Afghanistan IG: Security Contractors Screening in Afghanistan Inadequate (SPOT)

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April 4, 2012
Almost 90 percent of security personnel hired by the Department of Defense (DoD) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for reconstructions projects in Afghanistan were not properly vetted, according to the Acting Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).   Speaking before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on March 29, 2012, Steven J. Trent said deficiencies in the current system used to track security personnel, the Synchronized Pre-deployment and Operational Tracker (SPOT), has “led to shortcomings in data and reporting capabilities.” After SPOT was expanded in 2009 to include non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating relief and development programs in Iraq and Afghanistan, aid groups have criticized it for being impracticable, and jeopardizing their employees’ safety and the effectiveness of their programs.
As the overall security situation deteriorated in Afghanistan, the number of people working for private security companies (PSCs) on reconstruction projects spiked after 2007. According to Trent’s testimony, the number of PSC personnel under DoD contract had jumped from 3,152 in 2007 to 20,375 by the end of 2011. During the same period, USAID had nearly 4,000 security personnel under contract.   For both agencies, the vast majority of PSC employees were Afghan nationals. Yet despite the increasing dependence on PSCs, Trent said vetting procedures have been inadequate. “Neither USAID nor [USAID] systematically tracks information on PSC personnel,” Trent said.
The increase in the number of security personnel occurred concurrently with massive surges in spending on reconstruction projects.   SIGAR analyzed the security costs for USAID’s largest 29 projects during the last three years, with total allocated budgets of nearly $3 billion, and found security related expenses “averaged 14%, with costs totaling as much as 42% of the total value of one project.” And because of the difficulties in determining the actual amount spent on security personnel, largely due to insufficient or improper reporting by government agencies, SIGAR’s cost analysis likely “represents the minimum spent on security. Total costs are likely higher.”
Concerns about the copious amount of money being funneled to unscreened security personal are also at the heart of a September 2011 report from the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office (GAO). Agreeing with Trent’s findings, the report, DOD, State, and USAID Cannot Fully Account for Contracts, Assistance Instruments, and Associated Personnel, states that, “It is unclear when SPOT will serve as a reliable source of data to meet statutory requirements and be used by the agencies for management, oversight, and coordination.”   An example of the problems with SPOT is underscored by the GAO’s analysis of State’s data on contractor personnel. The GAO found there were at least:
“50 contracts that met SPOT reporting requirements but were not in the system. Therefore, personnel working on those contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan were not included in the joint report. For example, we identified 5 contracts for construction with about $525 million in fiscal year 2010 obligations with no contractor personnel reported in SPOT. Further, at the end of the second quarter of fiscal year 2010, there were 1,336 fewer contractor personnel in SPOT than were reported to us last year from State’s surveys of contractor personnel in the two countries.”
In 2008, DOD, State, and USAID designated SPOT as their system of record for tracking information on contracts and contractor personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, a designation they reaffirmed in 2009 when the requirement was expanded to USAID grantees working in the two countries.   It requires the contractors to supply personal details about their international and local employees to be stored in a military database for an indefinite period. 
NGOs have been some of the most vocal opponents of SPOT, saying it is dangerous for their staff and operations. In places where both military and NGOs are providing relief services, NGO managers forced to collect sensitive personal data for a government database may undermine their relationships with local actors. The security of NGO employees is compromised if they are perceived by members of the local community to be agents working on behalf of the military.   
SPOT is also an impractical approach to vetting personnel. The majority of NGO staff operating in Afghanistan and Iraq is locally hired and do not possess the information required by SPOT. International NGO staff are often hesitant to provide personal information knowing that it will be stored indefinitely and shared with other agencies and governments for intelligence gathering purposes. These problems also exist for defense contractors. According to the GAO report:
“local nationals were not always entered into the system because of agency policies as well as practical and technical limitations. For example, many local nationals work at remote locations, which limits agencies’ ability to track these personnel and verify the completeness of reported information. Also, DOD, State, and USAID officials have told us that some local national contractors refuse to submit information on their personnel because of safety concerns. Additionally, some information required for SPOT data fields, such as first and last names and dates of birth, may not be known due, in part, to cultural norms specific to each country.”
President Obama appointed Trent as Acting Special Inspector General on September 3, 2011. During his 29-year career in federal law enforcement, he has served as Special Agent in Charge of Investigations (SAC) in Baghdad for the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), and as chief of the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office.