by David Rohde at Rueters November 16, 2012
Amid the politicking, there’s an overlooked cause of the Benghazi tragedy
For conservatives, the Benghazi scandal is a Watergate-like presidential cover-up. For liberals, it a fabricated Republican witch-hunt. For me, Benghazi is a call to act on an enduring problem that both parties ignore.
One major overlooked cause of the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans is we have underfunded the State Department and other civilian agencies that play a vital role in our national security.
Instead of building up cadres of skilled diplomatic security guards, we have bought them from the lowest bidder, trying to acquire capacity and expertise on the cheap. Benghazi showed how vulnerable that makes us.
Now, I’m not arguing that this use of contractors was the sole cause of the Benghazi tragedy, but I believe it was a primary one. Let me explain.
The slapdash security that killed Stevens, technician Sean Smith and CIA guards Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty started with a seemingly inconsequential decision by Libya’s new government. After the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s interim government barred armed private security firms – foreign and domestic – from operating anywhere in the country.
Memories of the abuses by foreign mercenaries, acting for the brutal Qaddafi regime, prompted the decision, according to State Department officials.
Once the Libyans took away the private security guard option, it put enormous strain on a little-known State Department arm, the Diplomatic Security Service. This obscure agency has been responsible for protecting American diplomatic posts around the world since 1916.
Though embassies have contingents of Marines, consulates and other offices do not. And the missions of Marines, in fact, are to destroy documents and protect American government secrets. It is the Diplomatic Security agents who are charged with safeguarding the lives of American diplomats.
Today, roughly 900 Diplomatic Security agents guard 275 American embassies and consulates around the globe. That works out to a whopping four agents per facility.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department relied on hundreds of security contractors to guard American diplomats. At times, they even hired private security guards to protect foreign leaders.
After Afghan President Hamid Karzai narrowly survived a 2002 assassination attempt, the State Department hired security guards from DynCorp, a military contractor, to guard him. Their aggressiveness in and around the presidential palace, however, angered Afghan, American and European officials. As soon as Afghan guards were trained to protect Karzai, DynCorp was let go.
But the State Department’s dependence on contractors for security remained. And Benghazi epitomized this Achilles’ heel.
Spencer Ackerman at Wired’s Danger Room November 22, 2011
An obscure Pentagon office designed to curb the flow of illegal drugs has quietly evolved into a one-stop shop for private security contractors around the world, soliciting deals worth over $3 billion.
The sprawling contract, ostensibly designed to stop drug-funded terrorism, seeks security firms for missions like “train[ing] Azerbaijan Naval Commandos.” Other tasks include providing Black Hawk and Kiowa helicopter training “for crew members of the Mexican Secretariat of Public Security.” Still others involve building “anti-terrorism/force protection enhancements” for the Pakistani border force in the tribal areas abutting Afghanistan.
The Defense Department’s Counter Narco-Terrorism Program Office has packed all these tasks and more inside a mega-contract for security firms. The office, known as CNTPO, is all but unknown, even to professional Pentagon watchers. It interprets its counternarcotics mandate very, very broadly, leaning heavily on its implied counterterrorism portfolio. And it’s responsible for one of the largest chunks of money provided to mercenaries in the entire federal government.
CNTPO quietly solicited an umbrella contract for all the security services listed above — and many, many more — on Nov. 9. It will begin handing out the contract’s cash by August. And there is a lot of cash to disburse.
The ceiling for the “operations, logistics and minor construction” tasks within CNTPO’s contract is $950 million. Training foreign forces tops out at $975 million. “Information” tasks yield $875 million. The vague “program and program support” brings another $240 million.
That puts CNTPO in a rare category. By disbursing at least $3 billion — likely more, since the contract awards come with up to three yearlong re-ups — the office is among the most lucrative sources of cash for private security contractors. The largest, from the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, doles out a $10 billion, five-year deal known as the Worldwide Protective Services contract
The US State Department (DOS) spends millions on it’s explosives detection canine services program in Iraq and Afghanistan. The dogs are trained to sniff explosives to ensure safety of US as well as foreign personnel on the ground. The program is operated through contractors like the DC based RONCO Consulting Corporation, which further sub-contracts the work to others like the ArmorGroup of North America, Triple Canopy etc. According to a report recently published by the Office of Inspector General (OIG), this program is seriously mismanaged, as contractors are neither doing their job properly, nor are they supervised.
The OIG reviewed three specific explosives detection canine programs managed by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) in South Asia and the Middle East, and reached the following conclusions. Here’s an excerpt from the report:
- All of the Department’s explosives detection canine services are part of various security-related contracts in South Asia and the Middle East. These contracts include the embassy security force contracts in Baghdad and Kabul and task orders of the Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract in Baghdad, Tallil, and Erbil in Iraq and Kabul, Afghanistan. Canines in these programs regularly conduct searches and inspect vehicles, packages, and luggage.
- Given that the Department employs nearly 200 canines and handlers for these services, the expenditures for canine services can be considerable. For example, the Department pays over $24 million per year for canine services associated with the Baghdad Embassy Security Force.
- The ability of a canine to recognize explosive scents is the foundation for any explosives detection canine program, and canines should be able to recognize common explosives. Canines under Department contracts must comply with the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Odor Recognition Proficiency Standard for Explosives Detection Canines. This standard includes testing for six mandatory scents of the most commonly encountered explosives.
- During its review of these three programs, OIG found systemic weaknesses in canine test procedures that call into question the ability of the canines to effectively detect explosives. The contractors do not test for all mandated scents and use old materials to train and test the canines, although fresh materials are required. Additionally, the improper method of storing these materials may be leading to cross-contamination (which violates the standards laid out by the Treasury, which specifically prohibits cross-contamination of scents of explosives, so as to ensure that the dogs are accurately trained).
- At the time of OIG’s field work, no independent expert had validated the detection abilities of the canines or determined whether the contractors comply with the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Odor Recognition Proficiency Standard for Explosives Detection Canines since the award of the contracts.
- The Department of the Treasury’s standard requires that fresh explosives be used for each testing session and that testing be done annually. At none of the locations could contractors verify the age of the testing materials. One contractor reported using testing material obtained over three years ago from the previous security contractor. Other contractors indicated that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combined Explosives Exploitation Cell or the Department of Defense’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit provides the testing explosives, many of which are collected from unexploded improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan and are of indeterminate age.
- Canines undergo regular scent recognition testing under which they must be able to recognize six mandatory scents. In two programs, contractors did not possess all testing substances. In a third program, the contractor reported that it tested for all six scents, but could not verify to the OIG team that the materials used were actually the required testing substances. No contractor had reliable documentation to validate either the receipt or composition of testing materials. Contractors with all three programs reported that they either did not know how to ship in fresh testing materials or were incapable of doing so.
- Certain explosive testing materials must be stored separately as they tend to readily cross- contaminate with other explosives. However, the OIG team observed that in all three programs, contractors stored these particular materials with other explosives, which may result in contaminated testing materials. Contractors with all three programs stated at the time of OIG’s fieldwork they did not have the space to store materials separately.
- During field work in Iraq and Afghanistan, the OIG team did not encounter any DS personnel with expertise in explosive detection canines. Instead, according to DS staff members, they depended upon the knowledge and expertise of the contractors to ensure all contractual requirements and other standards were met. The contractors responsible for the canines reported to OIG that no outside organization with expertise in explosive detection canines had ever reviewed their operations in Iraq or Afghanistan
The OIG’s conclusion: “OIG’s examination of three explosive detection canine programs revealed systemic problems that directly affect the safety and security of U.S. Government personnel and installations. In the three programs OIG reviewed, the contractors, rather than DS, were responsible for implementing the program and ensuring that contractually required procedures were being followed. Contractors are not testing for all scents, are using possibly expired or contaminated materials to test canines, and are storing materials in a manner that may be leading to cross-contamination.”
The Center for Public Integrity has this to say about the RONCO Consulting Corporation, the contractor in charge of this mess: “On March 14, 2003, Ronco was awarded a contract by the U.S. Defense Department worth more than $419,000 to come up with a plan to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate the Iraqi armed forces, as well as national and regional militias. The State Department contracted with Ronco to perform two main functions in the landmine clearance activities in Iraq.
Ronco received a six-month contract from the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives’ Afghanistan Political Transition Grant Project. To fulfill this contract, Ronco established offices in Afghanistan to coordinate the disbursement of grants designed to rehabilitate Afghanistan’s social and economic infrastructure. According to USAID, Ronco is in charge of creating “a broad operational platform for the entire USAID effort in Afghanistan.” Toward the end of the initial six months, USAID extended the contract to one year for a total value of $5.65 million.
Ronco has also been involved in Afghanistan’s demining efforts. The company provides training and assistance to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance and the Mine Action Program Afghanistan. In January 2002, the State Department provided approximately $3.1 million to support the salaries and expense costs of 15 Ronco staff members stationed in Afghanistan to train Afghan mine clearance personnel, according to a State Department fact sheet.
Among Ronco’s full-time staff of 90 U.S. and 300 host country personnel, the company boasts on its Web site of employing many ex-government officials, including “a former USAID deputy assistant administrator, mission directors [and] senior military personnel.” Among the former USAID employees is Larry Crandall, who is currently Ronco’s vice president for International Programs. Crandall was mission director of USAID’s operations in Haiti. According to USAID’s presentation to Congress in 1997, Ronco was a contractor in Haiti while Crandall was mission director in that country.”
RONCO has been awarded even more contracts worth millions by the DOS beside the $3.1 million contract mentioned above. We are not only wasting millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money but this puts at risk those who depend on these explosive detecting services for their safety. The only ones benefiting from this mismanaged program are the contractors who are paid handsomely for their (lack of) services.
When it comes to diplomatic security, contractors are a hard habit for the State Department to break. According to a new audit by the department’s Office of the Inspector General, or IG, the department has paid one company — Triple Canopy — a whopping $438 million to guard the embassy in Baghdad since mid-2005.
The report does not contain any damning allegations, like the Animal House-style antics of contracted guard force at the Kabul embassy. But it does give insight into the size of the force that is required to provide security for the Vatican-sized compound on the Tigris. What’s more, it suggests that the embassy has poorly planned for the anticipated U.S. drawdown in Iraq, meaning the government will pay a “projected unnecessary cost” of around $20 million to maintain the contract guard force in Baghdad.
All told, the company currently has around 1,800 employees dedicated to embassy security in Baghdad. Around 1,600 of them are from either Uganda or Peru. And that presents something of a problem: The report found that the contracting officer’s representative — a government employee who is supposed to exercise oversight — “does not enforce contractually required standards for guards’ English language profi ciency.”
And that, potentially, could be a problem if English-language supervisors can’t communicate with guards, especially during an emergency.
Hiring “third country nationals,” or TCNs, as guards is not an uncommon practice in Iraq: Ugandans are perhaps best known for guarding the entrances to military dining facilities in Iraq. Companies like Triple Canopy hire them because they are relatively cheap, compared to U.S. or European expatriates. But the TCNs, apparently, don’t complain as much about working conditions either.
The IG, for instance, faulted Triple Canopy for not providing adequate housing, saying that Triple Canopy “houses guards in unsafe conditions.” Guards, the report says, “live in crowded barracks and shipping containers that exceed occupancy limits by more than 400 percent.”
Generally speaking, the IG said Triple Canopy “performs well” in areas where the State Department properly performs oversight. More than anything, it suggests that State’s oversight, not necessarily the contractor’s performance, is the bigger issue. Triple Canopy, as well, seems to have learned from the repeated public relations disasters of competitors like Xe (a.k.a. Blackwater): It maintains a more low-key, corporate image, complete with a spiffy, Lockheed Martin-style logo, seen in the screenshot here.
Thanks to the dedicated folks over at the Project on Government Oversight, who just last September broke the story about drunken party antics and serious security lapses by Armor Group North America contractors at the U.S. embassy in Kabul we now have ANOTHER example of lack of proper U.S. government oversight of a private military contractor at an American embassy.
In July 2005, Triple Canopy was awarded the Baghdad Embassy Security Force contract. From the start of the contract in July 2005 until September 2009, DS has obligated to Triple Canopy a total of $438 million. Currently, Triple Canopy has more than 1,800 employees dedicated to the contract in Baghdad. Approximately 1,600 of these employees are guards from Peru and Uganda.
The POGO press release says:
A previously unreleased report by the Department of State Office of Inspector General (IG), obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), found that the State Department has failed to properly oversee the contractor responsible for guarding the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The IG found problems similar to those POGO uncovered at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
The IG discovered that security is undermined by significant training and language deficiencies in the Embassy Baghdad guard force, in violation of the contract held by Triple Canopy ( http://www.triplecanopy.com ). The IG also found that conditions for guards at Camp Olympia were “unsafe,” and included “four times the acceptable number of guards residing in a room” and “frayed electrical wires in high traffic areas.” In the most serious case, there was an electrocution death in September 2009.
According to the report, in the areas in which State conducted the most oversight, Triple Canopy performed well. But in the areas in which State had little oversight-such as training and English language proficiency-the contractor’s performance failed to meet contract requirements. “No random language proficiency checks were carried out,” the report stated.
“As a result, Triple Canopy has been able to hire and employ guards and guard supervisors with insufficient language ability.”
In addition, Triple Canopy’s guards reported working an average of 10 to 11 consecutive days, and the IG found that some worked as many as 39 days in a row.
POGO has posted the State Department IG report, “The Bureau of Diplomatic Security Baghdad Embassy Security Force: Performance Audit here so people can read it for themselves. Thus far, it is not available on the Middle East Regional Office portion of the State Department Inspector General website, which is where such a report should be.
Now, it is worth remembering that Triple Canopy did its job reasonably well with respect to its core contract function, i.e., keeping the embassy safe. The very first finding in the IG report says:
The Baghdad Embassy Security Force (BESF) provided through a contract with the private security company, Triple Canopy, has been effective in ensuring the safety of chief of mission personnel in Baghdad’s volatile security environment.
Also the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) generally manages the Triple Canopy contract well, although it could improve its oversight of personnel attendance and language qualiﬁcation.
But the IG report also states the contracting officer’s representative in Baghdad does not verify either the guards’ attendance at their posts or the accuracy of personnel rosters (muster sheets) before they are submitted, to ensure contractor charges for labor are accurate.
In addition, DS does not ensure that personnel have required English language proﬁciency.
It does not take a PhD to understand that if your guards do not speak English it is going to be difficult for their Western managers to communicate with them. As the report says on page five, “Due to their low levels of proﬁciency, some guard supervisors are unable to adequately communicate with their subordinates, which could lead to serious problems during an emergency.” In case you think this is theoretical nitpicking here is what the report says:
Nine English-speaking Ugandan guards told the OIG team they could not communicate with their Spanish-speaking Peruvian supervisors. When the Ugandan guards need to speak to their supervisors, they must ﬁnd a bilingual guard to interpret. According to the regional security ofﬁce, during an emergency or threat, guard supervisors are expected to lead, take charge, and issue orders to subordinates. Without English language proﬁciency, they would be unable to adequately function during an emergency. OIG believes the Peruvian supervisors’ low level of English language proﬁciency undermines guard force effectiveness.
The report notes in the comments it received from DS that:
The methodology used by the DS program ofﬁce to determine language proﬁciency is not clear, but OIG’s detailed review of the supervisors’ training ﬁles indicated that not all of the supervisors possessed Level 2 English language proﬁciency for their position as required by the contract. Numerous supervisor ﬁles included signed letters from Triple Canopy management requiring them to attend Level 0 or Level 1 English classes. Also, in discussions with Triple Canopy’s training instructors, OIG learned that Triple Canopy was aware that not all of the guards who were promoted to supervisory positions possessed the required Level 2 English proﬁciency.
Hopefully someone will ask Triple Canopy when it became aware of the lack of English proficiency and what, if anything, they were planning to do about it.
The IG report also found that DS lacks standards for maintaining training records. As a result, Triple Canopy’s training records are incomplete and in disparate locations making it difficult for the Bureau to verify whether all personnel have received required training.
The BESF contract requires Triple Canopy to maintain employee training records that may be reviewed by the contracting officer’s representative (COR). OIG found that Triple Canopy does not adequately maintain training records for all employees. Speciﬁcally, through an examination of records, OIG was unable to determine whether all guard supervisors had taken and passed the required supervisory training course. Additionally, training records are not consistently formatted or housed in a central location, making it difficult for the COR to review them. Lastly, OIG determined that the Triple Canopy training department in Baghdad does not follow any standard operating procedures for training data collection and storage. (p. 16)
Another problem is that there are several weaknesses in the canine explosive test procedures carried out by Triple Canopy’s subcontractor, RONCO Consulting Corporation.
RONCO could not conﬁrm whether it is testing for all scents required by the contract. In addition, possibly expired and contaminated materials are used to train and test the canines, although fresh testing materials are required. Finally, the way in which these materials are stored may lead to cross-contamination.
More troubling is thta DS representatives at Embassy Baghdad do not have criteria for the number of consecutive days guards can work without a day off. The Ofﬁce of Inspector General found that some guards had worked as many as 39 days without a break.
This is similar to what happened with the ArmorGroup guards in Afghanistan, when they were found to be working 12 hour shifts without a break. How hard is it to understand that a tired guard is an unsafe guard?
Then there was the matter of unsafe working conditions.
Triple Canopy BESF guard housing is unsafe and in violation of the contract, several safety codes, and Department of State (Department) regulations. Specifically: Triple Canopy houses guards in unsafe conditions. Guards live in crowded barracks and shipping containers that exceed occupancy limits by more than 400 percent. Barracks lack required sprinkler systems, ﬁre extinguishers, and two exit points.
Barracks’ exits also exceed the minimum safe distance, and are sometimes blocked by objects. The barracks and containers do not have required ﬁre alarms, smoke detectors, emergency lighting, or exit signs. Currently, no entity is overseeing housing safety, although both Triple Canopy and the Department are required to do so.
Interestingly, Triple Canopy is a member of IPOA, a private military contractor trade association. Triple Canopy joined IPOA in July 2008.
IPOA has a Code of Conduct, albeit largely toothless, which its member companies are supposed to follow. And Triple Canopy has its own Code of Conduct and Business Ethics that employees are expected to follow.
With respect to IPOA’s Code Section 6.3 states, “Signatories shall utilize adequately trained and prepared personnel in all their operations in accordance with clearly defined company standards that are appropriate and specific to their duties undertaken and the environment of operations.” Having guards who lack the proper language proficiency would seem a violation.
Similarly 6.4 states, “Signatories shall properly vet, supervise and train personnel.” That suggests Triple Canopy has failed insofar as it knew it had personnel who lacked the required language skills yet was not doing anything to remedy it.
In theory IPOA could undertake an investigation of Triple Canopy. IPOA has a mechanism for filing complaints against its member companies. But, as it states, “The SCOPe shall not be legally binding. It is intended that it serve as a guide for the Standards Committee in its monitoring of Member Company compliance with the IPOA Code of Conduct (“the Code”).” Given that IPOA’s budget comes, in large part, from its member companies it does not have any incentive to investigate them. Even if it did its tiny, albeit well paid permanent staff, does not have much time or organizational resources to do so. It seems it is easier for IPOA to dismiss people who report bad news as “sometime-cynics” then to take seriously its own self-proclaimed mission to “promote high operational and ethical standards of firms active in the peace and stability operations industry.”
Still, taking the larger view, Triple Canopy represents progress. Unlike ArmorGroup in Iraq, where the contractors potentially put the embassy in danger, Triple Canopy did keep the Baghdad embassy safe at all times. And at least no guards were drinking vodka shots off someone’s ass. Slow progress perhaps, but progress nonetheless.
Finally, just to end where we started, after POGO blew the whistle on ArmorGroup last year, the State Department fired eight guards and announced it would not renew the contract of ArmorGroup after it expires in July, but would grant it a six-month extension “to allow for an orderly transition between contractors.” But since ArmorGroup is still on the job until the end of this year, the State Department wants to toughen its oversight of the private security contractor, and it intends to do that by hiring other contractors to oversee this one. Talk about hiring the fox to guard the henhouse.
The department will assign 180 of the new hires to the embassy in Kabul, including 56 new guard positions under the ArmorGroup contract.
So who will be guarding who at the Embassy?
The State Department plans to hire a personal services contractor to help supervise a private security company photographed last year hosting rowdy, alcohol-fueled parties near the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
In response to questions from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, Ambassador Eric Boswell said State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security is in the process of selecting and hiring a personal services contractor that will reside at Camp Sullivan, just outside the embassy. A Diplomatic Security special agent currently oversees the camp.
Personal services contractors are hired directly by the government, as opposed to a third-party contractor, under competitive appointments or other procedures required by the civil service laws.
Boswell said the new contractor will have a direct role in supervising employees for ArmorGroup North America, which holds the contract to provide security at the embassy, where about 1,000 Afghan nationals, American staffers and diplomats are stationed. The contractor will “further augment the [regional security officer's] contract oversight responsibilities,” wrote Boswell, who is assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security.
A separate personal services contractor will be hired to oversee contract employees from Triple Canopy, which maintains a contract to guard the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.
“The personnel must have experience in managing overseas protective security programs; experience in high threat locations (preferably); and experience in contractual issues related to security operations and regulations governing the use of private security contractors,” Boswell wrote in his March 1 response to the Contracting Oversight subcommittee.
The chairwoman of the subcommittee was fast to criticize State’s decision.
“I am concerned that the steps taken by the department may not go far enough to ensure that there is sufficient transparency, accountability and oversight of the contract,” wrote Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in a March 19 letter to Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary for management at State. “In particular, I am troubled by the decision to employ a contractor to provide contract oversight for the department.”
McCaskill requested additional information about the plan as well as details of ArmorGroup’s contract deficiencies.
In September 2009, photographs surfaced of ArmorGroup workers at raucous parties at Camp Sullivan. Allegations involved hazing of new employees, sexually harassing Afghan nationals, failing to supply an adequate number of guards, misuse of private property and bringing a prostitute onto the base.
The State Department fired 10 ArmorGroup employees who appeared in the photographs and announced shortly thereafter that it would not exercise the third option year of the firm’s contract, which expires on July 1. State plans to solicit bids on a new contract for the guard services.
But, in his letter to McCaskill, Boswell conceded that “due to the complexity of the requirements” it will be necessary to extend ArmorGroup’s performance for up to six months “to allow for an orderly transition between contractors.” The cost of the extension will be $3.7 million per month, he said.
“The department will continue to maintain a schedule of quarterly program management reviews, meet weekly with AGNA management in Kabul and in Washington, and carefully document and require corrective action for all contract compliance deficiencies,” Boswell wrote.
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, the watchdog group that released the photos of the ArmorGroup parties, said it appeared State might not have learned from its past mistakes.
“We’re distressed that the lesson that the State Department has learned from their poor management of this contract is that they need to rely on a contractor to improve their oversight of their embassy security contractor,” Brian said.
State plans to employ more than 400 direct-hire government personnel to augment the surge of military and civilian forces in Afghanistan, Boswell said. The department will assign 180 of the new hires to the embassy in Kabul, including 56 new guard positions under the ArmorGroup contract.