The Cable

State Department contracting scandal: Kennedy on the hotseat

This morning, former lawmakers and experts carried out the time-honored tradition of roasting an administration official over an open flame in the wake of a highly publicized embarrassing scandal, in this case, the flagrant antics of State Department contractors engaged in debauchery in Afghanistan.

The Wartime Contracting Commission, set up by legislation last year and tasked with investigating contracting abuses in Southwest Asia, set its sights on Patrick Kennedy, the under secretary of state for management. Kennedy, shown at left in 2008, was in the unenviable position of responding to photos of guards at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul performing "deviant sexual acts" as part of an apparent hazing ritual by contractors employed by ArmorGroup.

Commission cochairman and former GOP Rep. Chris Shays led off the hearing by lampooning State Department oversight practices, which, according to him, had failed to address the contractor misconduct since reports first surfaced last December.

"How did flagrant breaches of ArmorGroup's code of conduct and its contractual obligations go unobserved and unreported by senior management for months?" Shays asked, "Why did ArmorGroup's supervisors delay reporting news of misconduct and attempt to intimidate people who might report it?"

Democratic cochair Michael J. Thibault piled on.

"The contracting issues that require very close oversight have been going on for 27 months," he said, "It's troubling -- and I'm going to ask for your comments -- whether that continuous employee misconduct ... hasn't been disclosed or revealed."

"There is no question, Mr. Chairman, that we should have done more, and I make no brook for that," Kennedy said, adding that the State Department had just assumed that the contracting company was managing the conduct of its employees. "We simply made a mistake."

The State Department was never told that such misconduct was going on during the time period in question, Kennedy claimed, promising to place State Department overseers permanently at the site from now on.

The now-infamous June 15 party where some of the most gruesome photos were taken -- and first brought to light by the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group -- should have been the last straw, Kennedy acknowledged.

"I've seen the pictures. You've seen the pictures. It's a no-brainer," Kennedy testified, "That conduct is appalling and should have been stopped immediately."

Some commissioners bristled at the State Department's contention that the deviant behavior did not jeopardize the safety and security of personnel on site.

"This June 15 incident, the August incident, all of these, I would argue, have the potential so to inflame Afghan opinion in general, and in particular the opinion of Afghan personnel on the embassy, as to endanger the lives of our personnel," said commissioner Clark Kent Ervin.

But the State Department witnesses resisted attempts by the commissioners to delve into what punishments the ArmorGroup or its employees might suffer.

"A public hearing is not really necessarily the place that we need to have a discussion about the future of contractual actions," said William Moser, deputy assistant secretary of State for management.

Commissioner Robert J. Henke pointed out that under current rules in Afghanistan, guards must go the embassy or the ISAF commissary to purchase alcohol, which means they often drive drunk back to their homes in armored convoys.

"My question for you is, why do you allow alcohol sales at the embassy in Kabul?" asked Henke.

Kennedy responded, "Because we believe that for -- that if individuals behave responsibly, they should be able to drink."

Alcohol use at Camp Sullivan, the compound where the guards live, has since been banned.

Hyperbole may have overtaken some of the commissioners during the hearing.

"This is the equivalent of Abu Ghraib for Afghanistan," said commissioner and former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim.

Shays continued on the theme.

"It appears that what happens in Camp Sullivan stays in Camp Sullivan," he said, adding, "In Abu Ghraib, we had a military unit run amok. In Camp Sullivan, we had [ArmorGroup] run amok."

File Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Uighurs, Iran, Venezuela, Musharraf

In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. Here are the highlights of today's briefing by spokesman Ian Kelly:

  • The State Department has issued a "travel alert" for China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, particularly in the city of Urumqi. This follows widespread protests and ethnic unrest in that region, including "needle stabbings" (more on that story here). Kelly pointed out that is it not a "travel warning," which would recommend against all travel to China.
  • The P5+1 partners (the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) will meet at the U.N. General Assembly to prepare for their Oct. 1 meeting with Iranian officials. That meeting will not occur in either the United States or Iran, but a third country. "We plan to address this issue of their not living up to their obligations head on," said Kelly, referring to the Iranian government. "We are not planning to start a whole new process here; we're going to sit down and have the opportunity to explain to them directly what their choice is," he added. Under Secretary of State William J. Burns will lead the U.S. delegation.
  • The State Department has "concerns" about Venezuela's drive to acquire sophisticated weaponry and concerns about that country exporting said weaponry to rogue actors, following this morning's news that a new arms deal with Russia was in the works. "We urge Venezuela to be transparent in its purchases and very clear about the purposes of these purchases," Kelly said.
  • No real comment on recent interviews in which former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf claimed he diverted U.S. military assistance meant to fight extremists to Pakistan's Indian front. Kelly: "I'll just say as a general principle we take very seriously any allegation of using U.S.-origin military assistance for purposes other than we had already agreed to and that we had intended them for."
  • Former Sen. George Mitchell is to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas tomorrow, but no comment on the showdown over settlements that is in the offing. The Netanyahu meeting was postponed one day so both men could attend the funeral of 21-year-old Israeli fighter pilot Assaf Ramon.
  • No decision has been made over whether Amb. Stephen Bosworth will accept the North Korean invitation to visit Pyongyang. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did eat lunch with former North Korean captive Laura Ling and her family.