WASHINGTON — When a security guard at the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, was leaving for breakfast Monday morning, he froze at the sight of a crude poster of a rat hanging on his door.
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Project on Government Oversight
A poster found on the door of an embassy guard in Kabul.


2 Say They Reported Abuses at Embassy (September 11, 2009)

“Warning!” the poster said in stark, black letters. “Rats can cost you your job and your family.”
The guard was a whistle-blower who had told of security lapses and lewd, drunken bacchanals by fellow workers, sparking an outcry and enraging Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Now he wonders whether he should have kept his mouth shut.
“Threats are still running rampant here,” he said in a telephone conversation from Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “So even though it looks like State may finally turn things around, no one’s ready to celebrate yet.”
Such skepticism may be warranted.
A review of two years of e-mail messages, letters and memos reveals that the State Department had long known of the serious problems with ArmorGroup, the contractor chosen to protect its embassy. The complaints went beyond the lurid pranks that made headlines, the documents show, and included serious understaffing, bullying by management, petty corruption and abusive work conditions.
In fact, the deficiencies became so severe that they threatened the security of the compound, the documents show, and State Department officials withheld payments to ArmorGroup as a way to compel it to comply with the terms of its agreement. On a few occasions, government officials warned the company that if it did not correct the most egregious problems it would lose the five-year, $189 million deal.
Yet both times the contract came up for renewal, in 2008 and 2009, the State Department opted to extend it, officials confirmed.
The troubles with the ArmorGroup contract, and the State Department’s frustrated dealings with the company over two years and through two administrations, illustrate how the government has become dependent on the private security companies that work in war zones, and has struggled to manage companies that themselves are sometimes loosely run and do not always play by the government’s rules.
With a stretched military, the government relies on the security companies themselves to vet, train, and discipline the guards, all at the lowest cost.
“It’s expensive for the State Department to withdraw a contract from one company, rebid the project and award it to a new one,” said Janet Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who represents one of the ArmorGroup whistleblowers. “So businesses know that once they get a contract, State may ding them around a little bit, but it’s not going to fire them.”
The perils of this reliance were most graphically illustrated in Iraq in 2007, when security guards from another contractor, Blackwater, were involved in shootings that left 17 civilians dead on a Baghdad street. But interviews and documents show that the ArmorGroup affair, in its mundane, unsavory details, offers perhaps a more representative look inside the troubled relationship between contractors and the government in war zones.
State Department officials acknowledge they had a litany of complaints about the company, none of which, they insist, compromised the security of the embassy. But they profess to being deeply embarrassed by reports of parties where security guards were photographed naked, fondling and urinating on each other.
“I’ve been doing this for 37 years; I’m proud of what I do,” said Patrick F. Kennedy, the undersecretary of state for management who oversees outside contractors. But, he added, “This is humiliating.”
Mr. Kennedy, however, defended the State Department’s overall handling of the contract. The frequent letters of complaint the government sent to ArmorGroup, he said, were evidence that the department was keeping close tabs on the company. The “greatest majority” of the failures cited in the letters were addressed, he said.
Part of the problem, officials said, was that the guards are housed in a complex six miles from the embassy, Camp Sullivan, with little oversight by State Department officials.
Susan Pitcher, a spokeswoman for Wackenhut Services, the American subsidiary of the Danish company that owns ArmorGroup, referred questions to the State Department, saying only that it was cooperating with the government’s investigation.
On Monday, the independent Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan will hold a hearing to examine the State Department’s oversight of the contract. Christopher Shays, a former congressman and co-chairman of the commission, said there was “a serious failure on the part of the State Department in being unable to compel the contractor to fulfill its commitment.”


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