Kennedy was referring. In an emailed response, an aide to Kennedy cited two incidents involving the embassy compound, but neither of those occurred during the tenure of the current contractor, Aegis Defense Services LLC. Both took place while another company was protecting the embassy.
The Kennedy aide also listed two attacks during the tenure of the current contractor, but neither of those targeted the embassy compound.
One, on June 11, 2013, focused on Afghanistan’s Supreme Court. Another, on June 25, 2013, involved a facility known as the U.S. Embassy Annex, which is almost half a mile from the embassy compound.
Neither the Supreme Court nor the Annex is covered by the embassy security contract, a point that the Kennedy aide, Christina A. Maier, acknowledged.
“The Embassy guard force in Kabul is not responsible for the Supreme Court or the Embassy Annex across from the Presidential Palace,” Maier wrote.
So, when those facilities were attacked, did the Aegis guard force do anything more than, say, moving to a higher state of readiness?
POGO asked Maier but did not receive a direct answer.
“In the event of an attack on any facility near us, the Embassy’s security force must be trained and equipped to immediately take defensive measures—this is what happened,” Maier wrote.
Kennedy, a career State Department official, was singled out for a different but related reason in recent news stories about findings of a panel appointed to review diplomatic security in the aftermath of the deadly attack a year ago on the State Department outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
“[T]he problems cited by the panel focus largely on security management issues in Kennedy’s operation,” Al Jazeera America reported. The New York Times said the findings “implicitly criticize Mr. Kennedy’s office as not paying enough attention to the bureau that oversees security at 275 installations.”
Kennedy went to the July 16 Senate hearing prepared to address the subject of Kabul embassy security. In his opening statement, he said he knew that Senator McCaskill was concerned about the role of security contractors at posts such as Kabul, and a section of the written testimony he submitted for the hearing was headed, “Private Security Contractors – Embassy Kabul.”
At the hearing, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the subcommittee’s top Republican, brought up and submitted for the record a report POGO issued in January titled “A ‘Mutiny’ in Kabul: Guards Allege Security Problems Have Put Embassy at Risk.”
The report, which was also published by ForeignPolicy.com, said that, according to people who have worked for Aegis at the compound in Afghanistan, the guard force has been stretched dangerously thin by a shortage of personnel, inadequate training, and long hours for days on end. Dozens of guards signed a petition last year expressing a vote of no confidence in three of their leaders, and two former guards said they were fired in retaliation for helping to organize the petition. (The State Department told POGO that people have been removed “for other reasons.”)
The guards’ allegations cast a spotlight on the outsourcing of embassy security to companies that have incentives to maximize profits.
When Johnson asked if Kennedy was disturbed by POGO’s report, Kennedy dismissed it as “sensationalized.”
“I'm disturbed by anything that I read, and then I go and check the facts,” Kennedy said. “And I am much less disturbed than I was, because the material that they—that they reported I find to be sensationalized, if I might use that word.”
Kennedy went on to testify that the current contractor “performed superbly” when two direct attacks on the embassy were rebuffed.
POGO requested an interview with Kennedy about Kabul embassy security and his Senate testimony, but he did not agree to be interviewed for this report. Maier proposed an off-the-record interview with an official in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, explaining that that meant, “No information provided may be used in the story.” POGO declined to conduct an interview on that condition.
But POGO did conduct a separate investigation into the chronic understaffing of guards at the embassy in Kabul. Read that investigation here.