June 11, 2009 -- Despite concerns from lawmakers and State Department officials, the department will continue to employ a private security firm with a checkered history to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, an official confirmed before to a Senate investigative panel Wednesday.
The firm, ArmorGroup North America, "[has] done a reasonable job providing security for the embassy, and we've been satisfied with that performance," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William H. Moser told the Subcommittee of Contracting Oversight.
Panel chairman Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced a stack of internal State Department documents that appeared to contradict Moser's claim. Like a 2007 letter from a State official to ArmorGroup stating its performance was so bad, "the security of the US Embassy. . . is in jeopardy[.]"
"I'm not going to say those are exaggerations," Moser said of the letter. Rather, State officials can sometimes "be tough" with firms at the start of their contracts, he explained, to "make sure they know we're serious."
McCaskill cited a State Department report a year later finding ArmorGroup had failed to remedy many of the problems it cited in 2007. "This is a full twelve months later. Are we still exaggerating?" McCaskill demanded.
"This is a tough balancing act," Moser said. "We knew there were problems. . . [but] the day-to-day tasks on the ground were still adequate, and security was sound."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) pressed Moser on State's concerns that the firm did not keep enough ammunition in reserve.
"We were disturbed" by that, Moser conceded. But despite the shortage, "guards were still on post, they had enough ammunition to shoot with." However, he said, officials were concerned that "if we acutally did have an incident," they might run short.
What about weapons? McCaskill asked. "My understanding is they still don't have the weapons required under the contract, is that true?"
"That is correct," Moser admitted, but blamed the Pentagon's enormous need for firearms, which he said was causing a shortage that affected the company.
Separately, the panel also heard from Samuel Brinkley, vice president of ArmorGroup's owner, Wackenhut Security Inc. McCaskill said the State Department had a policy against appearing before a congressional committee at the same time as its contractors. "Where that comes from, I don't get it, but it is what it is," she said.
Brinkley said his company had made great efforts to turn their performance around, even though it meant they were now losing $1 million a month on the deal, which appeared to stump both McCaskill and Collins.
"I'm confused," McCaskill said. "If you're losing a million dollars a month, why wouldn't you tell them" you want out of the contract?
"My understanding is it's the government's decision," replied Brinkley. The company was proud to serve, he said. "On the other hand, there's the financial business side. I'd prefer to do it and not lose money."
Noting that Kabul was in the middle of a war zone, and there were obvious problems with using a private contractor to protect the embassy, McCaskill wondered aloud if it wasn't time to start using military personnel to guard the compound. "Is it maybe time to say we should not be guarding embassies in theater with private security contractors?"