Official: Kabul Embassy Hazing Covered Up

Security guards at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan are seen dressed as Afghan nationals. The guards reportedly used the costumes to patrol the streets of Kabul, even though they are not trained or authorized to do so.
For the first time Monday, a Wackenhut executive, Samuel Brinkley, publicly answered to the scandal at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Wackenhut owns ArmorGroup, which provides the 450-member private security force that guards the 1,000 people who work at the embassy.

At least five insiders claim they blew the whistle on dangerous practices as far back as 2007, notifying top company executives and State Department officials. All subsequently lost their jobs. In all, 20 security guards have contacted the whistleblower group Project on Government Oversight (POGO) in recent weeks with more complaints.

Wackenhut's Brinkley testified under oath today before members of the Commission on Wartime Contracting. He repeatedly denied knowing anything about allegations of serious security lapses or alleged forced sexual hazing of recruits by guards and supervisors until mid-August. Commission member Chris Shays took Brinkley to task for once he acknowledged knowing about lurid photos and parties.

Shays called it "a coverup."

Brinkley replied, "That's unfair."

"No it isn't unfair," Shays retorted. "You can deny it, but that's what it comes across to me."

It's been nearly two weeks since CBS News first reported on the photographs and allegations. Just last week, somebody at the guard camp in Kabul put up a poster showing a rat with a quote from the mobster movie Goodfellas: "Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut."

Shays showed the poster at the hearing and addressed Brinkley.

"That would explain, Mr. Brinkley, why your management folks don't know much. There's this kind of sickness, cancer, in your organization." Shays added. "You don't seem to be outraged at all that this happened!"

Brinkley answered, "I am outraged. I am embarrassed. I am humiliated. We take this very, very seriously."

The panel also criticized an official from the State Department who insisted security at the embassy was never in jeopardy. Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy said much of the behavior was isolated to the camp where the guards are housed so, he said, State Department officials had no evidence of a problem.

Images of alleged hazing (Graphic Content)
Shocking Hazing at U.S. Embassy in Kabul
Graphic Content: Additional video of Kabul hazing
Alcohol Banned at U.S. Embassy in Kabul
Letter to Sec. Clinton describing abuses (.pdf)

Commissioner Linda Gustitus answered by stating "finding no evidence seems to me like maybe you weren't looking for it." In retrospect, Kennedy told commissioners, the State Department should have assigned an officer to the housing compound. "It clearly establishes that we failed to assign an officer to live on that compound to monitor what was going on," Kennedy said.

While much of the questioning focused on the recent hazing, evidence in photos and videotapes, the commissioners did little to delve into specifics of voluminous witness and email evidence showing an extensive dialogue on security issues two years ago, including lurid and inappropriate behavior by recruits.

CBS News has reviewed e-mails and interviewed high-ranking company whistleblowers. In one exchange, an ArmorGroup official advised managers that the way the company intended to handle one staffing concern wasn't "legal" or "right," but was the way to "skate" past employment lawyers. In another exchange between ArmorGroup's Director of Operations James Gordon and a State Department official, Gordon warned of ongoing staffing shortages that could prove dire in an attack, saying, "If one person gets sick or slips on a banana peel, the whole thing falls apart like a cheap suit."

The State Department's reply: "Lock up the banana supply."

Today's hearing did not explore in any detail allegations that some security guards were patronizing brothels that exploited women sold into sexual slavery, so-called human trafficking. According to company whistleblowers, one recruit specifically expressed his desire to "purchase a Chinese woman" for $20,000, put her on the street, and turn a profit within a month. The incident was reported to company officials and the State Department and the employee was terminated. However, Gordon told CBS News that any attempt at a broader investigation into the problem was "pathetic."

Panel members did dig into an incident in which embassy guards, who are not authorized by contract nor are they trained to do off-embassy surveillance, dressed in costumes as Afghan nationals and went out on the streets of Kabul.

Commissioners said the "mission" could have put the military or embassy guards at risk by venturing from their defined tasks. To conduct the mission, ArmorGroup guards allegedly took night vision goggles and other equipment from the U.S. embassy leaving the embassy "night blind." When Commissioners asked Wackenhut's Brinkley whether the State Department knew about or authorized the mission, Brinkley first balked at answering, then said that his information was that the State Department did approve the mission. He stressed that the investigation is ongoing and he hadn't been able to confirm that information.

In all, Commissioner Chris Shays likened the damage that could be caused by shocking photos of wild parties, lewd behavior and costumed guards to that of Abu Gharib.

Since the photos became public, twelve embassy guards have been fired or have resigned. The State Department, which twice renewed ArmorGroup's contract amid serious violations, says it will review the way it uses private contractors to guard overseas embassies.

Commissioner Guistitus today commented that she was struck by the fact that "if there weren't pictures, this would all still be going on."

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.