That “Inc.”, by the way, is short for “incarnate”. The company in question seems to embody the very highest traditions of war profiteering.
Two and a half weeks ago, Mission Essential Personnel, LLC, (MEP) proudly put out this press release:
Mission Essential Personnel, LLC, (MEP) is pleased to announce it has been included again on Inc. magazine’s prestigious Inc. 500 list of the nation’s fastest growing companies based on percentage revenue growth. MEP ranks #162 overall this year, after having hit #52 last year. The company’s revenue has grown from $43 million in 2007 to more than $375 million in 2009.
“It’s great for MEP to be recognized for its continued strong growth,” said MEP CEO Chris Taylor. “Inc.’s recognition highlights our company’s tremendous success expanding its current business while beginning to branch into new areas of work. Our great personnel in the U.S. and across the world deserve credit for their unwavering commitment to our customers and their mission.”
Depends on the definition of “unwavering commitment to our customers”.
According to a whistleblower, that phenomenal growth rate — which represents a trebling of revenues each year — was achieved by the most callous kind of fraud. The kind that costs lives.
More than one quarter of the translators working alongside American soldiers in Afghanistan failed language proficiency exams but were sent onto the battlefield anyway, according to a former employee of the company that holds contracts worth up to $1.4 billion to supply interpreters to the U.S. Army.
“I determined that someone — and I didn’t know [who] at that time — was changing the grades from blanks or zeros to passing grades,” said Paul Funk, who used to oversee the screening of Afghan linguists for the Columbus, Ohio-based contractor, Mission Essential Personnel. “Many who failed were marked as being passed.”
After being asked about the allegations, U.S. Army officials confirmed to ABC News they are investigating the company.
Funk outlined his claims in a whistleblower lawsuit unsealed earlier this year against Mission Essential Personnel, saying the company turned a blind eye to cheating on language exams taken over the phone and hired applicants even though they failed to meet the language standards set by the Army and spelled out in the company’s contract. He alleges that 28 percent of the linguists hired between November 2007 and June 2008 failed to meet the government’s language requirements. The company has contested those claims in court, and this week rejected them as false in an interview with ABC News.
Civilian translators have for nearly a decade been playing a crucial if unsung role in the Afghanistan war, embedding with troops as they have moved through the countryside, helping soldiers gather information from local villagers, and attempting to spread the message of security, moderation and peace that undergirds the U.S. presence there. Some Afghan veterans have rated the value of a skilled interpreter as equal to that of a working weapon or sturdy body armor.
But a former top screener of translators heading to Afghanistan tells ABC News in an exclusive interview that will air tonight on World News with Diane Sawyer and Nightline that he believes many of the translators currently in the field cannot perform their function.
“There are many cases where soldiers have gone out into the field and have spoken to elders [who] handed messages to the interpreter that a possible ambush three miles up the road would occur. The interpreter cannot read the message and they are attacked,” Funk said. “We’re talking about soldiers lives here.”
As Blue Girl points out, the Defense Languages Institute exists to train military personnel as linguists. But the Bush-Rumsfeld war philosophy was always: why go to war with the army you can have, if you can go to war instead with contractors who you can pay really big bucks to royally bugger up things instead?
MEP dismisses Funk’s allegations with an impressive amount of outrage. But ABC News‘s investigation supports Funk’s allegations. For example, there is this casual circumstantial evidence:
In a hearing before a congressional committee in July, CEO Chris Taylor testified that within a year of accepting the Afghan contract, his company “was able to achieve a 97 percent fill rate of the government’s requirement for linguists. Previous contractors never exceeded 43 percent.”
How Mission Essential Personnel was able to find hundreds of willing and translators (sic) from among a tiny pool of qualified Americans — which Peltier put at roughly 3,800 — was initially something of a mystery to Funk. He said the company struggled to find American citizens who spoke the Afghan languages Dari and Pashto. Ultimately, Funk alleged in his lawsuit that the company resorted to fudging their proficiency test results in order to hit staffing targets that entitled them to more money from the Army.
There are the ridiculously poor quality control practices MEP followed (unconscionably poor quality control, if you consider the stakes involved):
Funk told ABC News he wrote emails to the then-CEO of Mission Essential describing how job candidates would cheat on oral exams conducted over the phone.
“I told him that it was corrupt. Stand-ins were taking the test. That’s comparable to, if you’re a lawyer, that’s comparable to taking the bar exam over the phone. You need to be face-to-face with that individual. You need to identify them. You need to know who they are and they had stand-ins on the phone taking the test,” Funk said. “They had stand-ins on the phone taking the test because there is no way that these people could possibly pass if they can’t even get through an interview.”
One of the company’s translators working in Afghanistan now confirmed the practice in an interview with ABC News, saying he personally had taken the exam for others who could not have passed it themselves. The employee, who described the practice on the condition he not be identified, called a follow-up written exam “bull.”
ABC News also reports that “American war veterans confirmed… that many of the interpreters are simply unable to perform the delicate work of interpreting conversations between Americans and Afghans.”
There is also the first-person testimony of soldiers who were in a position to judge the language skills of contracted interpreters:
Genevieve Chase served as a Pashto-language-trained US Army Sergeant in Afghanistan in 2006 in Bagram and Lashkargah, Helmand Province. She told ABC News it was not unusual to encounter interpreters who were unable to speak Pashto, or had limited English. At times, she said she believes the failure to communicate has put soldiers lives at risk.
“Somewhere along the line somebody is doing something they’re not supposed to be doing,” Chase said. “It is not difficult to pick out somebody who can’t speak Pashto. In fact, for me it was rather simple to isolate those people.”
Chase said Army units quickly identified interpreters who could not do their jobs. She recalled odd exchanges where Afghan elders would speak at great length and the interpreter would turn to the American soldiers and translate, “He said, ‘Okay.’”