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A “Mutiny” in Kabul: Guards Allege Security Problems Have Put Embassy at Risk

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Adam Zagorin – (POGO) – January 17, 2013 – Private guards responsible for protecting what may be the most at-risk U.S. diplomatic mission in the world — the embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan — say security weaknesses have left it dangerously vulnerable to attack.

In interviews and written communications with the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), current and former guards said a variety of shortcomings, from inadequate weapons training to an overextended guard force, have compromised security there — security provided under a half-a-billion-dollar contract with Aegis Defense Services, the U.S. subsidiary of a British firm. “[I]f we ever got seriously hit [by terrorists], there is no doubt in my mind the guard force here would not be able to handle it, and mass casualties and mayhem would ensue,” a guard serving at the embassy wrote in a late November message to POGO.

“[I]f we ever got seriously hit [by terrorists], there is no doubt in my mind the guard force here would not be able to handle it, and mass casualties and mayhem would ensue.”

In July, dissatisfaction boiled over when more than 40 members of the embassy’s Emergency Response Team signed a petition sounding an alarm about embassy security, people familiar with the document said. The petition, submitted to the State Department and Aegis, expressed a “vote of no confidence” in three of the guard force leaders, accusing them of “tactical incompetence” and “a dangerous lack of understanding of the operational environment.” Two guards say they were quickly fired after organizing the petition, in what they called “retaliation.”

A State Department document obtained by POGO describes a “mutiny” among guards who defend the Kabul embassy — an apparent reference to the petition, though the document does not explicitly mention it. Dated July 18, 2012, and labeled “SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED,” the document says that the mutiny was “baseless” but that it “undermined the chain of command” and “put the security of the Embassy at risk.”

The allegations made by the Kabul guards in their interviews with POGO are all the more disturbing in the wake of congressional and public outcry over the lax security that may have contributed to the deadly attack on Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others in Benghazi, Libya, last September. The official post mortem released by the State Department’s independent commission last month painted the Benghazi facility as a casualty of bureaucratic neglect, and the assistant secretary for diplomatic security resigned. But the situation described by guards in Kabul suggests that diplomatic security problems go far beyond a makeshift, overlooked outpost in eastern Libya.

Following the Benghazi attack, the State Department dispatched teams to assess security at a number of diplomatic posts — but not to the Kabul embassy because, according to the department, security was already heightened there.

The guards’ charges are simply the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the Kabul embassy.

In 2009, Aegis’s predecessor as the security contractor there, ArmorGroup North America (AGNA), became embroiled in controversy after POGO documented security shortcomings similar to those alleged by Aegis guards — from a breakdown in the chain of command to long hours, low morale, and alleged retaliatory firings. The organization’s investigation also brought to light lurid photographs of guards engaged in nude, apparently drunken revelry and sexual hazing.

Testifying before a federal commission in September 2009, an executive of AGNA’s parent company said there were “no excuses” for the guards’ “misbehavior” and he was “not here to defend the indefensible.” Though AGNA “suffered from many contractual compliance issues,” Wackenhut Services vice president Samuel Brinkley said in written testimony, “the security of the Embassy was never at risk.”

The State Department chose a replacement for AGNA in 2010 only to conclude months later that that company would be unprepared to begin work on schedule. Aegis was awarded the task in July 2011 and finally took over Kabul embassy protection in June 2012. But, according to the Aegis guards, it rapidly became clear that the security situation was untenable.

Aegis declined to answer questions for this report. “Per our contractual obligations, all questions and inquiries regarding this contract should be directed to the Department of State’s Public Affairs Office,” company spokesman Joshua C. Huminski wrote.

In a written response to questions, the State Department said that a regional security officer has assessed operations at the embassy and “determined that security policies and procedures are sound.”

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