When we first heard that ABC News was working on a story about U.S. security contractors in Afghanistan getting drunk and doing drugs, we had one of those collective sighs: “Here we go again.”
The leaked cell phone video that ABC News and CNN broadcast this week showed a shirtless, staggering security manager for Jorge Scientific showing off his drunken Kung Fu and later wrestling another man. Even more troubling was a shot of the company’s chief medical officer appearing stoned out of his mind on what the report identified as the drug Ketamine.
As Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, told ABC News, the men in the video were not only endangering themselves, but also the civilians they were hired to protect.
There was other questionable behavior in investigative reporter Brian Ross’s Nightline report. Employees of Jorge Scientific, which has a $47 million contract to train Afghan police, also supposedly threw live ammo into bonfires they built outside their Kabul residence.
One of the former employees who blew the whistle on the improper behavior said, “It was like a frat house.”
Frat house antics. Drunk, shirtless contractors. Bonfires. It’s déjà vu all over again.
Three years ago, my colleagues at POGO heard similar stories from whistleblowers working for a different security contractor in Afghanistan. That contractor, ArmorGroup North America, provided security at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
The whistleblowers provided us photos and videos that showed men wearing grass skirts and coconut bras hoisting beer bottles. In one photo, a naked guy did some sort of dance by a bonfire. In another, men did vodka butt shots—drinking vodka poured, as the name implies, onto a colleague’s bare backside.
Our Sept. 1, 2009, letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlining the alarming lack of oversight went viral. The media dubbed it “Contractors Gone Wild” and “Spring Break Kabul.”
The lurid parallels between that scandal and the new ABC report are obvious.
Unfortunately, as often happens when racy photos and videos are released, the outrageous images become the focus of the news. Yes they damage the U.S. image abroad and unfairly tarnish those contractors who are conducting themselves honorably. But they also illustrate more important, underlying problems—real problems that don’t get as much media attention
In this case, the broader issues are the U.S. government’s overreliance on private security contractors to do jobs traditionally done by U.S. troops and federal employees, the dangers of allowing those contractors to replace troops in combat zones and places where the “rule of law” is not firmly established, and the serious lack of oversight of the private security force.
This reliance on contractors and lack of oversight can have life-or-death consequences in places such as Iraq, where the State Department is relying on thousands of contractors to provide security for its operations, and Afghanistan where the private security force will balloon when the troops pull out in 2014.
In 2010, Brian testified before the Commission on Wartime Contracting, highlighting the dire need for the U.S. government to regain control over the planning and management of security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Was anyone listening?
Both presidential candidates have circled 2014 as a target for removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
As those troops are replaced with private security contractors, it would be foolish for a new administration to continue to ignore the vivid warnings of what happens when the U.S. outsources its inherent governmental functions.
“As our troops are pulling out, these are the people who are going to be left behind and are reflecting the United States,” Brian told ABC News. “And it has got to be that there is more a sense of oversight on the part of the military and the U.S. government to make sure that these contractors are not actually undermining the diplomatic mission by their behavior.”
Joe Newman is the director of communications for the Project On Government Oversight. Image from ABC News.Follow @JFNewman