Published January 31, 2013
WASHINGTON – A private security company hired by the State Department to protect American diplomats at arguably the most at-risk U.S. embassy in the world provided shoddy security, failed to adequately train its employees and fired staff who raised concerns about unchecked practices and procedures, according to a new report.
The private guards hired at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan say it remains dangerously vulnerable to attack, David Hilzenrath, editor at the Project on Government Oversight, told FoxNews.com. POGO, a non-profit Washington group, recently released a report that it claims highlights the on-going security issues at the Kabul compound. The concerns are being aired amid ongoing complaints about the lack of security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in the run-up to the September 2012 terror attack.
In warnings eerily similar to those from Benghazi before that attack, guards working at the embassy in Kabul told D.C.-based POGO about their concerns in emails and other missives.
“If 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,” one guard wrote in late November. Workers reportedly claimed that guards were rarely allowed to practice with their own weapons on the firing range, and that vehicles entering the compound were often not properly inspected for explosives.
According to the POGO report, the State Department received a memo in July signed by 40 members of the Kabul Emergency Response Team that detailed their complaints, but allegedly nothing was done to correct the problem.
The State Department strongly refutes the accusations and told FoxNews.com that safety at the embassy in Kabul “is of utmost importance.”
But a July 18, 2012 department memo labeled “sensitive but unclassified” says one of the guards who raised issues about the working conditions would be fired. The memo accused the individual of "leading a baseless mutiny" against senior leaders -- his name was redacted from the document.
“(Redacted) was observed discussing how he plans to call the Aegis/VxL training department in the United States to ensure that a fellow shift leader will not graduate from training, because (redacted) had unilaterally determined that the individual is not fit to be on the contract,” the memo said.
The note went on to say that on July 11, company officials “had a frank discussion with (redacted) warning him about his behavior.”
“He responded well to the counseling, and stated at the end he would become a team player and work hard to make the project succeed. (Redacted) was given every opportunity to maintain his leadership position, but his poor judgment again surfaced when he discussed his attempts to remove a fellow shift leader from contract,” the memo said.
A State Department official told FoxNews.com that the Kabul team "has been taking extraordinary measures and maintaining robust security programs." The official acknowledged that members of the security team "voiced concerns about the leadership style" of senior personnel on the security team last year.
But the official said: "After discussions with the staff, the security program at the embassy was reviewed, taking into consideration the points that were raised along with other factors, and it was determined that security policies and procedures remained sound."
The POGO report said that after the Benghazi attack, the State Department did not send a team to Kabul to assess security, as it did for other diplomatic posts, because "security was already heightened there."
But the report cited several troubling incidents. Contractors at the embassy were also told to lie about their weekly hours in order to keep from hiring more personnel, the report claimed.
According to a civil suit filed last week in Virginia by employees at Aegis Defense Services – the company hired to provide security services -- supervisors “regularly edited employees’ timesheets so that they did not reveal any work beyond the regular schedule.” The lawsuit also claims that employees responsible for protecting the embassy have been stretched thin -- routinely forced to work 18 hours a day without getting paid overtime.
Claims of mismanagement, abuse and incompetence come on the heels of last week’s congressional testimony by outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the massive security failure that led to the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that left four Americans dead.
Following the September attack, an Independent Accountability Review Board found “systemic failures” in Benghazi and recommended that the State Department strengthen security at high-risk posts globally.
Clinton, who testified before a House and Senate panel, took responsibility for the incident and promised to improve security for officials around the world.
But some have questioned whether her testimony was just lip service paid to a growing global problem and warn that if the government continues to ignore safety warnings at the embassy in Afghanistan, it will only be a matter of time before America is dealing with another Benghazi.
“In the two times we’ve had serious assaults on our embassy in Kabul, Kabul is fortified and Kabul has the ISAF troops across the street,” Clinton said. “As (troops) draw down, we have to recognize that the danger is not going to leave with our ISAF military.”
The Kabul embassy has had a hard time climbing out of controversy. In 2009, Aegis' predecessor, ArmorGroup North America, sparked outrage after pictures surfaced of “Animal House”-like antics by guards who took graphic pictures of themselves with prisoners during booze binges and in other hazing rituals. An investigation uncovered severe security shortcomings similar to those alleged in POGO’s recent report. Under political pressure, the government did not renew ArmorGroup’s contract, deciding instead to go with Aegis.
A representative with Aegis did not return a request for comment.