A “Mutiny” in Kabul: Guards Allege Security Problems Have Put Embassy at Risk
The department said it takes seriously the concerns of Aegis personnel. After receiving the petition, the embassy conducted roundtable discussions “with those who wanted to voice their concerns.” According to department, it “did not request the removal of any contract personnel for voicing their concerns or signing the petition.” Some individuals, it said, “have been removed for other reasons.”
Private Force, Public Duty
An atmosphere of danger pervades everyday life for U.S. personnel in Kabul. Almost a year to the day before the Benghazi attack, insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades at the U.S. compound in Kabul. And on Nov. 21 a Taliban suicide bomber claimed three victims only blocks from the American embassy. A former senior U.S. official who served at the embassy said that security is designed to defend the facility “against direct assaults, one or two or more…. But a…breach in the [embassy] wall followed by a group of suicide bombers, that would be a close call…that would be a bad day.”
The sprawling, heavily fortified facility reflects the threat — barbed wire, bomb-sniffing dogs, machine gun emplacements, perimeter walls, and towers. The lives of about 1,500 embassy employees — American and local staff — are on the line.
As in American embassies around the world, there is a small contingent of U.S. Marines, but their main mission is to protect the chancery and destroy classified materials in the event of a breach. The defense of the embassy falls principally to American and foreign contract guards — including approximately 100 members of the Emergency Response Team, according to guards POGO interviewed — overseen by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
In Kabul, the embassy guard force is run by Aegis Defense Services under a federal contract that the State Department said has a “current value” of $497 million. (The full scope of that contract, awarded in July 2011, is unclear; the State Department said it is for security services in Kabul “for one base year plus four option years,” but the department has not responded to a request for clarification.) Aegis has also provided a variety of security services to U.S. efforts in Iraq.
In interviews and emails for this report over the past few months, about a dozen current or former ERT personnel — all of whom said they are former law enforcement officials or U.S. military veterans who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan — said they have been worried about the state of security at the embassy. They requested anonymity to avoid retaliation or career setbacks.
One of the biggest problems, guards say, is that their team has been stretched dangerously thin by long hours for days on end and too few people to do the job. Guards have worked 14- and 15-hour workdays, for six or even seven days a week, with limited days off or leave time, sources said. That, in turn, has led to high job turnover, low morale, and other problems, they said.
“It wears you out,” said a former guard and Special Forces veteran now in the United States. “People’s concentration goes away . . . they can’t maintain focus at all.”
“The impact on security is that people are glazed over and they can’t protect the facility.”
“The impact on security is that people are glazed over and they can’t protect the facility,” he added.
A 2010 Bureau of Diplomatic Security document says that the normal government-prescribed workweek for private guards overseas was 72 hours — 12 hours per day for six days per week. It said contractors were responsible for ensuring that their personnel did not exceed those standards — except under emergency conditions and with authorization.