Whistleblower sues Afghanistan security firm

Images released by a watchdog group show raucous partying and sexual hazing by private embassy guards.
A former manager for the private contractor that provides guards for the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan said he tried to blow the whistle more than a year ago about inadequate staffing and improper behavior by guards, including going to brothels and sex trafficking.

James Gordon filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court Thursday claiming he was forced from his job illegally in February 2008 by ArmorGroup, North America (AGNA) — a security contractor owned by Wackenhut Services Inc. Gordon said he asked the company and the U.S. State Department in investigate activities in Kabul by the company’s guards, but there was no follow-up investigation. Gordon’s suit, which seeks back pay and unspecified punitive damages, follows separate reports last week by a watchdog group that the contractor allowed mistreatment, sexual activity and intimidation within the ranks of private guards hired to protect the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. A spokeswoman for Wackenhut at its Florida headquarters released a statement saying Gordon had resigned voluntarily and that his departure was not tied to whistleblowing nor was there retaliation by the company. “We found that Mr. Gordon’s factual allegations and legal claims were overstated, ill-founded, not based on any personal knowledge, or otherwise lacking in legal merit. We chose not to accede to the demands of Mr. Gordon and his lawyers and instead to let them present their case in court if they chose to do so,” the Wackenhut statement said. Gordon spoke to a Washington news conference by telephone Thursday, saying he is working for another security firm in Kabul but declining to give any further details. Explaining his lawsuit, Gordon said, “I set out two years ago to see to it that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul was protected. I am hoping that the public airing of this lawsuit will bring us closer to that goal.”

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Last week a watchdog group, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), released photographs showing raucous partying and sexual hazing by private embassy guards. POGO sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and briefed reporters on its findings, which it said were based on e-mails and interviews with more than a dozen guards who have worked at the U.S. compound in Kabul. In the wake of POGO’s actions, the State Department said the behavior shown in the photos was “disgusting” and launched several investigations and said it had removed some of the private guards from the country. Meanwhile the same company continues to guard the U.S. Embassy, a contract worth more than $180 million a year. State Department Spokesman P.J Crowley said in his daily briefing in Washington that the department had “aggressively overseen” the contract for embassy guards and had issued nine so-called “cure notices” to correct specific deficiencies since the contract began in 2007. “At no time was the security of the embassy ever threatened or compromised,” Crowley said. But Gordon called the assertion “ludicrous.” “If you hire a guard force that is placing you at risk because of their behavior, and is also inadequate with regard to the fact of language difficulty between elements of the guard force, I don’t see how anyone can say the government is getting what they are paying for and it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the embassy itself,” Gordon said, referring to reports that some of the private guards hired by the contractor were non-English-speaking Gurkhas from Nepal. “If the guards can’t communicate with each other, how are they going to communicate in a disaster How are you going be able to properly respond to a scenario if you have to use pantomime to properly convey a message to a member of the security force It is ludicrous for anyone to say that is a safe environment and an effective security force,” Gordon said. Crowley said State Department officials had interviewed more than 150 guards since pictures were released last week by the watchdog group, and that a total of 16 people had been kicked out of the country. But Crowley would not comment on the new claims that private guards had patronized brothels and allegedly been involved in sex trafficking, with Crowley saying he would not discuss any matters that might be under litigation. In his lawsuit Gordon said one employee “had to be forcibly removed from a brothel in Kabul during working hours.” Gordon said he tried to have that person dismissed but found other ArmorGroup personnel, including “the AGNA medic and the program manager himself had frequented the brothels with him.” “On the heels of this incident I learned that there had been an outbreak of sexually transmitted disease among AGNA guards in 2007 that had never been reported as required to the State Department, and that the guard force routinely frequented brothels,” Gordon said Thursday. Gordon said the company resisted “with outright hostility” his efforts as a manager to impose a no-brothel policy. And Gordon said he asked both the company and the State Department to investigate whether guards were personally involved in sex trafficking, and that to his knowledge nothing was done. “United States law, known as the Trafficking in Victims Protection Act, prohibits contractors from procuring commercial sex while working on the contract,” Gordon said in a statement. “Many of the prostitutes in Kabul are young Chinese girls who were taken against their will to Kabul for sexual exploitation.” Gordon said a trainee had boasted that he could purchase a girl for $20,000 and turn a profit after a month. “I immediately notified both the State Department and AGNA’s president, and urged the company to thoroughly investigate whether sex trafficking was occurring among the guard force … To my knowledge neither AGNA nor the State Department conducted a follow-up investigation,” Gordon said. Another former manager of guards in Afghanistan spoke with Gordon during the news conference. The second manager, John Gorman, is not involved in Gordon’s lawsuit but said he wanted to highlight what he called fraud, deception and incompetence, as well as what he called “sexually deviant behavior” exhibited by people hired as guards in 2007. Gorman, who said he is a former U.S. Marine, also said he was forced out after he tried to spread the alarm about embassy security.

“Knowing full well that our jobs were on the line, we went to the embassy out of a sense of duty and patriotism,” Gorman said. He said he went to the embassy to report problems after first complaining to ArmorGroup North America about what he called the company’s “inability to provide for the security and safety of the U.S. personnel.” “In any interaction I have had with corporate officials from AGNA, no one — no one — ever mentioned or indicated a concern for the actual safety of the embassy. The greatest and only concerns were the profit margin,” Gorman said.