In 2009, Aegis's predecessor as the security contractor there, ArmorGroup North America (AGNA), became embroiled in controversy after POGO documented security shortcomings similar to those alleged by Aegis guards -- from a breakdown in the chain of command to long hours, low morale, and alleged retaliatory firings. The organization's investigation also brought to light lurid photographs of guards engaged in nude, apparently drunken revelry and sexual hazing.
Testifying before a federal commission in September 2009, an executive of AGNA's parent company, Wackenhut Services, said there were "no excuses" for the guards' "misbehavior" and he was "not here to defend the indefensible." Although AGNA "suffered from many contractual compliance issues," Wackenhut Services Vice President Samuel Brinkley said in written testimony, "the security of the Embassy was never at risk."
The State Department chose a replacement for AGNA in 2010 only to conclude months later that the replacement company would be unprepared to begin work on schedule. Aegis was awarded the task in July 2011 and finally took over Kabul embassy protection in June 2012. But according to the Aegis guards, it rapidly became clear that the security situation was untenable.
Aegis declined to answer questions for this report. "Per our contractual obligations, all questions and inquiries regarding this contract should be directed to the Department of State's Public Affairs Office," company spokesman Joshua C. Huminski wrote.
In a written response to questions, the State Department said that a regional security officer assessed operations at the embassy and "determined that security policies and procedures are sound."
The department said it takes seriously the concerns of Aegis personnel. After receiving the petition, the embassy conducted roundtable discussions "with those who wanted to voice their concerns." According to department, it "did not request the removal of any contract personnel for voicing their concerns or signing the petition." Some individuals, it said, "have been removed for other reasons."
An atmosphere of danger pervades everyday life for U.S. personnel in Kabul. Almost a year to the day before the Benghazi attack, insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades at the U.S. compound in Kabul. And on Nov. 21, a Taliban suicide bomber claimed three victims only blocks from the U.S. Embassy. A former senior U.S. official who served at the embassy said that security is designed to defend the facility "against direct assaults, one or two or more.… But a … breach in the [embassy] wall followed by a group of suicide bombers, that would be a close call.… That would be a bad day."
The sprawling, heavily fortified facility reflects the threat -- barbed wire, bomb-sniffing dogs, machine gun emplacements, perimeter walls, and towers. The lives of about 1,500 embassy employees -- American and local staff -- are on the line.
As in U.S. embassies around the world, there is a small contingent of U.S. Marines, but their main mission is to protect the chancery and destroy classified materials in the event of a breach. The embassy's defense falls principally to hundreds of American and foreign contract guards -- including approximately 100 members of the Emergency Response Team, according to guards POGO interviewed -- overseen by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
In Kabul, the embassy guard force is run by Aegis Defense Services under a federal contract that the State Department said has a "current value" of $497 million. (The full scope of that contract, awarded in July 2011, is unclear; the State Department said it is for security services in Kabul "for one base year plus four option years," but the department has not responded to a request for clarification.) Aegis has also provided a variety of security services to U.S. efforts in Iraq.