WASHINGTON — Photos showing private security guards in various stages of nudity at drunken parties may be as damaging to U.S. interests in Afghanistan as images of detainee mistreatment at Abu Ghraib were in Iraq, members of an independent panel investigating wartime spending said Monday.
The photos widely circulating on the Internet show guards, hired by ArmorGroup North America to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, engaging in lewd behavior and sexual misconduct, giving Muslims in Afghanistan a negative image of the United States and making the jobs of American officials there all the more difficult, they said.
During a hearing that lasted almost six hours, the Commission on Wartime Contracting sharply criticized representatives from ArmorGroup and the State Department for being unaware of what was happening and for not acting more aggressively to correct the situation.
Christopher Shays, co-chairman of the commission and a former Republican congressman, said he was stunned that Wackenhut Services, ArmorGroup's owner, did not know about the problems that allegedly ranged from out-of-control parties to ArmorGroup guards and supervisors frequenting brothels in Kabul.
"It says to me there is something so incredibly sick about your organization that that would be the case," Shays told Samuel Brinkley, a Wackenhut vice president. "Are you not aware that these pictures would be absolutely deadly for our forces, that it would undermine our mission?"
'Personnel behaved very badly'
The accusations by Shays, which were echoed by other panel members, led to several heated exchanges with Brinkley, who portrayed himself and other company executives as being blindsided by the misconduct of a small number of employees.
"I am not here to defend the indefensible," Brinkley said. "Certain of our personnel behaved very badly."
Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, acknowledged the department should have been paying closer attention to what the ArmorGroup guards were doing at their living quarters near the embassy in Kabul, one of the nation's most important diplomatic outposts.
"There is no question we should have done more," Kennedy said. "We simply made a mistake. We assumed that the contractor was going to be managing its conduct at the guard camp."
Brinkley and Kennedy insisted security at the embassy has never been compromised. They also said the employees responsible for the misconduct are being disciplined. An inquiry is under way and State Department investigators are looking for possible criminal conduct.
So far, 21 personnel have been fired or resigned. However, 16 of those moves have occurred since Sept. 1, when an independent watchdog group made public photos and a report detailing the ArmorGroup's failings in Afghanistan.
Danielle Brian, executive director of the watchdog group, the Project on Government Oversight, says she has received photos from company whistle-blowers indicating the lurid parties were taking place as far back as January 2008.
Brian said ArmorGroup employees have been warned by their colleagues in Afghanistan not to speak out. She said they have awakened and found posters of rats on their doors with messages threatening them and their families.
Brinkley acknowledged that Wackenhut and ArmorGroup erred by waiting nearly two weeks before telling the State Department about an alcohol-related incident in August that proved far more serious than company officials first believed.
The onsite manager for ArmorGroup counseled nine guards after they got drunk at a bar near their living quarters in Kabul on Aug. 10, according to Brinkley.
But after the photos surfaced showing guards and supervisors in various stages of nudity at parties flowing with alcohol, they realized they made a mistake by not alerting U.S. officials.
"In retrospect, we were wrong in not notifying the State Department," Brinkley said.
Contract under review
Kennedy, the State Department's management chief, said no decision will be made on whether to terminate the contract with ArmorGroup until the investigation is completed.
Members of the commission pressed Kennedy to be more aggressive, saying the evidence already available is enough to warrant firing ArmorGroup, which was awarded the $189 million contract to protect the embassy in March 2007.
Commissioner Clark Ervin asked Kennedy to pledge to terminate the contract if the investigation proves all the allegations to be true.
Kennedy refused to commit, saying the inquiry needs to run its course. However, Kennedy added, "We are seeing a very, very serious case being made for termination."
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