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

Posted: 4:10 am ET

 

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

 

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

Posted: 1:06 am ET

 

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

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

 

Via State/OIG

Screen Shot

 

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J. Kael Weston’s The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan (Excerpt)

Posted: 1:45 am ET

“When we look into that mirror, let’s not turn away.”
-J. Kael Weston

Richard Holbrooke in The Longest War called John Kael Weston “a remarkable young Foreign Service officer after he established a direct dialogue with tribal leaders, university students, mullahs, madrassa students and even Taliban defectors in 2008.

Dexter Filkins, the author of The Forever War wrote that “As a front-line political officer for the State Department, Weston has perhaps seen more of Iraq and Afghanistan than any single American. But what makes this book special–what makes Weston special–is his ability to transcend his own experience and bring it all home, and force us, as Americans, to ask ourselves the larger questions that these wars demand. This is a necessary book, and one that will last.” 

Phil Klay, the author of Redeployment and winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction  and the John Leonard First Book Prize wrote that the books is “a riveting, on-the-ground look at American policy and its aftermath” and “is essential reading for anyone seeking to come to terms with our endless wars.”

John Kael Weston joined the State Department in 2001. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan as the State Department representative in Anbar Province, Iraq, and Helmand and Khost Provinces in Afghanistan (http://www.jkweston.com). He has a twin brother Kyle Weston who works for a Utah-based outsourcing company and wrote about experiencing war through a twin.  Prior to serving in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, he served at USUN in 2003.  He is the recipient of the Secretary of State’’s Medal for Heroism.  He left government service in 2010.  Read an excerpt below courtesy of Amazon Kindle/Preview:

Screen Shot 2016-05-31

click on image to read the excerpt

 

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USAID Reconstruction Contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq Bites Former Louis Berger Executives

Posted: 4:05 am ET

 

In May 2015,  the former president, chief executive officer, and chairman of the board of USAID contractor Louis Berger Group Inc. (LBG) was  sentenced to 12 months of home confinement and fined $4.5 million for conspiring to defraud the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) with respect to billions of dollars in contracts over a nearly 20-year period.  See Conspired to Defraud Uncle Sam? Be Very Afraid. We’re Gonna Put You in Home Confinement! Last week, USDOJ announced that it has filed a lawsuit under the False Claims Act against the former LBG CEO Derish M. Wolff  and former CFO Salvatore J. Pepe “for conspiring to overbill the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other government agencies for costs incurred performing reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries.”

Via USDOJ: United States Sues Former Executives of Government Contractor for Making False Claims in Connection with Reconstruction Contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq

The Justice Department announced today that the government has filed suit under the False Claims Act against Derish M. Wolff and Salvatore J. Pepe, respectively the former CEO and CFO of Louis Berger Group Inc. (LBG), for conspiring to overbill the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other government agencies for costs incurred performing reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries, the Justice Department announced today.  LBG is based in East Orange, New Jersey.

“Those who do business with the U.S. government should expect appropriate consequences if they do not deal fairly,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.  “As this case demonstrates, the government will hold both corporate entities and individuals accountable if they misuse taxpayer funds.”

The government’s complaint alleges that Wolff and Pepe designed and directed various accounting schemes that resulted in LBG billing the government for indirect overhead costs at inflated rates.  According to the complaint, for example, Wolff and Pepe shifted portions of salaries of LBG executives and accounting personnel from contracts paid for by foreign and state governments and private entities to contracts paid for by the United States.  Wolff and Pepe allegedly certified the false rates and submitted them to the government in annual financial reports.

The United States resolved criminal and civil claims against LBG arising from this conduct on Nov. 5, 2010.  At that time, LBG entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement and paid $50.6 million to resolve False Claims Act allegations.  Pepe pleaded guilty on that date to a charge of conspiracy to defraud the government and was later sentenced to one year probation.  Wolff pleaded guilty to the same charge on Dec. 12, 2014, and was later sentencedto 12 months of home confinement and required to pay a $4.5 million fine for his role in the scheme.  The complaint filed today asserts civil claims against Wolff and Pepe.

The United States filed its complaint in a lawsuit originally brought under the qui tam, or whistleblower, provisions of the False Claims Act, by Harold Salomon, an LBG accountant from March 2002 to October 2005.  Under the Act, a private citizen can sue on behalf of the United States and share in any recovery.  The United States is also entitled to intervene in the lawsuit, as it has done in this case.

This matter is being handled by the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland, with investigative support from the FBI, USAID’s Office of Inspector General, the Defense Criminal Investigative Service and the Defense Contract Audit Agency.

“I applaud the dedication of USAID-OIG special agents, along with special agents of the FBI and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service,” said USAID Inspector General Ann Calvaresi Barr.  “Their joint investigative work has helped the Justice Department take action against those responsible and signals our continuing commitment to protecting public funds from fraud, waste, and abuse.”

The case is United States ex rel. Harold Salomon v. Derish M. Wolff & Salvatore J. Pepe, Civ. No. RWT-06-1970 (D. Md.).  The claims asserted against Wolff and Pepe are allegations only to the extent not admitted in their criminal pleas, and there has been no determination of civil liability.

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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

 

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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WaPo: New Afghan Trail to the West Goes Through Cuba?

Posted: 3:40 am ET

 

Via WaPo:

Over the past two months, travel agents in Kabul have been surprised by Afghans showing up at their offices with Cuban visas, which are suspected of having been issued in Iran or acquired on the black market.

“Ten or 15 people have come just since January asking for tickets for Cuba,” Sayeedi said. “And they are not staying there. The only option is to move forward, probably on to Mexico and then America or Canada.”

Other agents in Kabul also report a spike in interest in Cuba, and U.N. officials in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz say they recently encountered a family with Cuban visas. Havana has been a way station in the past for South Asians hoping to transit to Central America and from there to the United States.

Besides Cuba, some Afghans are attempting to land in South America, either to seek residency there or make the trip north toward the U.S.-Mexico border.

Read more:

 

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