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State Department contracting scandal: Kennedy on the hotseat

State Department contracting scandal: Kennedy on the hotseat

This morning, former lawmakers and experts carried out the time-honored tradition of roasting an administration official over an open flame in the wake of a highly publicized embarrassing scandal, in this case, the flagrant antics of State Department contractors engaged in debauchery in Afghanistan.

The Wartime Contracting Commission, set up by legislation last year and tasked with investigating contracting abuses in Southwest Asia, set its sights on Patrick Kennedy, the under secretary of state for management. Kennedy, shown at left in 2008, was in the unenviable position of responding to photos of guards at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul performing “deviant sexual acts” as part of an apparent hazing ritual by contractors employed by ArmorGroup.

Commission cochairman and former GOP Rep. Chris Shays led off the hearing by lampooning State Department oversight practices, which, according to him, had failed to address the contractor misconduct since reports first surfaced last December.

“How did flagrant breaches of ArmorGroup’s code of conduct and its contractual obligations go unobserved and unreported by senior management for months?” Shays asked, “Why did ArmorGroup’s supervisors delay reporting news of misconduct and attempt to intimidate people who might report it?”

Democratic cochair Michael J. Thibault piled on.

“The contracting issues that require very close oversight have been going on for 27 months,” he said, “It’s troubling — and I’m going to ask for your comments — whether that continuous employee misconduct … hasn’t been disclosed or revealed.”

“There is no question, Mr. Chairman, that we should have done more, and I make no brook for that,” Kennedy said, adding that the State Department had just assumed that the contracting company was managing the conduct of its employees. “We simply made a mistake.”

The State Department was never told that such misconduct was going on during the time period in question, Kennedy claimed, promising to place State Department overseers permanently at the site from now on.

The now-infamous June 15 party where some of the most gruesome photos were taken — and first brought to light by the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group — should have been the last straw, Kennedy acknowledged.

“I’ve seen the pictures. You’ve seen the pictures. It’s a no-brainer,” Kennedy testified, “That conduct is appalling and should have been stopped immediately.”

Some commissioners bristled at the State Department’s contention that the deviant behavior did not jeopardize the safety and security of personnel on site.

“This June 15 incident, the August incident, all of these, I would argue, have the potential so to inflame Afghan opinion in general, and in particular the opinion of Afghan personnel on the embassy, as to endanger the lives of our personnel,” said commissioner Clark Kent Ervin.

But the State Department witnesses resisted attempts by the commissioners to delve into what punishments the ArmorGroup or its employees might suffer.

“A public hearing is not really necessarily the place that we need to have a discussion about the future of contractual actions,” said William Moser, deputy assistant secretary of State for management.

Commissioner Robert J. Henke pointed out that under current rules in Afghanistan, guards must go the embassy or the ISAF commissary to purchase alcohol, which means they often drive drunk back to their homes in armored convoys.

“My question for you is, why do you allow alcohol sales at the embassy in Kabul?” asked Henke.

Kennedy responded, “Because we believe that for — that if individuals behave responsibly, they should be able to drink.”

Alcohol use at Camp Sullivan, the compound where the guards live, has since been banned.

Hyperbole may have overtaken some of the commissioners during the hearing.

“This is the equivalent of Abu Ghraib for Afghanistan,” said commissioner and former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim.

Shays continued on the theme.

“It appears that what happens in Camp Sullivan stays in Camp Sullivan,” he said, adding, “In Abu Ghraib, we had a military unit run amok. In Camp Sullivan, we had [ArmorGroup] run amok.”

File Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images