by David Isenberg
An Associated Press story earlier this month regarding misconduct by employees of Sallyport turned a lot of heads in the world of private security contracting. The U.S. company has received nearly $700 million in federal contracts to secure Balad Air Base, home to a squadron of F-16 fighter jets participating in the U.S.-led coalition to annihilate the Islamic State,.
According to the Associated Press, however, the employees were involved in sex trafficking and smuggling:
Staff on base routinely flew in smuggled alcohol in such high volumes that a plane once seesawed on the tarmac under the weight. Rogue militia stole enormous generators off the base using flatbed trucks and a 60-foot crane, driving past Sallyport security guards.
But that was hardly the worst part. AP reported that, on March 12, armed guards surrounded the two Sallyport investigators, Robert Cole and Kristie King, disarmed them, detained them against their will—and fired them without explanation. Furthermore, according to the investigators, “Managers repeatedly shut down Cole and King’s investigations and failed to report their findings to the U.S. government that was footing the bill.”
This story is disturbing both on its own merits and for what it says about the ability to hold the private military and security-contracting world accountable.
If any company should be able to do a competent and professional job in Iraq it should have been Sallyport. It was not new to Iraq. Sallyport’s parent company, Michael Baker International, which bought Sallyport in 2014, announced then that its subsidiaries had been awarded $838 million for work on the base. Sallyport had been working in Iraq since 2003, when the Coalition Provisional Authority was effectively running Iraq.
Nor was working at an airfield new for Sallyport. In the past it employed staff at or near the three major commercial air hubs in Iraq (Erbil Airport, Baghdad International Airport, and Basrah International).
Last year, Sallyport was one of seven companies awarded a State Department worldwide personal protection services contract. Its $4.9 billion contract ceiling for the five-year contract was, by far, the highest, more than a billion higher than the next highest company, Gardaworld Government Services.
Yet, if the reported lapses are true, Sallyport’s employees allowed egregious security breaches to occur.
According to surveillance videos, just before 2 a.m., militia had driven two flatbed trucks and a crane onto the base, driving right past the security gate. Cole estimates the crane, when extended, was at least 60 feet tall. After successfully loading the three generators and partially covering them with burlap, the militia drove off the base unchallenged. The episode lasted three hours.
Cole said they passed within about ten feet of the Sallyport security guard force. “Nobody reported anything. It was a disaster and it was covered up. That is absolutely covered up,” he said. “What if the intent was not to steal but to commit a terrorist act?”
Although abuses by private military and security contractor are no longer generating daily headlines, the alleged crimes by Sallyport show that effective oversight is still, at best, a tremendously difficult task. Expecting a contractor to do due diligence on its own employees, when their crimes might jeopardize a contract worth hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, is highly dubious.
Sallyport’s reported offenses also have a comical aspect. In February 2016 the International Stability Operations Association, whose mission statement includes the goal of promoting “ethical standards in operational contractor support through the ISOA Code of Conduct” and includes Sallyport as a member, announced that Sallyport, received certifications for the quality of its operations.
The ISO 9001:2015 certification is based on quality management principles including strong customer focus, motivation and implication of top management, the process approach, and continual improvement and review. “Sallyport’s primary cultural characteristic is the insistence that every employee, every operation, and every process be aligned and in compliance with accepted international standards for law, human rights, and ethical standards. We are proud to have received PSC.1 and ISO 9001 certifications as they emphasize our commitment to providing the highest level of service to our clients,” said Victor Esposito, Chief Executive Officer of Sallyport.
Evidently quality management principles were not uppermost in the mind of Sallyport’s management when its own investigators began looking into allegations of timesheet fraud after getting a tip that Sallyport employees were systematically collecting salaries but not working. According to the investigators, the company stalled the investigation, ordered every step to be approved by its lawyers and finally told Cole and King in a conference call to keep two sets of books.
ISOA’s own code of conduct clearly spells out ethical standards that Sallyport’s reported actions seem to violate. For example, advising the investigators to keep two sets of books about potential employee crimes is a clear violation of both Sec. 2.2, which states that signatories shall “be open and forthcoming on the nature of their operations,” and Sec. 3.2 that says “Signatories shall proactively address infractions, and to the extent possible and subject to contractual and legal limitations, cooperate with official investigations into allegations of contractual violations and breaches of international humanitarian and human rights laws.”
Photo: Balad Air Base tower