WASHINGTON — At two in the morning on Sept. 9, 2005, five DynCorp International security guards assigned to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's protective detail returned to their compound drunk, with a prostitute in tow. Less than a week later, three of these same guards got drunk again, this time in the VIP lounge of the Kabul airport while awaiting a flight to Thailand.
"They had been intoxicated, loud and obnoxious," according to an internal company report of the incident, which noted that Afghanistan's deputy director for elections and a foreign diplomat were also in the lounge. "Complaints were made regarding the situation." DynCorp fired the three guards.
Such episodes represent the headaches that U.S. contractors can cause in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. They are indispensable to the State Department's mission overseas, handling security, transportation, construction, food service and more. But when hired hands behave badly – or break the law – they cast a cloud over the American presence.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act describe previously undisclosed offenses committed by more than 200 contract employees in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries between 2004 and 2008. They were working under a broad State Department security services contract shared by DynCorp of Falls Church, Va., Triple Canopy of Reston, Va., and the company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide – Xe Services of Moyock, N.C.
Most of the infractions, which include excessive drinking, drug use, sexual misconduct, and mishandling weapons, were violations of corporate and U.S. policies that probably went unnoticed by ordinary Afghans and Iraqis. But other offenses played out in public, undermining U.S. efforts in both countries and raising questions about how carefully job candidates are screened.
Despite complaints from foreign capitals about reckless behavior and heavy-handed tactics, U.S. contractors are more important than ever.
In Iraq, the departure of U.S. combat forces has left a security and logistics support vacuum to be filled by the private sector. In testimony to the independent Wartime Contracting Commission in June, a State Department official said as many as 7,000 security contractors – more than double the current number – will be needed to guard the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and other offices across Iraq.
Karzai had to back away from the Friday deadline he had set to ban security contractors after Western diplomats said the move threatened the completion of billions of dollars worth of critical reconstruction projects that need to be protected from insurgent attacks.
In 2009, DynCorp employees working under a separate State Department contract to train Afghan police would be the source of more trouble. A diplomatic report disclosed by the WikiLeaks organization described a panicked Afghan minister urging U.S. officials to stop The Washington Post from running a story about DynCorp workers who had hired an Afghan teenage boy to dance at a company party. Videotape of the event showed more than a dozen DynCorp workers cheering the teenage dancer on as he moved around a single employee sitting on a chair, according to the Post story, which ran in July 2009.
Interior Minister Hanif Atmar claimed the embarrassing publicity could cause a backlash in Afghanistan and "endanger lives."
DynCorp is one of the department's most prominent vendors. More than one-third of the company's $3.1 billion in 2009 revenues came from State Department contracts for armed security, law enforcement training and aviation services, according to the company's latest annual report. The police training contract alone is valued at $651 million.
DynCorp fired four senior managers for the dancing episode, which it said was "culturally inappropriate" and reflected poor judgment by the employees.
"No company can guarantee that their employees will behave perfectly at all times, under all conditions," DynCorp spokeswoman Ashley Burke said. "What we can guarantee is that we will clearly define expectations, train our employees according to those expectations and hold people accountable for their behaviors."
U.S. contractors have sought to improve their reputation through advocacy groups such as the Professional Services Council and the International Stability Operations Association, both based in Washington. In Geneva last month, more than 50 companies that work in war zones signed an international code of conduct to improve openness and accountability.
Ignacio Balderas, Triple Canopy's chief executive officer, said his company will push to ensure the code gains worldwide acceptance "and becomes an integral part of how the industry operates."
But reversing entrenched attitudes isn't easy. In a telling assessment of how U.S. contractors are viewed, Atmar, who Karzai dismissed as interior minister in June, reported that "these contractor companies do not have many friends."
The documents obtained by AP help to show why.
In March 2008, Blackwater guards forced an Afghan soldier to the ground and handcuffed him after he refused to let their vehicle pass through a checkpoint at the Kabul airport because they didn't have proper identification. A 13-page report by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul describes a tense confrontation between the Blackwater personnel and Afghan troops that could have resulted in a gun battle.
The confrontation caused "significant damage" to the embassy's reputation with the Afghan National Army, the report said. The embassy ordered the firing of the two Blackwater guards it said were most responsible.
In early 2006, when U.S. authorities were stressing the importance of cultural sensitivity in Iraq, a Blackwater contractor was openly hostile to Iraqis, according to a company record. During a detail at Iraq's ministry of water, he refused to shake hands with the ministry's chief of security, accusing the Iraqi official of being "part of the (expletive) Mahdi militia," a reference to a paramilitary force loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
A month later, the same employee repeatedly disrupted a class on Iraqi culture, accusing the instructor of "spreading propaganda." He was fired after that for being "unable to act professionally" toward the Iraqis, State Department employees, and co-workers, according to the document.
In March 2005, a fired Blackwater contractor who was in a hotel in Jordan awaiting a flight back to the U.S. ignored a supervisor's order to stay in his room until his plane was ready to leave. He got drunk and fought with several Jordanians, spit at and tore down a picture of Jordan's King Abdullah, and was arrested. Blackwater managers escorted him from the jail to the airport.
Blackwater eventually lost its license to operate as guardian of U.S. diplomats in Iraq after its security guards were accused of killing unarmed Iraqi civilians in 2007.
In a written statement, Xe said it maintains high standards of conduct. When company policy is violated, "disciplinary actions are taken up to and including termination from employment," the company said.
On Friday, the investment group USTC Holdings announced it had bought Xe in a deal that includes the company's training facility in North Carolina. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
State Department: http://www.state.gov/m/ds/
Xe Services: http://www.xeservices.com
Triple Canopy: http://www.triplecanopy.com
Professional Services Council: http://www.pscouncil.org
International Stability Operations Association: http://www.stability-operations.org