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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Whistleblower in @StateDept “CIVPOL” Contract Gets $875K in False Claims Act Settlement

Posted: 12:30 am ET
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On September 13, USDOJ announced that Pacific Architects and Engineers, LLC has agreed to pay $5 million in False Claims Act allegations related to “PAE’s Civilian Police “CIVPOL” contract in support of State Department missions in Afghanistan, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia, South Sudan, and elsewhere. The announcement includes a note that “The claims settled by this agreement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability.” It also adds that the $5 million settlement also resolves a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by former PAE manager Robert J. Palombo under the qui tam, or whistleblower provisions, of the False Claims Act and that Mr. Palombo will receive $875,000 as his share of the government’s recovery.

Below is an excerpt from the announcement:

WASHINGTON – Pacific Architects and Engineers, LLC (“PAE”) has agreed to pay the United States $5 million to resolve allegations that it knowingly failed to follow vetting requirements for personnel working in Afghanistan under a State Department contract for labor services. PAE is a Virginia-based contractor that provides personnel and other support to various federal government agencies.

The settlement was announced today by U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips and Steve A. Linick, Inspector General for the U.S. Department of State.

The agreement resolves claims relating to PAE’s Civilian Police “CIVPOL” contract in support of State Department missions in Afghanistan, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia, South Sudan, and elsewhere.  In 2007, the State Department awarded PAE a task order under the CIVPOL contract to provide training and mentoring personnel to counter-narcotics and drug interdiction police and investigators in Afghanistan. The task order required PAE to conduct extensive background checks on U.S. personnel that were in high risk or armed positions, including independently developed reference checks. For local, national, and third party national employees working on the task order, PAE was obligated to submit their names to the State Department’s Regional Security Office in Afghanistan for additional security clearance. According to the government’s evidence, PAE was aware of these contractual requirements but did not comply with them for extended periods. The United States asserts that invoices PAE submitted to the State Department for the labor services of improperly vetted personnel were false.

“This settlement affirms our commitment to hold government contractors accountable for properly screening employees, particularly those who work alongside our government’s personnel in fragile areas of the world,” said U.S. Attorney Phillips. “In this particular matter, it is alleged that PAE failed to conduct the appropriate vetting for personnel working in Afghanistan under a State Department contract for labor services for which invoices were later submitted. Our Office will continue to investigate and seek appropriate recoveries from contractors who do not meet their obligations.”

“The OIG special agents and staff assigned to this case should be commended for their excellent investigative work,” said Inspector General Linick. “Rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse is at the heart of any OIG mission, as is ensuring that contractors are accountable for every taxpayer dollar they receive.”

The settlement also resolves a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by former PAE manager Robert J. Palombo under the qui tam, or whistleblower provisions, of the False Claims Act. Under the False Claims Act, private citizens may bring suit on behalf of the United States and share in any recovery obtained by the government. Mr. Palombo will receive $875,000 as his share of the government’s recovery. The case is captioned United States ex rel. Robert J. Palombo v. PAE, Inc., et al. 

The claims settled by this agreement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability.

This settlement was the result of an investigation into Mr. Palombo’s allegations by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and the Department of State, Office of Inspector General.

The full statement is available here.

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Nomination: Amb. John R. Bass to be U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan

Posted: 1:26 am ET
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On July 20, President Trump announced his intent to nominate Ambassador John Bass to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. The Wh released the following brief bio:

John R. Bass of New York to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.  Mr. Bass, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Minister-Counselor, has served as an American diplomat since 1988.  He is currently Ambassador to the Republic of Turkey, a position he has held since 2014.  He also served as Ambassador to the Republic of Georgia from 2009 to 2012.  Mr. Bass has spent much of the past decade supporting Federal Government efforts to mobilize allies and marshal resources to combat terrorism and instability in Iraq, Syria, and Southwest Asia.  He has served at six U.S. Missions overseas and in senior leadership positions at the Department of State.  Mr. Bass earned an A.B., cum laude, from Syracuse University.

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US Embassy Kabul: 9 Afghan Guards Killed, 11 American Contractors Wounded

Posted: 2:06 am ET
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A sewage truck reportedly loaded with 1,500 kgs of explosives was used in the deadly attack in Kabul that killed 90 people and wounded over 400 individuals. The State Department told CBS news that nine Afghan guards at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul were killed and 11 American contractors wounded in the massive suicide truck bomb attack that rocked the diplomatic quarter.  This might be the largest casualty of local guards in recent memory.  In 2008, seven local guards and local law enforcement personnel were killed during an assault of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul announced the closure of routine services:

The Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul will be closed for routine visa and American Citizen Services on Thursday, June 1 and will resume normal operations on Sunday, June 4, 2017.  U.S. citizens needing emergency assistance can call the American Citizen Services section at 070-011-4000 or send an email to KabulACS@state.gov.

In accordance with the Travel Warning for Afghanistan, the Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens against travel to Afghanistan.  The U.S. Embassy in Kabul urges all U.S. citizens in Afghanistan to review your personal security plans, take appropriate steps to enhance your personal safety, remain aware of your surroundings, monitor local news for updates, and maintain a high level of vigilance.

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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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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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