The saga of U.S. diplomatic security in Afghanistan continues.
The company responsible for providing security at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan has at times directed guards to underreport the number of hours they worked to avoid revealing that they have been on the job up to 18 hours per day, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week on behalf of people who have served on the guard force.
In addition, supervisors at the company, Aegis Defense Services, "regularly edited employees’ timesheets so that they did not reveal any work beyond the Regular Schedule," the lawsuit says.
Aegis employees in Kabul are supposed to work 72 hours per week but have regularly exceeded that, on many occasions working 14- to 18-hour days for six or seven days per week, the lawsuit says.
While the extra hours allowed Aegis to meet its staffing obligations to the State Department, the employees were not paid for that time, the suit alleges.
The civil suit seeks money allegedly owed to affected guards and says "the amount in controversy exceeds $5 million." Filed as a class action, it accuses Aegis of breach of contract and unjust enrichment.
The four plaintiffs named in the lawsuit are described as a former senior guard, a dog handler, and two former emergency medical technicians. The lawsuit estimates that the class has at least 200 members.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Hillary Schwab, told the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) that those she represents were "overworked, fatigued, and exhausted, which made them unable to carry out their assigned duties protecting the embassy."
"No one whom I’ve interviewed…failed to make this point of their own accord. They just couldn’t do the job," Schwab said.
News of the lawsuit comes as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is testifying on Capitol Hill today about the Sept. 11, 2012 attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya. In addition, President Obama’s nominee to succeed Clinton, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), is scheduled to appear for a confirmation hearing tomorrow.
Clinton is fielding questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on diplomatic security, and Kerry is expected to face similar questions.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, dovetails with allegations that the private security force responsible for protecting the embassy in Kabul has been stretched dangerously thin by long hours for days on end.
As POGO reported last week, people who have worked for Aegis in Kabul allege that security weaknesses have left the embassy — perhaps the most at-risk U.S. diplomatic post in the world — vulnerable to attack.
Former congressman Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who co-chaired the federal Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that if that commission were still in business it would be holding hearings on the allegations. In an interview Sunday, Shays said congressional oversight committees should investigate.
"Those are serious concerns and they can’t be ignored," Shays said.
"If the accusations are accurate, you’ve got a management problem. If they are not accurate, you’ve got a problem with those who are doing the work," he said. "But in either case you’ve got a problem."
Speaking before the lawsuit was filed and without knowledge of it, Shays said if a company under contract to provide embassy security systematically asked employees to misrepresent their hours worked, that company should be replaced, and if individuals within the company gave such directions, they should be fired.
Through a spokesman, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), a key watchdog of diplomatic security in her role as chairman of a Senate subcommittee on contracting oversight, called the allegations in POGO’s report "disturbing."
"Years after hearings I chaired highlighted problems at the Embassy in Kabul, the State Department’s management and oversight of private security contractors is still woefully inadequate," she said in a statement. "I plan to have a serious conversation — one that includes Senator Kerry — about what kinds of changes need to be made to ensure that our embassy personnel are protected," she added.
In interviews and written communications with POGO, people who have served on the embassy guard force in Kabul said problems persisted there even after the deadly attack in Benghazi put diplomatic security in the spotlight.
Last July, dozens of guards signed a petition submitted to Aegis and the State Department expressing a vote of no confidence in three guard force leaders. Soon after that, two guards who helped organize the petition were fired in what they said was retaliation for their whistleblowing.
A July 18, 2012 State Department memo obtained by POGO appeared to allude to the guards’ protest when it said a "mutiny" within the protective force "put the security of the Embassy at risk." The memo, which called the mutiny "baseless," did not mention the petition explicitly.
Spokesmen for Aegis and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit today.
Aegis declined to answer questions for the POGO report published last week. "Per our contractual obligations, all questions and inquiries regarding this contract should be directed to the Department of State’s Public Affairs Office," company spokesman Joshua C. Huminski wrote.
The State Department last week told POGO that "no guard is scheduled to work more than 12 hours per shift."
"[S]ome contract personnel were required to work additional days, partly due to the need for intensive in-service training," the department said in a written response to questions.
"Through Government oversight, contract adjustments, and Aegis’ adherence to contract requirements, the number of hours and days the guards worked were limited to contract requirements, and the Department maintained its primary objective of ensuring the safety and security of the Embassy," the department said.
The State Department denied that it sought the removal of any contract workers for raising concerns and said individuals had been removed "for other reasons."
A senior State Department official testified last month that after the killings in Benghazi the government sent teams to assess security at 19 posts in 13 countries. The department later told POGO that the teams were not sent to the embassy in Kabul.
"[D]ue to its location in a non-permissive environment," the department said, security was already heightened there and "it was determined that the inter-agency assessment teams would be best utilized at other locations."
Brooke Sammon, a spokeswoman for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that in the wake of the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities last September, "it is essential that the State Department review the security of all posts overseas, particularly those we know are in dangerous parts of the world."