“The same people providing security were the ones who import refrigerators for other clients,” said Mack, the former ambassador, describing the options for locally hired security firms.
“All the discussion that’s taken place about why didn’t we have more security there ― it’s really beside the point,” Mack said. “You either didn’t have any people there at all, or you invade and occupy Libya against their will and set yourself up for the kind of thing that happened in Iraq.”
State officials also didn’t have much time.
“This was a contract that was slapped together in a hurry,” Jan Visintainer, the State Department contracting officer who oversaw the security contract after it was awarded, testified last year to the House Select Committee on Benghazi. “So it was not in the best of shape.”
She said the full contracting process usually takes 18 months, but “this was solicited in January … and contract performance started on March 1st.” (The publicly released transcript did not include the name of the person testifying, but multiple congressional sources confirmed it was Visintainer. She did not return a request for comment.)
Although Eclipse was Alamir’s main company, he created a new entity, which he called Blue Mountain Libya, to partner with Blue Mountain Group on the Benghazi contract, he told HuffPost. He said he started another company, Xpand, with investors he knew in Jordan and used it to fund Blue Mountain Libya. There’s no publicly available evidence that the State Department ever vetted Alamir or his companies.
U.S. officials didn’t have to pick Blue Mountain Group and Alamir. The State Department’s effort to hire local guards started in January 2012, according to documents obtained by HuffPost, and initially yielded only one bidder: Torres Advanced Enterprise Solutions, a Virginia firm owned and operated by Jerry Torres, a Special Forces veteran. The Torres firm had its own local partner, a Libyan group called Atlas.
In an effort to create a competitive process, State asked for more bids. Torres applied again. But this time, Blue Mountain — which had partnered with Alamir and Eclipse in late 2011 to seek contracts guarding Libyan oil fields — jumped in.
Torres had recruited, trained and managed thousands of armed and unarmed local guards worldwide, including in conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. When it bid on the Benghazi contract, it was also providing local guard services to U.S. embassies in Slovakia, Burundi, Paraguay and Zambia, according to its technical proposal.
Blue Mountain, headed by former Special Forces member and Tough Mudder enthusiast Nigel Thomas, was comparatively unknown. “Prior to taking over that contract, I had not heard of Blue Mountain Group,” Visintainer testified.
“Nobody had ever heard of them. It was headquartered in Wales. It was tiny,” said Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who served on the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting, which investigated government procurement practices in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As part of the bidding process, Blue Mountain, Torres and Atlas were scheduled to visit the Benghazi mission on Feb. 1, 2012. The State Department pushed the visit back half an hour to accommodate one participant’s flight delay, an internal department email shows. Blue Mountain never showed up, said Brad Owens, who oversaw Torres’ work in Libya.
A State Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the site visit. Blue Mountain did not respond to a list of questions, including one about the site visit.
But Blue Mountain’s inability to show up didn’t appear to hurt its pitch. What mattered ― apparently far more than Blue Mountain’s credentials or connections — was that the company was the lowest bidder.
At the time, a 1990 law required the State Department to award the contract to the bidder with the “lowest-priced technically acceptable” proposal. Blue Mountain bid around $30,000 less than Torres — about 4.5 percent ― according to contracting documents obtained by HuffPost. So Blue Mountain got the contract. (There’s no evidence that State’s contracting officials at the time thought Torres would do better work.)
Two weeks after the bungled site visit, the department began finalizing a yearlong contract with Blue Mountain to provide unarmed guards, whose main responsibility was to limit access to the Benghazi facility and provide early warning of an attack. (The State Department relied on diplomatic security agents and a small contingent of the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, a poorly trained Libyan militia, for armed protection.) Taxpayers ended up shelling out nearly $800,000 to Blue Mountain for some 50,000 guard hours.
All the while, Blue Mountain was partnered with Alamir, the same man with whom the now-notorious Unaoil had cut ties two years earlier. Alamir was “not the type” to get a contract like the Benghazi arrangement, one former business associate told HuffPost. “I was shocked.”
Several months after the State Department awarded the contract to Blue Mountain, a U.S. official raised his own concerns about the firm. “The company has lost several security contracts here in Tripoli, including the Corinthian Hotel and Palm City Complex,” Tripoli Acting Regional Security Officer Jairo Saravia wrote to colleagues in June 2012. (Saravia declined to comment.)
The relationship between Alamir and Blue Mountain deteriorated rapidly. By the end of June, Xpand informed the State Department that it wanted to cut Blue Mountain out of the contract and replace it with a Washington-based firm called Cohort International. State officials responded that Blue Mountain and Xpand should resolve the conflict on their own.
On Aug. 20, Blue Mountain told the department it had dissolved the relationship with Xpand. A lawyer claiming to represent Alamir’s firm informed the State Department on Sept. 9 ― two days before the Benghazi attack ― that Blue Mountain was prohibited from using Xpand’s Libyan license going forward.
“We kindly inform you that any use of such license by [Blue Mountain] in Libya shall be illegal and a clear violation of Libyan laws,” wrote the lawyer, whose name was redacted from the State Department email. “We therefore request that the U.S. mission ceases any dealings with [Blue Mountain] if such dealings are based on any form of reliance on such security license.”
Despite the lawyer’s claims, the dissolution agreement between the two firms allowed Blue Mountain to continue relying on Xpand’s license, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau told HuffPost.
Nonetheless, it appears that State officials were considering other options. On Aug. 31, Visintainer, the contracting officer, pulled a Torres employee out of an unrelated meeting and asked if his company was prepared to work in Libya.
“She would not state the reason,” the Torres employee told co-workers in an email obtained by HuffPost. He suspected that either there were problems with the Benghazi contract or a new opportunity had arisen in Tripoli. “I said we could and I would ensure that our arrangements with Atlas remain in effect,” the email continued.
On the day of the Benghazi attack, State officials wrote in internal emails that they felt they had to terminate Blue Mountain’s contract. They planned to hire approximately 20 guards as mission employees “in case [Blue Mountain] was unable to perform the contract services,” Trudeau said.
Before they could act, more than 100 gunmen armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades breached the wall surrounding the Benghazi compound and set fire to the facility. Ambassador Stevens, U.S. Foreign Service officer Sean Smith and CIA contractors Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty were ultimately killed in the attack.
Blue Mountain was “the wrong contractor in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Tiefer said.
Owens, the Torres employee who oversaw its Libya work, is convinced events would have turned out differently if his company had been in charge of security that day. “Had we won that bid, Ambassador Stevens would be alive today,” he said.
It’s impossible to know whether Owens’ assessment is true.
But Blue Mountain’s poor performance and the small price margin by which it won the job exposes the fatal flaw in “lowest-priced technically acceptable” contracting. “The truth of the matter is you get what you pay for. We’ve seen this over and over again,” said Dov Zakheim, a former undersecretary of defense who served with Tiefer on the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting.
“When life and limb are at risk, such as when buying body armor for our troops overseas or barriers for our embassies, I don’t know that ‘lowest-priced technically acceptable’ is the right vehicle,” said Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) during an 11-hour congressional hearing on Benghazi last October.
Former Secretary of State Clinton, the hearing’s star witness, suggested that a working group, including members of key congressional committees, could “look to see whether we couldn’t get a little more flexibility into this decision making.”
So far, for all the congressional outrage over the security situation in Benghazi, the 1990 law remains on the books.
Partially in response to the 2012 attack, Congress included language in the past two annual spending bills that temporarily authorized the State Department to award local-guard contracts based on “best value” rather than lowest price. Duckworth supports permanently lifting the lowest-price requirement for such contracts.
But the spending deal with the temporary language expires at the end of December, and there’s no guarantee the exception will make it into next year’s bill. The latest State Department authorization bill includes a permanent lifting of the lowest-price requirement ― but the department can operate without a new authorization and Congress often neglects to pass one.
State Department officials declined to comment on how much the department had known about Eclipse and Xpand. But if staffers had been aware of Alamir’s past ties to Unaoil, a company that relied on bribery to get work, it’s unlikely that Blue Mountain would have received the contract.
There is now widespread agreement, including at the State Department, that security arrangements at the Benghazi facility were insufficient. The department’s reliance on unarmed Blue Mountain guards and “poorly skilled” February 17 Martyrs Brigade members for protection “was misplaced,” the Accountability Review Board found.
Despite the damning internal review and seven prior congressional probes, House Republicans voted overwhelmingly in 2014 to establish a special committee to further investigate the 2012 attack. Two years and $7 million later, the committee released an 800-page report. Democrats dismissed it as a partisan attack on Clinton, by then their expected presidential nominee.
The report echoed earlier criticisms of security lapses, but revealed little substantive information about the contracting process that contributed to the problem. The Benghazi committee report mentioned Blue Mountain 12 times. Alamir, Eclipse and Xpand weren’t mentioned once.
Laura Barron-Lopez contributed reporting.