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McKeon to launch investigation as Pentagon withholds report for nine months despite inquiries
| Tuesday, Dec 20, 2011

Army Spc. Rudy A. Acosta

Dante Acosta got many of the answers he was looking for Monday, and most of them aren’t pretty.

Acosta’s son Rudy, 19, and another soldier were killed March 19 in Afghanistan when an Afghan national who’d been hired as a private security guard opened fire on them while they were cleaning their weapons. More soldiers were wounded before one of them managed to kill the infiltrator.

Who was responsible for vetting this guy?

Everyone and no one, according to the AR 15-6 investigation report completed by an Army major nine months ago on April 14.

U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and Acosta’s congressman, learned of the report’s existence Thursday night. A McKeon staffer presented the report to Dante Acosta on Monday afternoon.

Both men have been asking the Pentagon for answers ever since they learned the manner in which Rudy Acosta died.

McKeon asked then-commanding Gen. David Petraeus for answers in a March 28 letter, unaware the investigation had been ordered by a one-star general two days earlier.

Petraeus promised McKeon “a thorough investigation”in a letter dated April 17, apparently unaware the investigation had been completed three days earlier.

Why it took nine months for the findings to reach McKeon and Acosta remains a mystery.

In a new document, McKeon said he received emails in August saying the investigation “would be delayed because of backlogs in the standard processing of similar investigations.”

Even as late as Sept. 22, when McKeon invited Acosta to a House Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington to discuss Afghan national security forces with Army generals and Pentagon officials, the brass told McKeon they’d need another two or three more months to answer his questions about Rudy Acosta’s death.

All the while, the answers were sitting in a file cabinet – probably that of an Army staff judge advocate.

U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon

McKeon, who as committee chairman holds the defense department budget in his hands and has been one of its most vocal proponents, penned a terse letter Friday to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

“I am distressed to now learn that the AR 15-6 investigating officer made several recommendations to address the findings of failed policies and procedures that he discovered,” McKeon told Panetta. “These recommendations suggest that there is a systemic inadequacy in the overall system for vetting Afghan contractors and contract employees that may have contributed to other deaths of Americans in Afghanistan.”

“Moreover,” McKeon writes, “I am troubled that these findings and recommendations were available to  (defense department) officials throughout the summer and fall of 2011 and yet there was no effort to keep me apprised of the results of the investigation, despite repeated evidence of my continuing interest.”

“I have great difficulty understanding why the flaws in this critical program that put so many of our troops at risk should have been consistently withheld from the Congress and therefore denied the appropriate level of attention. The Congress needs to know how those recommendations were acted on and the status of the corrective actions, if any, that we now can see are urgently needed.”

Without using the words “cover up,” McKeon vowed to pursue his own investigation into Acosta’s death “and its aftermath, to include why senior officials withheld or delayed release of information on the investigation to the (House Armed Services) committee.”

He asked Panetta for unredacted copies of all related investigative and counterintelligence documents by Jan. 15, for his committee to review.

 

The Incident

Shia Ahmed was one of many Afghan nationals hired to help keep U.S.-led international forces safe from Taliban insurgents and other enemy combatants.

On the morning of March 19, Ahmed and other employees of Canadian contractor Tundra Security were accompanying a convoy of contracted trucks to their destination at Forward Operating Base Frontenac.

Five members of the 4th Squadron’s 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment were outside of their command post in their personnel carriers when they were told they had some extra time to prepare for their mission. So they lowered the ramps to the personnel carriers and decided to clean their weapons to make doubly sure they were ready.

Cleaning weapons on the back of personnel carriers out in the open, even on a military base, isn’t standard protocol.

Ahmed saw his opportunity.

It was obvious he’d received marksmanship training. The Afghan took deliberate aim and opened fire.

Defenseless, most of the soldiers dropped. Those who could do so scrambled to the front of their vehicles, away from the line of fire.

Army Spc. Rudy Acosta in Afghanistan

One Army specialist whose gun was assembled but unloaded moved around the vehicles and took up a position where he could load a magazine into his weapon. He emptied the magazine and reloaded, sending a well-placed round into Ahmed’s chest.

But Ahmed was wearing body armor.

The specialist continued to fire, taking aim at the assassin’s hip, shoulder and head. Finally Ahmed dropped, continuing his assault as he fell.

Now a captain provided cover, and as the specialist moved in, the captain let off a round and Ahmed was neutralized.

The captain checked Rudy Acosta for a pulse. There was none. Acosta had turned pale and was not breathing. A staff sergeant arrived, and together they carried Acosta on a stretcher to the first aid station where it was determined he was already dead.

While trying to help Acosta, a sergeant saw Cpt. Donald Mickler lying between two vehicles. Mickler had been shot in the head, but he was alive. The sergeant and a senior medic carried Mickler to the aid station where he succumbed to his head wound.

One soldier was wounded in the neck and back. Another was shot in the leg and buttocks. Another was shot in the left shoulder, and another received a superficial gunshot wound to the arm.

Although the attack came on an Army base at the hands of a presumed “friendly,” the deaths of Acosta and Mickler were ruled to have occurred in the line of duty by hostile action.

“There is no evidence that the assailant had any relationship” with members of the regiment to indicate a personal motive, the investigator’s report states. “We can confirm that he deliberately targeted U.S. troops who(m) he perceived as vulnerable because their weapons were disassembled for cleaning.”

 

The Motive

Shia Ahmed probably should have been ineligible for hiring by Tundra. But the paperwork was never drawn up or put through.

It was Ahmed’s second stint as a Tundra employee. He’d been hired in May 2010 to work at Spin Boldak, aka Forward Operating Base Blackhawk. He was fired by his supervisor in July 2010 for making threatening remarks about killing international troops.

“His first line supervisor fired him and his two brothers as a precaution even though none of the allegations could be proven,” the report states.

No record of his termination ever made it into Tundra’s database, and he was never “watch listed” because the unit commander “did not think he needed to be, since the statements were not substantiated.”

“No records were kept documenting the firing, so when Shir (sic) Ahmed returned to Tundra in 2011 he was allowed to reapply and get hired.”

The investigator determined it was likely Ahmed “was an insurgent who was planted into the Tundra guard force to execute a disruptive, spectacular, internal suicide attack. Most likely, the assailant was ‘turned’ by insurgents between the time he left Tundra around 5 July 2010 and when he returned to work with Tundra ten days prior to the incident in March 2011.”

“Upon his return to employment with Tundra at FOB Frontenac,” the report states, Ahmed “volunteered to be part of the (quick reaction force). This capacity provided him with better mobility, access to the internal nodes of the (base) including the squadron (command post) and afforded him the ability to collect intelligence for his attack.”

The report states his co-workers considered him a “reserved, quiet individual.” That might be because “he spoke Pashtu while most of the other employees spoke Dari.”

“He was a light sleeper and easily alerted,” the report states. “Prior to the incident he revealed no clear indications that he was about to do anything.”

The report notes that Ahmed “had drugs in his possession, which is consistent with insurgents who conduct suicide attacks.” No autopsy was performed to determine whether he had taken drugs that day.

The investigator was unable to determine whether Ahmed had connections to known insurgents.

“While intelligence officials on several occasions have told me the connections exist, I have not been able to obtain any definitive documents due to their classification.”

The investigator noted that some aspects of the case are classified as secret and some as top secret, out of his reach.

“The fact that we can find no definitive ties to the Taliban does not mean that they don’t exist,” his report states.

“Finally, by all eyewitness accounts, the assailant was well trained in marksmanship. This high level of training is not given to Tundra guards. He may have received training somewhere else, possibly at an insurgent training camp in preparation for the attack.”

 

The Responsibility

Rudy Acosta is dead because everybody thought it was everybody else’s job to check Ahmed’s background before handing him an AK-47 and assigning him to work at an Army base.

According Acosta’s AR 15-6 report, various military regulations require (1) the defense department entity – in this case the Army – or (2) whatever military unit is in command at a given installation, or (3) the private contracting company “to review background information that is or should be known about the person seeking employment to determine if he/she is disqualified from handling a weapon or ammunition.”

“This requirement is both vague and confusing,” the investigator states. “It does not pin the onus on any one organization or entity and leaves the reader to interpret who is responsible. It allows room for each entity named to assume the other entities are doing the checks.”

And the more accurate answer might be “none of the above.” The report states that Afghan nationals “are vetted by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.”

“Tundra doesn’t vet their local national employees,” the report states. ‘Tundra fills out an information sheet and fingerprint card on the prospective employee” and the Afghan National Directorate of Security “performs a background check on the individual.”

“Tundra is required to send an arming request to (U.S. Forces-Afghanistan) for each individual prior to hiring. (U.S. Forces-Afghanistan) never received an arming request for Shia Ahmed,” the report states.

Since no arming request was received, the appropriate background check was never conducted and “Tundra failed to execute the proper documentation on the assailant,” the report states.

Had Ahmed not fallen through that crack, his background check would have included a review of prior government or military service, any discharges from service, and references from former employers.

As for more a more routine identity check, the report states that Ahmed “was enrolled in biometrics three times since 2007. Each time he was enrolled he used a slightly different name.”

“Biometrics” is the process of establishing identity through various recognition procedures such as fingerprinting and retinal scanning.

The results of Ahmed’s biometric analysis are redacted, but the report states that Ahmed was rehired by Tundra in March because he had “left the company under good terms and followed all the proper procedures.”

He was sent to Forward Operating Base Wilson, which is simply a staging point for contract personnel.

Tundra employees may or may not be biometrically screened at FOB Wilson, but Ahmed wasn’t screened there because the system was inoperable during the two days he spent there before being sent on to FOB Frontenac.

The investigator spoke to a special agent at FOB Wilson who said it’s the responsibility of the unit at the civilian employee’s ultimate destination to perform the counterintelligence screening – but the special agent couldn’t produce a memo saying so, the report states.

“In fact, none of the counterintelligence personnel I talked to (at FOB Wilson) knew of any codified document outlining the duties and responsibilities for screening and vetting local national employees,” the investigator writes.

The base commander at Ahmed’s final destination (FOB Frontenac) knew he was supposed to send local nationals for biometric checks, but he was working off of a 2009 order that gave him 60 days from the time of arrival to do it. Ahmed was on base just 10 days when he launched his assault.

Regardless, “even if Shia Ahmed were biometrically enrolled prior to the incident,” the report states, “it probably would not have raised any red flags and he most likely would have been granted arming status and employment with Tundra on FOB Frontenac.”

“There was nothing in his history” – since the commander in 2010 didn’t deem his “unsubstantiated threats” worthy of a write-up – “which would have signaled his intent.”

 

Dante Acosta discusses his son's death on "SCV Newsmaker of the Week"

The Recommendations

The AR 15-6 investigator’s report includes a series of recommendations intended to “help avoid similar incidents in the future.”

The investigator recommends “that a larger, comprehensive investigation be initiated to examine the vetting and screening procedures across Afghanistan.”

“All procedures for hiring and vetting local nationals” should be codified into a single document, and “the onus for ensuring local national employees are screened and documented must rest on coalition military personnel.”

“The duties and responsibilities at each command level (emphasis in the original) must be clearly defined and understood,” the report states. “Additionally, redundancy is critical in the vetting of (private security) employees and local national employees with access to forward operating bases.”

“In this case, the current directives were vague and confusing, which led to a situation where everyone assumed that someone else had done the vetting.”

A comprehensive background file should be compiled for each local national and sent to “all interested parties with a need to know.”

“Currently, local national employees arrive with no documentation other than an e-mail (to) the supervisor notifying them that new employees are coming,” the report states.

“The burden should rest on the individual seeking hire to prove he has no ties to anti-(Afghan government) entities,” it states. “If there is any shadow of a doubt about an individual’s history, they should not be hired.”

Finally, the investigator recommends that all task forces should review their weapons-cleaning procedures to ensure their soldiers do not appear as “soft targets.” They should clean their weapons in a concealed location, or at least post one of their members on guard while the rest of them do it.

Dante Acosta has some broader recommendations of his own.

“The question is not, how do we better screen (local national) contractors?” he said. “The question is, how do we keep them off of our bases?”

The Canyon Country resident said he doesn’t begrudge the military for hiring hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians to perform tasks that don’t put U.S. troops in harm’s way. Rather, he says he is “laser focused” on the issue of arming citizens of a nation where U.S. troops are fighting, and expecting them to perform guard duty.

“You don’t let a bank robber in a bank with a gun,” Acosta said.

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