Guards said they voiced concerns about embassy security in regular daily meetings with State Department officials and Aegis supervisors.
In July -- about a month after Aegis had officially begun protecting the embassy -- they put their fears in writing, having quickly determined that the situation was unsafe.
Their petition, signed by some 40 guards, began by accusing leaders of creating "a hostile divided work place." For example, it alleges that guard force leaders live in comfort at the embassy while the rank and file are confined to Spartan barracks several miles away and forced to eat unhygienically prepared food that guards have told POGO regularly made them ill.
More significantly, the petition speaks broadly of leaders' "tactical incompetence" and "dangerous lack of understanding of the operational environment."
One of the most serious allegations in the petition describes a senior Aegis security supervisor who posted details about the embassy's defenses on the social media site LinkedIn. The disclosure included "exact force protection numbers," the petition says. The petition calls the disclosure "an operational security violation" that "threatens the lives" of the guards and "placed hundreds of American personnel at the Embassy in potential harm's way, should it end up in the hands of any anti-American extremist."
POGO obtained a copy of what was said to be the LinkedIn posting. If it was posted on the site, it has since been removed.
The petitioners pleaded for help from the government and their employer. "It is the duty of DOS [Department of State] and AEGIS to protect those Embassy personnel and the ERT [Emergency Response Team] that may have been placed in harm's way."
The petition does not explicitly discuss some of the fears that came across most forcefully in POGO's interviews with guards -- such as their assertion that the guard force has been stretched dangerously thin.
The text of the petition concludes by invoking the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act, which, under certain circumstances, shields from retaliation government employees who expose mismanagement, abuse of authority, or danger. Unfortunately for the petitioners, only recently have federal whistle-blower protections been extended to State Department contractors.
One guard who helped organize the petition told POGO that shortly after the document reached the State Department and Aegis, he was summoned to appear in front of half a dozen Kabul-based Diplomatic Security officers and an Aegis supervisor. He said he was "grilled" for roughly 90 minutes about what had happened and his own role. That night, he said, he worked a regular shift, only to be awakened the next day and told he would be fired and had 90 minutes to get on a plane out of Kabul.
Roughly a week later, on July 18, the State Department addressed a "MEMORANDUM for Record" to Aegis calling for the "release" -- apparently meaning dismissal -- of another guard who has been described to POGO as a leader of the petition drive and a veteran of the U.S. Army and federal law enforcement.
That memo, a copy of which was obtained by POGO, said the guard held "a critical leadership position." It added that he "was instrumental in leading a baseless mutiny against the senior operational leadership of the guard force, which undermined the chain of command and ultimately put the security of the Embassy at risk."
"I was definitely retaliated against," the guard named in the
memo said. "I was bringing up issues to the [State Department's] regional security officers that they did not want to hear about. They asked me, 'Did I
sign the petition.' I said, 'Yes.' Then I got fired." The guard did not want to
be named in this report to avoid professional repercussions.
Two guards who said they did not sign the petition but were nevertheless critical of embassy security at staff meetings say they were told that if they did not leave the Kabul guard force voluntarily, they would be fired. They have since returned to the United States. "I was terminated for telling the truth," one of them said.
Partly as a result of the scandal involving Aegis's predecessor, the congressionally mandated bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan held a hearing and warned in 2009 that the system was broken, in part because it called for approving the lowest acceptable bid. This in turn encouraged companies to "under-bid" to win awards and then "use every means possible to limit costs."
Although Congress subsequently allowed security contracts, including the Aegis contract, to be awarded on a more subjective basis, the allegations from the Kabul embassy guards suggest that problems with private contractors persist.
In December, as a review board reported its findings about the Benghazi fiasco, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote that after the attack "we took immediate steps to further protect our people and posts in high threat areas, working closely with the Department of Defense."
Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides later testified that some 225 Marines would be sent to so-called medium- and high-threat posts, "where they will serve as visible deterrents to hostile acts." The State Department is also seeking to hire more than 150 additional diplomatic security personnel, an increase of 5 percent, he said.
It remains unclear, however, what specific steps have been or will be taken to reinforce security at the embassy in Kabul. A State Department spokeswoman declined to say.
"We do not release details about our security procedures," the department said.
As part of the broader response to the Benghazi killings, Nides testified that the government dispatched teams to assess security at 19 posts in 13 countries.
Apparently, the embassy in Kabul was not one of them.
The State Department told POGO that security was already heightened at that post and therefore "it was determined that the inter-agency assessment teams would be best utilized at other locations."
When asked about increased security at the Kabul embassy, one guard wrote POGO on Dec. 21, saying, "No I have not seen an increase of security at all, in fact probably a decrease with everyone quitting and such."
Clinton, who has been recovering from a concussion and blood clot, is scheduled to testify about Benghazi to Congress next week.