Senate Confirms Mitchell (EUR), Siberell (Bahrain), Bass (Afghanistan), Huntsman (Russia)

Posted: 12:40 am ET
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On September 28, the U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination for the new Assistant Secretary for State for EUR, and the nominees as chiefs of mission to Bahrain, Afghanistan, and Russia.

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“Stoned” Guy in the Street Ruins U.S. Embassy Kabul’s Supposed Drug-Free Workplace

Posted: 4:10 am ET
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The AFP reported last week that six employees of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul have been dismissed for drug use or possession.  The State Department confirmed that “six individuals were involved” but that they are not State Department employees according to AFP. The report does not indicate what drugs were used but Afghanistan remains the world’s top opium producer despite billions of dollar spent by the U.S. government there.

It’s not like this is the first time there have been major personnel issues at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan.

Some years ago both American and expatriate Diplomatic Security contract U.S. Embassy guard staff members (including supervisors) appeared naked in numerous photographs and were also photographed fondling each other. These photographed activities took place at parties in or around the guard staff housing compound, and were evidence of, not surprisingly, “a pattern of blatant, longstanding violations of the security contract.” See POGO writes to Secretary Clinton about US Embassy Kabul Guards.

In 2013, the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) went looking for a contractor who would be responsible for administering drug tests to the estimated 1,300 security employees in Kabul. Noting that these “armed employees” in Kabul, who were “exposed to extreme conditions,” needed to be “reliable, stable, and show(ing) good use of judgment,” the cyclical drug testing (every six months) for amphetamines, opiates, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, cocaine, and marijuana was required.  So basically new contractors testing other contractors, see more here: State Dept Seeks Drug/Steroid Testing of Security Personnel in Afghanistan and Jerusalem.

But something obviously went wrong somewhere, hey? Sounds like the twice a year screening did not work. A person who appeared to be intoxicated was apparently noticed “wandering around in a state of confusion.” As a consequence, six U.S. Embassy Kabul mission members have been fired for allegedly using, possessing, and even selling illegal drugs. According to the Wall Street Journal, after investigators identified “the drug dealer” involved, his cellular phone was mined for contacts/leads and extensive searches of the embassy employees’ housing complex were launched, which led to the discovery of yet more drugs and more drug users.

According to the Wall Street Journal, most of the employees who were fired were American employees. Furthermore, this number allegedly includes contractors for Aegis/Garda. It is noteworthy that several years ago, dozens of Embassy Kabul guard staff members signed a petition accusing Aegis/Garda guard staff leaders of “tactical incompetence,” and shared that they had “a dangerous lack of understanding of the operational environment.” These American employees further called attention to serious gaps in the manned security of the compound, such as guard shortages at key guard positions.

In 2013, former Embassy Kabul security guards filed a class-action lawsuit against Aegis, claiming that the company refused to pay them for the overtime that they had worked while in Kabul. Though this lawsuit was later sent to arbitration, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) noted her opposition to the State Department’s continued reliance on contractors for embassy security. “We’ve seen failure after failure after failure by these contracted individuals to be competent, professional, and thorough,” she stated.

Note that last year, the housing compound for U.S. Embassy Kabul security personnel was also hit by a bomb (see US Embassy Kabul: January 4 Attacks Target USG Employees at Camp Sullivan).  According to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), the severity of the blast was significant. The blast radius was 100 meters wide, and the explosion left a crater that was fifteen feet deep. Half of the housing compound was rendered uninhabitable.

Aegis, the security contractor discussed above, was purchased by Garda/GardaWorld in 2015. Canada-based Garda, the world’s largest security services provider, acquired Aegis in order to expand their company presence throughout both the Middle East and Africa. Garda bids aggressively for embassy security contracts in places like Kabul. In 2015, it undercut former contractor Hart Security Australia with a three-year $72.3 million bid for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). In this case, Australian Security staff  reportedly faced a 60% wage reductions to keep their jobs. Read more about that here.

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Hopeless But Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in #Afghanistan (Excerpt)

Posted: 2:24 am ET
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Douglas Wissing previously wrote a book entitled, Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban.  He’s back with a new book, Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan. Kirkus Review calls it “a scathing dispatch” with “pungent, embittered, eye-opening observations of a conflict involving lessons still unlearned.”

As he gets into Kabul to embed with the military, the author notes “a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) billboard proclaiming women’s rights in English and Dari that few Afghan females can read, because almost 90 percent of them are still illiterate after more than a decade and $100 billion spent on grotesquely mismanaged US aid programs.”

That Ring Road?  Wissing writes, “During his frantic reelection push after the botched Iraq invasion, President George W. Bush decided that refurbishing the Ring Road on a yeehaw schedule in 2003 would show Afghans how things were done the American way. Well, it did. The highway is infamous for its poor construction and extravagant price.”

It’s that kind of book. It reminds us of Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well book on Iraq.

A couple of notes, Chapter 35 titled Embassy includes a nugget about Embassy Kabul refusing to allow the author to meet with SIGAR John Sopko who was also at post, without a minder. Sopko, according to Wissing was furious, demanding a private meeting without embassy handlers but “the diplomats won’t budge.”

Chapter 36 talks about Loss.  A cynical USAID financial officer earlier told the author that “given the amount of money the United States was pushing on the Afghan insiders who were “bankers,” he didn’t blame them for stealing it.” This is in relation to the Bank of Kabul scandal that involved an almost $900 million Ponzi scheme of fraudulent loans. The chapter also talks about Anne Smedinghoff and four other Americans, including three soldiers and an interpreter lost during a suicide attack in Qalat. The author previously meet Smedinghoff during a visit to the embassy compound in Kabul where the latter acted as his minder, assigned to escort him for an interview with a Justice Department official who was working the Afghan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC).

The author told us that he find audiences in the U.S. are often surprised to learn that Afghanistan remains our largest foreign military engagement–$44 billion requested for FY 2017 (vs $5 billion for Syria) “to add to the trillion dollars already wasted.” He also notes that around 10,000 US troops are still there, along with up to 26,000 defense contractors.

We’re posting an excerpt of the book courtesy of Amazon Kindle/Preview:

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EEOC Finds @StateDept Liable Under the Rehabilitation Act in US Embassy Kabul Medical Clearance Denial

Posted: 12:21 am ET
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This is a case where an FSO previously diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis was granted a Class 2 medical clearance for an assignment at the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.  While at post, the FSO developed pericarditis and was hospitalized in Kabul in 2013; she was subsequently medevaced to Texas. The FSO was later told by State/MED that she retained her Class 2 Medical Clearance, but it was not Kabul-approved.  In August 2013, the FSO filed an EEO complaint alleging that the State Department discriminated against her on the basis of disability. The State Department’s decision  notes that in denying her clearance, its medical officers failed to conduct a sufficient individualized assessment of the risk posed by Complainant’s medical condition and its impact on her ability to return safely to Kabul.  It held “that there was no evidence that the medical officers and Medical Review Panel took into account the duration of the risk, the nature and severity of the potential harm, and the likelihood that the harm will occur or the imminence of the potential harm, as required by the law.”  It also concluded that MED“improperly denied Complainant a Class 2 medical clearance (Kabul-approved).”  The FSO on appeal asserted that she was not provided with full relief, including reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. In response to that appeal, the State Department noted that its final decision was, get this — “erroneously issued.”

Summary of Case via EEOC:

In September 2011, Complainant was assigned to work as an Administrative Officer at the Agency’s Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.  Complainant had been diagnosed with ongoing rheumatoid arthritis since 1999. In conjunction with her assignment to Kabul, Complainant was reviewed by the State Department’s Office of Medical Services (State/MED) for a medical clearance.  Complainant was granted a Class 2 (Kabul-approved) medical clearance 2 and she started her duties in Kabul.  While on leave from Kabul in the United States in June 2012, Complainant saw a doctor and was prescribed a new medication for her arthritis called Leflunomide. At the time, Complainant did not report that she was taking this new medication to Agency medical officials.

In April 2013, Complainant developed pericarditis which led to her hospitalization in Kabul.  At that time, her physicians at the hospital advised her to stop taking Leflunomide and she did so.  Upon her release from the hospital, Embassy medical officials made the decision to send Complainant back to the United States for an evaluation by her own physicians. On May 7, 2013, Complainant departed Kabul for El Paso, Texas.

Upon her return to El Paso, Complainant was examined by her own physician (“Complainant’s Physician”) for clearance to return to Kabul.  She provided documentation to the Agency’s Office of Medical Services indicating that her physician had no concerns with her return to Kabul. On May 31, 2013, Complainant was initially informed by the Agency’s physician (“Agency Physician”) that her medical clearance for Kabul would be renewed.

However, on June 3, 2013, the Agency Physician informed her that she retained her Class 2 Medical Clearance, but was not Kabul-approved.  Complainant was told that the reason for the denial of her clearance to return to Kabul was her use of Leflunomide, a drug banned by the Department of Defense for use by personnel assigned to Afghanistan.3  As Complainant had stopped using the medication since her April 2013 hospitalization, she appealed the denial of her medical clearance for Kabul.  Her appeal was denied by the Agency’s Medical Review Panel on the grounds that her cessation of Leflunomide was too recent. The Panel indicated that Complainant needed to show a period of at least 12 month of “clinical stability” before she could return to Kabul.  The Panel defined clinical stability as “the absence of systemic clinical manifestations of pericarditis and rheumatogic problems.”  There was some speculation that, because Leflunomide reduces resistance to infection, Complainant’s pericarditis may have resulted from its use.  Complainant then requested an Administrative Waiver to allow her to return to her position in Kabul.  That waiver was also denied on June 19, 2013.  Since May 2013, Complainant has been working from the Agency’s El Paso, Texas, Intelligence Center.

On August 22, 2013, Complainant filed an EEO complaint alleging that the Agency discriminated against her on the basis of disability (rheumatoid arthritis) when her “Return to Post Authorization” was not reinstated and she was prevented from returning to work at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

At the conclusion of the investigation, Complainant requested a hearing before an EEOC Administrative Judge (AJ).  However, on March 10, 2014, the Agency issued a final decision pursuant to 29 C.F.R. § 1614.110(b). In its decision, the Agency conceded the Complainant was an individual with a disability as defined by the Rehabilitation Act.  The Agency further determined that Complainant was an otherwise qualified individual with a disability, as she had been performing in the position in question in Kabul for the preceding two years, and had the requisite knowledge, experience, skill, and education to perform the position.

The Agency’s decision then noted that Complainant was denied a Class 2 Medical Clearance (Kabul-approved) because of the perceived risk of harm she posed to herself due to her recent use of the drug Leflunomide. As a result of this determination, Complainant was prevented from returning to her previously-approved assignment in Kabul.  The Agency’s decision went on to conclude that, in denying her clearance, its medical officers failed to conduct a sufficient individualized assessment of the risk posed by Complainant’s medical condition and its impact on her ability to return safely to Kabul.  Specifically, Agency held that there was no evidence that the medical officers and Medical Review Panel took into account the duration of the risk, the nature and severity of the potential harm, and the likelihood that the harm will occur or the imminence of the potential harm, as required by the law.  The Agency decision noted that medical opinions that supported Complainant ability to safely return to Kabul were improperly given little weight during the medical clearance determination.  Accordingly, the Agency’s final decision concluded that it improperly denied Complainant a Class 2 medical clearance (Kabul-approved).

Based on its finding that Agency medical staff had failed to provide Complainant with an individualized assessment, the Agency ordered the Office of Medical Services to go forward and actually conduct the required individualized assessment of Complainant’s medical condition and her ability to return to the Administrative Officer position at the Agency’s Embassy in Kabul without posing a significant risk of substantial harm to herself or others.

This appeal followed.  On appeal, Complainant did not challenge the findings by the Agency, but asserted that she was not provided with full relief, including reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.

In response to the appeal, the Agency noted that its final decision was erroneously issued in light of Complainant’s previous request for a hearing.  As such, the Agency argued that the final decision should be voided.  In response, Complainant argued that the final decision should not be considered void and the matter should not be remanded for a hearing.

EEOC ANALYSIS AND FINDINGS: Violation of Rehabilitation Act

As an initial matter, we find that Complainant’s statement on appeal constitutes a withdrawal of her earlier hearing request.  As such, we deny the Agency’s request to void its final decision.

In that decision, the Agency found that its medical staff failed to conduct a proper individualized assessment as required by the Rehabilitation Act when Complainant was prevented from returning to work at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.  Complainant does not challenge the Agency’s findings in its final decision.  As such, we affirm the Agency’s specific findings.  However, the Agency did not expressly state that its actions constituted discrimination in violation of the Rehabilitation Act.

As evidenced by the Agency’s final decision, there is no dispute that Complainant is an individual with a disability who was otherwise qualified for the position in she had previously held in Kabul. In other words, she met the skill, experience, education and other job requirements to perform the duties of the position in Kabul, apart from the Agency’s decision to retract her medical clearance for work in Kabul.

The Agency noted in its findings in its own decision that Complainant’s Physician provided medical documentation that Complainant was no longer taking Leflunomide, the drug of concern, had not had flare-ups of her medical condition, and had embarked on a healthier lifestyle. However, the Agency conceded that Complainant’s supporting medical documentation was improperly “given little if any weight.”  The Agency also admitted in it decision that the denial of the Class 2 Medical Clearance was due to the “perceived risk of harm she posed to herself or others” and not on an actual risk.  Based on the record including the medical evidence provided by Complainant’s Physician, we find that Complainant has shown that she was qualified for the position in question in Kabul and was only prevented from doing so based on the Agency’s perception that she posed a safety risk.  This moves the burden of proof squarely to the Agency to prove that there is a significant risk of substantial harm. Massingill v. Dep’t. of Veterans Affairs, EEOC Appeal No. 01964890 (July 14, 2000).  See also, Branham v. Snow, 392 F.3d 896 (7th Cir. 2005) (“employer’s burden to show that an employee posed a direct threat to workplace safety that could not be eliminated by reasonable accommodation”); Hutton v. Elf Atochem N. America, 273 F.3d 884, 893 (9th Cir. 2001) (direct threat affirmative defense).

Here, as already noted, the Agency’s own decision concluded that Complainant was denied a Class 2 Medical Clearance because of perceived risk of harm she posed to herself or others.  Our regulations permit the Agency to deny job assignments on the basis of disability where such an assignment would pose a direct threat. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(r). A “direct threat” is defined as a “significant risk of substantial harm” that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation. Interpretive Guidance of Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Appendix to 29 C.F.R. Part 1630, § 1630.2(r); Echazabal v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc. 536 U.S. 73 (2002); 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(r).

The issue in finding direct threat is “not…whether a risk exists, but whether it is significant.” Bragdon v. Abbott, 524 U.S. at 649. A direct threat must be based on an individualized assessment of the individual that takes into account: (1) the duration of the risk, (2) the nature and severity of the potential harm, (3) the likelihood that the potential harm will occur, and (4) the imminence of the potential harm. Interpretive Guidance on Title I of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Appendix to 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(r). The individual assessment must be based on a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge and/or on the best available objective evidence. Id. A determination of significant risk cannot be based merely on an employer’s subjective evaluation, or, except in cases of a most apparent nature, merely on medical reports.

The Agency held in its final decision that it “failed to conduct a sufficiently individualized assessment of the risk posed by Complainant’s medical condition, and its impact on her ability to return safely to Kabul.  There is no evidence that the following factors were taken into account: 1) the duration of the risk; 2) the nature and severity of the potential harm; 3) the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and 4) the imminence of the potential harm.”  Based on the record and the Agency’s own findings in its decision, we determine that the Agency has not met its burden of establishing that Complainant’s return to Kabul would have posed a direct threat.  Accordingly, the Agency’s defense to denying Complainant the Class 2 Medical Clearance was not established, and the Agency is liable under the Rehabilitation Act.

As a result of this violation of the Rehabilitation Act, Complainant is entitled to make-whole relief, which the Agency did not provide her in its final decision.  First, the Agency should offer Complainant the assignment in Kabul if she chooses to return. See Nathan v. Department of Justice, EEOC Appeal No. 0720070014 (July 19, 2013) (awarding the complainant the position for which he applied following a determination that the agency violated the Rehabilitation Act when it medically disqualified him without an individualized assessment). In addition, Complainant correctly argues that she should be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees and legal costs for processing her EEO complaint, as well as the opportunity to support her claim for compensatory damages. Also, we find that the Agency provide training to relevant management highlighting the Agency’s obligations with respect to the Rehabilitation Act.

The EEOC concludes the case with a modification of the State Department’s  final decision and remanded the matter to the agency with the following order signed by Carlton M. Hadden on October 25, 2016.  The EEOC case file notes that compliance with the Commission’s corrective action is mandatory.

The Agency is ordered to take the following remedial action:

1. Within 60 calendar days from the date this decision is issued, the Agency shall offer Complainant an assignment in Kabul substantially similar to the one she lost. If Complainant rejects the offer of the assignment, the Agency shall use the date of rejection for purposes of back pay calculations as noted below.  If Complainant accepts the assignment, the Agency shall use the date Complainant assumes the assignment for purposes of back pay.

2. The issue of compensatory damages is REMANDED to the Agency. On remand, the Agency shall conduct a supplemental investigation on compensatory damages, including providing the Complainant an opportunity to submit evidence of pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages. For guidance on what evidence is necessary to prove pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages, the parties are directed to EEOC Enforcement Guidance: Compensatory and Punitive Damages Available Under § 102 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 (July 14, 1992) (available at eeoc.gov.) The Agency shall complete the investigation and issue a final decision appealable to the EEOC determining the appropriate amount of damages within 150 calendar days after this decision is issued.

3. The Agency shall determine if Complainant is entitled to an award of back pay as a result of the denial of her return to her assignment in Kabul.  The Agency shall determine the appropriate amount of back pay, with interest, and other benefits due Complainant, pursuant to 29 C.F.R. § 1614.501, no later than sixty (60) calendar days after the date this decision is issued.  The Complainant shall cooperate in the Agency’s efforts to compute the amount of back pay and benefits due, and shall provide all relevant information requested by the Agency.  We note that the Agency should consider if there would have been a difference in locality pay and benefits to Complainant including but not limited to promotions or other incentives for an assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan.

If there is a dispute regarding the exact amount of back pay and/or benefits, the Agency shall issue a check to the Complainant for the undisputed amount within sixty (60) calendar days of the date the Agency determines the amount it believes to be due.  The Complainant may petition for enforcement or clarification of the amount in dispute.  The petition for clarification or enforcement must be filed with the Compliance Officer, at the address referenced in the statement entitled “Implementation of the Commission’s Decision.”

4. Within sixty (60) days from the date this decision is issued, the Agency is ordered to provide at least eight (8) hours of training to the responsible officials covering their responsibilities under the Rehabilitation Act. The training shall cover the Agency’s obligations regarding the provision of reasonable accommodation, as well as its obligation to conduct an individualized assessment pursuant to the direct threat defense.

5. If Complainant has been represented by an attorney (as defined by 29 C.F.R. § 1614.501(e)(1)(iii)), she is entitled to an award of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs incurred in the processing of the complaint, including this appeal.  29 C.F.R. § 1614.501(e).  The award of attorney’s fees shall be paid by the Agency.  The attorney shall submit a verified statement of fees to the Agency — not to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Office of Federal Operations — within sixty (60) calendar days of this decision is issued.  The Agency shall then process the claim for attorney’s fees in accordance with 29 C.F.R. § 1614.501.

The State Department was also ordered to post this order within 30 days of the date of the decision for a duration of 60 consecutive days.

The Agency is ordered to post at its Washington D.C. facility copies of the attached notice.  Copies of the notice, after being signed by the Agency’s duly authorized representative, shall be posted both in hard copy and electronic format by the Agency within 30 calendar days of the date this decision is issued, and shall remain posted for 60 consecutive days, in conspicuous places, including all places where notices to employees are customarily posted.  The Agency shall take reasonable steps to ensure that said notices are not altered, defaced, or covered by any other material.  The original signed notice is to be submitted to the Compliance Officer at the address cited in the paragraph entitled “Implementation of the Commission’s Decision,” within 10 calendar days of the expiration of the posting period.

 

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US Embassy Kabul Gets a New Chargé d’ Affaires #HugoLlorens

Posted: 1:06 am ET
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Via state.gov:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for a photo with Ambassador Hugo Llorens at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on November 21, 2016. Ambassador Llorens, formerly the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate in Sydney, Australia, will become the new Chargé d' Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for a photo with Ambassador Hugo Llorens at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on November 21, 2016. Ambassador Llorens, formerly the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate in Sydney, Australia, will become the new Chargé d’ Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

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Taliban Attacks German Consulate, Building Previously Abandoned by USG For Being “Too Dangerous”

Posted: 2:04 am ET
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In December 2009, the US Embassy in Kabul announced that Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and the Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Dr. Rangin Dadfar Spanta, signed a new agreement under which the United States would lease an historic 1930’s hotel in Mazar-e-Sharif for use as the new U.S. Consulate. At that time, the United States has agreed to invest approximately $26 million to renovate the Mazar Hotel facility so that it may be used as an office building and housing for consulate employees (see US Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif Moving Forward and DIY Home Renovation Opportunity in Mazar-e-Sharif.

After signing a 10-year lease and spending eventually more than $80 million on a site envisioned as the United States’ diplomatic hub in northern Afghanistan, American officials were reported to have abandoned their plans, deeming the location for the proposed compound too dangerous according to WaPo in May 2012. The WaPo report cited an internal memo written by Martin Kelly, then acting management counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul saying that the facility was far from ideal from the start:

The compound, which housed a hotel when the Americans took it on, shared a wall with local shopkeepers. The space between the outer perimeter wall and buildings inside — a distance known as “setback” in war zone construction — was not up to U.S. diplomatic standards set by the State Department’s Overseas Security Policy Board. The complex was surrounded by several tall buildings from which an attack could easily be launched.[…] Responding effectively to an emergency at the consulate would be next to impossible, Kelly noted, because the facility does not have space for a Black Hawk helicopter to land. It would take a military emergency response team 11 / 2 to 2 hours to reach the site “under good conditions,” he said.”

Also this:

In December (2011), embassy officials began exploring alternative short-term sites for their diplomatic staff in northern Afghanistan. A Western diplomat familiar with the situation said the United States has sought, so far in vain, to persuade the German and Swedish governments to sublet it. The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter, said European diplomats have found the prospect laughable.”

Read more US Consulate Mazar-e-Sharif: $80 Million and Wishful Thinking Down the Drain, and Not a Brake Too Soon.

In June 2013, the German Consulate opened at the old Mazar Hotel in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Last Thursday, a suicide bomber rammed a truck into the German Consulate in Mazar, killing at least six civilians and wounding 120.  The Telegraph reported that Afghan special forces have cordoned off the consulate, previously well-known as Mazar Hotel, as helicopters flew over the site and ambulances with wailing sirens rushed to the area after the explosion. On November 12, the US Embassy in Kabul announced that it will be closed for routine services on Sunday, November 13 as a temporary precautionary measure.

We don’t as yet know if this property with a 10-year USG leased was sublet by the German Government or purchased by the Germans from its owners. We will update if we know more. There were local casualties but there were no reported casualties for German consulate workers. We understand that this was a reasonably secure building after all the fit-out and upgrade work was done prior to the USG suspending the project in 2012 but that the site is hemmed in by other structures and too close to high-traffic venues like the Blue Mosque. Then Ambassador Ryan Crocker decided that the location was too risky when he arrived in Afghanistan and so the USG abandoned this building.

Snapshot: US Embassy Kabul Operations and Maintenance Costs, April 2011-Sept 2016

Posted: 1:01 am ET
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Via State/OIG

Screen Shot

 

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Interagency People to SIGAR: Hit the road John and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more …

Posted: 2:26 am PT
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Last year, the NYT covered SIGAR’s John Sopko.

This past Labor Day, there was this big splash, quite an effort here from a dozen or so folks from three agencies:

Detractors describe Sopko as “egomaniacal,” “petty,” “a bully” and “the Donald Trump of inspectors general.” But Sopko has publicly brushed off — even relished — the criticism, arguing that it’s his job to shine a light on mistakes made by “bureaucrats” who would prefer that his reports “be slipped in a sealed envelope in the dead of night under the door — never to see the light of day.”

“My job is to call balls and strikes,” Sopko once told NBC News. “Nobody likes the ump.”

Here’s SIGAR Sopko previously discussing his media strategy:

Then here’s one view from Afghanistan:

John F. Sopko was appointed Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction on July 2, 2012 by President Obama. In his last congressional post, Mr. Sopko was Chief Counsel for Oversight and Investigations for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, chaired by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), during the 110th Congress.

In the fall of 2010, a bi-partisan group of senators and POGO called for the removal of Mr. Sopko’s predecessor. At that time, POGO reported that “the SIGAR office has largely been considered a disappointment, and numerous deficiencies in its operations and audit reports have been identified.” The POGO investigator also said at that time that the “office has produced milk-toast audits that have not inspired congressional confidence.”  In January 2011, the previous inspector, Arnold Fields, a retired Marine major general, resigned, per WaPo “after a review by the Council of Inspectors General found that many of his office’s audits barely met minimum quality standards and that Fields had not laid out a clear strategic vision.”

In accordance with Government Auditing Standards, SIGAR is required to undergo a periodic external quality control review (peer review). SIGAR’s latest peer review, which was conducted by the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) was publicly released on March 30, 2016:

The NASA Office of Inspector General reviewed the system of quality control for the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) Auditing Division in effect for fiscal year 2015. As indicated in our February 25, 2016, report, we assigned SIGAR a “pass” rating. During our review, we found three issues that were not of sufficient significance to affect our opinion on this rating but that require your attention. We believe these issues could be addressed through simple revisions to the policy manual.

So SIGAR was reviewed by IG peers and got a pass rating!  Imagine that.

Mr. Sopko’s deputy famously said once,“Some people are unhappy with the fact we get press coverage, even though our two-person press shop pales in comparison to the squadrons of PR people at Embassy Kabul, ISAF, or DOD. Some people think we’re doing this to attract attention and gratify our egos. They are mistaken. Neither John nor I are angling for another government job, movie role, book advance, or trying to become the next YouTube sensation.”

We should note that when we request information from SIGAR, we always get a response. When we request information from US Embassy Kabul, our emails just get swallowed by black holes of indifference.

 

Related item:

Letter of Comment on the System of Quality Control for the Audit Organization of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (PDF) March 2016

 

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US Embassy Kabul’s Two New Buildings Have Hazardous Electrical Currents That Can Cause Severe Injury and Death

Posted: 1:39 am ET
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On July 24, 2009, DODIG released its report on Electrocution Deaths in Iraq (see Appendix A for the list of 18 U.S. military and contractors who died from electrocution from March 2003- March 2009 (PDF).

On September 1, 2009, US Air Force Staff Sgt. Adam Hermanson who worked for State Department contractor, Triple Canopy also reportedly died from electrocution. According to one media report, his body was discovered on the floor of a shower near his quarters at Camp Olympia. (See State Dept Contractor Electrocuted in Iraq).

On April 12, State/OIG posted its Management Alert: Hazardous Electrical Current in Office and Residential Buildings Presents Life, Health, and Safety Risks at U.S. Embassy Kabul, Afghanistan (PDF) affecting potentially 1200 individuals.  The two buildings (a 917-desk New Office Annex (NOX) and the 298-bed Staff Diplomatic Apartment (SDA-1) are part of a major office and residential expansion at Embassy Kabul at a cost of nearly $800 million. Embassy personnel reportedly began occupying the NOX in July 2015, and residents began moving into the SDA-1 apartments in February 2016.

This is a “management alert” as such, its  intention is indeed “to alert” the State Department leadership about this significant issue that requires immediate corrective action. The only think missing from this management alert is its distribution list; we don’t want to hear later on that this went only as far as the assistant secretaries desks.

Excerpt below:

During the course of an ongoing audit of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) construction and commissioning of a new office and residential apartment building at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) identified life, health, and safety risks to building occupants due to a type of hazardous electrical current—known as objectionable current—in both the office and apartment building. Specifically, OIG and the USACE team, which included master electricians from Task Force Protect Our Warfighters and Electrical Resources (POWER), discovered objectionable currents measuring up to 16.7 amps in the New Office Annex (NOX) building and up to 27 amps in the residential apartment building—Staff Diplomatic Apartment (SDA-1).1 Objectionable current is electrical current occurring on the grounding wiring of a building. Although the National Electrical Code does not establish a life safety threshold for objectionable current, Task Force POWER considers any objectionable current a risk to life and safety.

Industry safety standards regarding electrical shock indicate that loss of life is probable with current as low as 10 amps.2 In the case of the NOX, the objectionable current measured 6 amps more than the level that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have determined is likely to result in cardiac arrest, severe burns, and probable death. With respect to the residential apartment, or SDA-1, the objectionable current measured 17 amps more than the level of amperage that the CDC has determined is likely to result in death. The most common causes of objectionable current are improperly installed electrical wiring, equipment, and faulty electrical appliances.

The NOX is designed to accommodate more than 900 Department personnel, and when fully occupied, SDA-1 will house nearly 300 residents. When objectionable current flows on metal parts, it can cause electric shock and even death from ventricular fibrillation because of the elevated voltage. It can also cause a fire to ignite if combustible material is placed near the current. As a result, the life, health, and safety of Department personnel occupying these buildings are at risk. Accordingly, OIG is recommending that Embassy Kabul in coordination with OBO take immediate action to: (1) examine the installation of electrical wiring, equipment, and appliances in the NOX and SDA-1 to ascertain the cause for the objectionable current; (2) determine what mitigation measures can be immediately taken to eliminate or reduce risk to personnel occupying the buildings; (3) and, to the extent necessary, inform residents of the existence of objectionable current and the risks associated with it, and provide instructions on how to eliminate or avoid accompanying hazards.

State/OIG says that Task Force POWER in Afghanistan was created by Congress in response to the deaths of 14 U.S. personnel in Iraq in 2008 due to electrocution as well as injuries to a number of others from electrical shock. Its mission is to identify and correct electrical issues at all military facilities in Afghanistan.

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Senior embassy officials briefed:

OIG and Task Force POWER representatives briefed senior embassy officials of their findings on February 27, 2016. Subsequent to that briefing, the Department sent a cable (see Appendix C) on February 29, 2016, stating, among other things, that little or no objectionable current was measured prior to occupancy but that it is taking actions to address the high levels of objectionable current that have now been detected. The Department also issued a Management Notice on March 2, 2016, further outlining the actions it is planning to take to address the issue (see Appendix D). OIG is equally concerned with the safety and security of personnel living and working at the embassy and believes that it is paramount that the embassy takes actions to address the concerns.

Embassy Kabul’s response:

Embassy Kabul reported that Facilities Management, OBO, and maintenance and construction contractors have examined the electrical wiring in the NOX and SDA-1 and have documented the objectionable current readings at the buildings’ electrical panels. The group also examined the main power distribution loop servicing both the East and West sides of the embassy compound and subsequently shared this information with OBO’s Electrical Safety Working Group.

Embassy Kabul further stated that although the group consisting of Facilities Management, OBO, and contractors performed detailed inspections of the buildings and the power distribution loop, it has not been able to determine a single root cause of the objectionable current. Due to the highly technical nature of objectionable current, the embassy indicated that it must defer to the OBO subject matter experts as well as OBO’s Electrical Safety Working Group for guidance and a determination of the causes of objectionable current at the SDA-1 and NOX buildings

State/OBO’s response:

OBO told OIG in its formal response that it “conducted comprehensive reviews of SDA-1 and the New Office Annex (NOX) buildings prior to occupancy. At that time, little or no objectionable current was measured. However, it is not unusual for objectionable current to present itself after the installation of equipment and appliances post- occupancy and when the building is running at full capacity.”

OIG recommended that the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations’ Facilities Management Office, in coordination with Embassy Kabul, determine what mitigation measures can be immediately taken to eliminate or reduce risk to personnel occupying the buildings.

OBO Director Lydia Muniz told OIG Steve Linick in its memorandum response that “OBO does not agree that the observed objectionable current poses a general problem for the occupants of the building, but agrees that workers in the restricted electrical and mechanical rooms face a potential hazard.”

“OBO Response: OBO did not concur that observed objectionable current poses a general problem for the occupants of the building. OBO stated that the first priority of both OBO and Embassy Kabul was to inspect residential spaces and those used by the public. According to OBO, the readings in residential and public spaces were consistent with readings taken prior to building occupancy, and OBO verified that the objectionable current was limited to locked and restricted mechanical and electrical rooms.”

As a result of OBO’s non-concurence, OIG considered its recommendation unresolved:

… because OBO did not concur that the observed objectionable current poses a risk for occupants in the NOX and SDA- 1. According to Task Force POWER, until OBO is able to isolate the source(s) of objectionable current, it may be present anywhere throughout the electrical system. Higher readings of amperage detected in mechanical and electrical rooms may be the cumulative result of multiple sources of objectionable current located throughout the building. Additionally, according to Task Force POWER, higher levels of objectionable current will be observed at the electrical panels, as this is where all electricity returns to complete the circuit. While authorized personnel performing maintenance on the electrical system are at a higher risk of coming in contact with objectionable current, there is no evidence that the risk is limited only to workers in restricted electrical and mechanical rooms.

The Thing (From Another World) - James Arness plays the hostile plant-based extraterrestrial in the 1951 RKO Pictures sci-fi horror. (gif via Dangerous Universe)

The Thing (From Another World) – James Arness plays the hostile plant-based extraterrestrial in the 1951 RKO Pictures sci-fi horror. (gif via Dangerous Universe)

A need for increased awareness and mitigation measures for all embassy personnel:

State/OIG says it “will consider the recommendation resolved when OBO and Embassy Kabul identify mitigation measures to eliminate or reduce the immediate risk to those personnel occupying the NOX and SDA-1. The March 2, 2016 Management Notice issued to all Embassy personnel increased awareness, but did not identify mitigation measures for all Embassy personnel. Instead, the notice limits its guidance to advising employees not to enter or tamper with locked mechanical rooms or electrical boxes. This recommendation will be considered closed when OIG receives and accepts documentation demonstrating that OBO, in conjunction with U.S. Embassy Kabul, has implemented mitigation measures to eliminate or reduce the immediate risk to office workers and building residents in addition to those mitigation steps already taken to reduce the risk to workers accessing mechanical and electrical rooms.”

Click here for the American Heart Association’s Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation and Emergency Cardiovascular Care in the case of electric shock — particularly on modifications for basic life support and advanced cardiovascular life support.

 

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@StateDept Marks Third Smedinghoff Death Anniversary, Internal Investigation Still Remains Classified

Posted: 9:35 pm PT
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

Via state.gov/DPB:

In fact, today, April 6th, marks the third anniversary of the death of Anne Smedinghoff, a bright, rising star in the Foreign Service who was taken away from her family, her friends, and the department in an attack that took place three years ago in Zabul Province, Afghanistan. Anne was 25 years old and on her second tour as an FSO, Foreign Service officer, serving as a press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. In Secretary Kerry’s words at the time, Anne was a, quote, “vivacious, smart, and capable individual,” end quote. And as he wrote in a note that went out to all State Department employees at the time – well, shortly after that tragic event he wrote, “that no one anywhere should forget for a minute that the work of our diplomats is hard and hazardous or that as you serve” – you being the diplomats – “serve on the frontlines in the world’s most dangerous places, you put the interest of our country and those of our allies and partners ahead of your own safety,” end quote.

We would also pay tribute, obviously, to the memories of the three U.S. soldiers as well as an Afghan American translator and an Afghan doctor who were also lost on that tragic day, as well as to those who were injured in that incident. We honor their memories and their service to the United States and Afghanistan.

Last year, there was this:

Then a couple of weeks ago:

“It is also unfortunate that the knowledge we gained while working in Qalat left apparently left with us. Before going any further, my partner, Dr. Ledet and I conducted research into improving education in the province.  Specifically, we were tasked with learning how the US should distribute learning materials to Afghans, and we did so by working with tribal, religious, and political leaders in the area.  Our report was distributed to the PRT, US military and the DoS working in the areas, and briefed to higher authorities. The senior Afghan Ministry of Education (MoE) representative for the province, and multiple leaders we consulted, provided us with the solution regarding how the US could help improve education. Our Afghan partners clearly and forcefully stated, US elements were not, under any circumstances, to provide books directly to Afghan childrenYet, Anne and the others died on a book delivery operation. WTF?…”

Read more:

Since the State Department is remembering publicly the death of Anne Smedinghoff, we’d like to — once more — call on the State Department to declassify its internal report of the Zabul attack.  The State Department spokesperson at that time said that no State rules were broken. If so, there should not be a problem with releasing that internal review.  It would be in the public interest to see how the agency’s internal review stack up against that scathing Army report.

There’s also nothing that precludes Secretary Kerry from declassifying the internal review and voluntarily releasing it considering that the U.S. Army had already released its own report.

But we know as we write this that the State Department is not going to release this report or it would have done so already following the Army report.

So the State Department will continue marking death anniversaries, and saying solemn words of remembrance for the dead.  And all the while, keeping under wraps its purported review of the incident that no one gets to see but for a few officials with “need to know.”

The question is — why?

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