September 1, 2009 / 7:49 PM / 10 years ago

Misconduct by U.S. embassy guards in Kabul alleged

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Private contractors hired by the U.S. government have jeopardized security at the American embassy in Kabul with lewd, drunken conduct and an understaffed guard force at a time of rising violence in the Afghan capital, a watchdog group said on Tuesday.

The nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight sent U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a letter documenting complaints about guards working for ArmorGroup, North America, and photos of nearly naked men behaving lewdly at their camp.

The firm employs 450 guards to provide security at the Kabul embassy under a five-year, $189 million State Department contract. The department extended the contract in June.

Pictures obtained by the group showed male guards, scantily dressed in G-string style garments, dancing around a bonfire and urinating while others snapped photographs. Video showed them pouring alcohol down the bare backside of a new recruit and trying to drink it as it spilled from the man’s buttocks.

These are the latest of many allegations of misconduct by private security contractors hired by the U.S. government to perform duties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“These are very serious allegations and we are treating them that way,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said at a briefing, adding that the issue had been turned over to the department’s inspector general.

Senator Claire McCaskill, head of a Senate subcommittee that oversees government contracting, called the findings “troubling” and urged the State Department to conduct a “thorough review of the performance, management and oversight of this contract.”

About 1,000 U.S. diplomats, staff and Afghan nationals work at the embassy.

ArmorGroup, North America, a subsidiary of Florida-based Wackenhut Services Inc., had no immediate comment on the allegations.

The 10-page letter to Clinton cited several shortcomings with the security contractor, including 14-hour workdays and a rotating day and overnight shift schedule that leaves the guards exhausted and sleep-deprived.

LORD OF THE FLIES

About 150 guards are Americans or from other English-speaking countries. The remaining 300 are identified by the Project on Government Oversight as Gurkhas from northern India and Nepal who speak little or no English.

The group said the language barrier between English-speakers and Gurkhas was so severe it would be difficult for them to communicate in a crisis.

And it cited a “‘Lord of the Flies’ environment” among some English-speakers at the camp where the men are stationed, marked by hazing of recruits, drunkenness and lewd conduct.

Project on Government Oversight Executive Director Danielle Brian said her group had spoken to 15 English-speaking guards.

They provided “evidence of a pattern of blatant, long-standing violations of the security contract, and of a pervasive breakdown in the chain of command and guard force discipline and morale,” she said in the letter.

Brian urged the State Department to put Kabul embassy security under military supervision and consider initiating suspension proceedings against ArmorGroup and Wackenhut.

Since the contract was awarded in 2007, the State Department has repeatedly warned ArmorGroup that it was failing to meet contractual requirements. A State Department inspection in March 2009 found at least 18 guards were absent from their posts due to supervisory negligence.

But the State Department agreed in June to extend the contract. Wackenhut Vice President Sam Brinkley told the Senate the embassy guard force had been fully staffed since January 2009. The Project on Government Oversight disputed the firm’s contention that the guard force was fully staffed.

Editing by Will Dunham

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