by David Phinney
This is becoming a repeated phenomenon at the department’s Foggy Bottom Washington, D.C., headquarters dating back to the height of the occupation of Iraq.
Past allegations of cover ups and tampering include investigations of contractor fraud, arms smuggling by security contractor Blackwater, labor trafficking and faulty construction by the Kuwaiti company building the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and the contracting of contractors to investigate other contractors.
It was during these past incidents that a former department inspector general was forced to resign in early 2008 after being accused of conflicts of interest and thwarting his staff’s mission. Five years and counting, the vacant post has yet to be filled.
Having experience at being among the first to report on a number of these past stories, those at the department are singing a familiar song once again.
And an unsolicited phone call today from a former State official only adds to my suspicion that people at State intentionally delayed and subverted some of those previous investigations.
Here’s the new stuff:
An internal memo made public this week from the State Department’s Inspector General, says it received complaints accusing a department security official of sexually assaulting foreign nationals working as embassy guards, that security personnel solicited prostitutes during official trips by former State Department Secretary Hillary Clinton, and that an “underground drug” ring near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was doing business with department security contractors.
The memo, first reported on by CBS News’ John Miller, claims that a total of eight similar investigations were influenced, manipulated, or simply dropped.
According to Miller, the inspector general’s office — State’s independent investigative arm — was told to back off by the Diplomatic Security Service. The service handles security of State Department employees and diplomatic missions worldwide.
Aurelia Fedenisn, a former investigator with the inspector’s general office, told Miller: “We also uncovered several allegations of criminal wrongdoing in cases, some of which never became cases.”
One high-level official being dragged into this is Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, who has been with State since 2007. CBS reports that Kennedy met with one U.S. ambassador who was accused of “routinely” ditching his security personnel to spend time with prostitutes.
Ditching one’s security is considered…. Well, considered an unnecessary security risk. But after meeting with Kennedy, sources told CBS that the ambassador returned to his post. State Department agents told Miller that the Inspector General then was requested to end the investigation.
One of Miller’s sources also speculated that the higher-levels at State put the brakes on at least one of the investigations.
Meanwhile, back at the State Department, spokesperson Jen Psaki pushed back at a press briefing on Monday. “We take allegations of misconduct seriously and we investigate thoroughly,” he said. “All cases mentioned in the CBS report were thoroughly investigated or under investigation.”
If Past is Prologue:
When first reporting in 2006 on allegations of labor trafficking, the taking of passports from South Asian workers and paltry working conditions by the contractor building the fortress-like U.S. embassy in Baghdad, I initially spoke with the State Department’s press office.
I needed a response and wanted to extend the courtesy of a heads up, thinking State would be interested in the allegations that numerous people were making about that largest embassy in the world. I was assured someone would look into it and get back to me.
If I waited weeks, I waited a months for input from the press office. The waiting delayed publishing the story. No one ever got back to me on the subject. Whatever response I finally may have received was meaningless.
Eventually, I went to State’s human trafficking ambassador’s office. Again, little feed back, but I learned several years later that the trafficking ambassador, John Miller (different Miller), took the embassy allegations so seriously that he went to Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican known for his strong interest in trafficking issues and chairs the House Human Trafficking Caucus.
“Believe me,” Miller once told me over coffee in Washington, D.C. “Those stories went to the very highest of levels.”
The call from a former State official today told me that Miller went to Smith, because the State Department ignored the trafficking and abuse allegations at the Baghdad embassy site.
In between my contacting State’s press office and the call today from a former State official, my stories on the Baghdad embassy contractor triggered several congressional hearings, protests in the Philippines over labor trafficking, and an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department that included visiting one former worker in the Philippines.
Oh, and after I began publishing my stories, the allegations did worm their way to the then State Department Inspector General, Howard Krongard. That was around the time a person claiming to be a White House intermediary took me to lunch and told me that President George W. Bush was quite concerned about the allegations. I was being drilled for info.
By that time, investigators on Krongard’s staff began contacting me surreptitiously, telling me they were getting numerous and separate complaints about labor trafficking and faulty construction at the embassy as a result of my stories, but that Krongard dragged his feet. He sent his staff an e-mail that said, as one official described it, “cease and desist all work, I’m taking care of this.”
Six months after my stories first began being published and the Baghdad embassy contractor, First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting Company, had been alerted by the State Department, Krongard personally flew to Baghdad to begin his one-day investigation. “”Nothing came to our attention,” he wrote in his brief report. Others claimed it was a cover up.
Krongard’s behavior on the embassy investigation and other matters caught the attention of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who then chaired the House Government Oversight Committee. Krongard was hauled before the committee to answer questions about a number of irregularities in his work, including the embassy.
“The reaction of Mr. Krongard’s senior staff to his investigation is remarkable,” Waxman said of Krongard’s embassy probe at the time. “Mr. Krongard’s deputy said the effort was ‘unorthodox,’ ‘didn’t comply with any standards,’ and was ‘the furthest thing from an investigation.’ Another official warned that Mr. Krongard’s investigation ran the risk of inadvertently ruining a future prosecution.”
Noting that the U.S. Justice Department was also concerned about Krongard’s behavior, Waxman added: “In the course of our investigation, Mr. Krongard’s investigators told us he placed First Kuwaiti off-limits to investigation. They said he refused to pursue credible complaints about fraud, waste, and abuse in the Embassy project and rejected proposals to audit the construction process during construction so that problems could be addressed as they happened.”
Thanks for the interest, U.S. State Department.