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."
FP NatSec Exclusive: Mutiny among guards at the Kabul embassy; Panetta just met with David Cameron on Algeria; How Mike Vickers delivered for “Zero Dark Thirty”; Was Petraeus the last smart Army general? Dempsey meets with the Russians, and more.Gordon Lubold
Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children.| Situation Report |
John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.| The Complex |