April 24, 2005

U.S. Monitors Fault British Security Company With Iraq Contract

By ERIK ECKHOLM

New York Times

A British security company with a $292 million American contract to protect aid officials and contractors in Iraq failed to ensure weapons training for its agents and did not properly assess Iraqi guards for loyalty, United States federal monitors reported Friday.

The audit report, released by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, said the company, Aegis Defense Services Ltd., had not complied with several parts of its contract, but the deficiencies were being corrected.

Under its three-year contract, awarded in May 2004, Aegis was to protect American aid officials and help coordinate the dozens of other private security companies hired by corporate contractors.

The report also criticized American officials for poor initial oversight of Aegis. But it said no evidence existed that the company had billed the United States for any services it had not performed.

The report appeared in a disastrous week for foreign security companies in Iraq, which are often targets of the insurgency.

On Thursday, one employee of Aegis was killed and another wounded by a bomb along the road to the Baghdad airport. The same day, six Americans and two Fijians employed by Blackwater Security Consulting were killed, with three Bulgarian pilots, when their helicopter crashed north of Baghdad, apparently hit by a rocket. Another Blackwater employee was killed Thursday in Ramadi. On Wednesday, three Western workers of a different British security company were killed by small-arms fire on the Baghdad airport road.

Beyond guarding American aid officials, Aegis e-mails reports on bombings, attacks on convoys and other incidents to security companies in Iraq, to help them plan contractors' travel. But Aegis has never assumed the central coordinating role that some officials once envisioned.

Some parts of the original contract, the company asserted and American officials agreed, were unrealistic or out of date and were being altered. For example, aid officials have dropped the unmet requirement that Aegis teams be trained for hostage rescue and biological and chemical warfare.

The auditors said there was no evidence that many Aegis guards had proper training with the weapons they had received, mainly AK-47 rifles. The company said training teams were not in place until late 2004, but American officials say the problem has largely been solved.

The contract required detailed vetting of Iraqis hired as guards, including background checks with the police. Aid officials now agree that police checks are unrealistic because of the disorganization and the insurgents' infiltration of the local police. Since December, aid officials say, a new vetting procedure has been used.

The State Department office charged with supervising Aegis, the Project and Contracting Office, administers about 6,500 reconstruction contracts, and the federal auditors said its staff was far too small to provide oversight.