In the wake of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, Congress is finally giving serious scrutiny to the perils of privatizing war. Because among those allegedly involved in the abuse of prisoners are corporate soldiers whose paychecks come from civilian employers, not from any military chain of command—and who may be effectively immune from prosecution for their acts.
Democrats are calling for Attorney General John Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and the House Government Reform Committee to investigate the activities of battlefield contractors, and Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-Oregon) has drafted legislation that would require the federal government to run background checks on people employed by private military companies.
The cause for all the official interest is, in part, the central role of two military contractors, CACI International of Arlington, Virginia, and San Diego's Titan Corp., in the widening scandal at Abu Ghraib. CACI supplied interrogators and translators to the prison, while Titan allegedly provided translators, according to the 53-page classified internal Army report written by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, a document that has become something of a road map to the Abu Ghraib atrocities.
A total of four corporate soldiers—Steven Stephanowicz, John Israel, Torin Nelson and Adel Nakhla—are identified in the report. All of them were assigned to work with the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, a unit currently stationed in Germany and Italy in support of V Corps and under the command of Col. Thomas Pappas. While many details remain sketchy—Titan, for example, has denied Israel worked for the company, saying he may have been employed by an unnamed subcontractor—it's clear big business was intimately involved in the Iraqi prison horrors.
According to the Army report, Stephanowicz encouraged military police to terrorize inmates and "clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse," and Israel apparently misled investigators, denying he witnessed any misconduct. The report says Israel shouldn't even have been in the prison, because he "did not have a security clearance." Nakhla, too, was aware of the mistreatment, telling Army investigators that two Army sergeants made naked prisoners do "strange exercises," handcuffed and shackled them, and then "started to stack them on top of each other," the report states. Nelson isn't accused of any wrongdoing.
One civilian stands accused of raping a juvenile Iraqi inmate, but the name of the civilian isn't revealed in the report.
"In general, U.S. civilian contract personnel (Titan Corporation, CACI, etc.), third country nationals, and local contractors do not appear to be properly supervised within the detention facility at Abu Ghraib," military investigators concluded.
The companies strenuously deny any wrongdoing. "To speak frankly, I don't know about any allegations against the company," Titan spokesperson Wil Williams said. "The Taguba report has a lot of errors in it."
THIS GUN FOR HIRE
The privatization of military work has been an ongoing process since the first Bush administration, as the Pentagon has jettisoned many of its traditional functions and turned over to corporate America tasks ranging from cleaning latrines to grilling prisoners.
Both CACI and Titan are still looking to hire private soldiers. CACI is currently advertising on its Web site for interrogators to be dispatched to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo. Would-be interrogators must be comfortable working under "moderate supervision" providing "intelligence support for interviewing local nationals and determining there [sic] threat to coalition forces. Must be able to work with interpreters to gather intelligence information from multiple sources."
The job requires "a Top Secret Clearance (TS) that is current and U.S. citizenship," according to CACI's site, and candidates must "have at least two years experience as a military policeman or similar type of law enforcement/intelligence agency whereby the individual utilized interviewing techniques."
These private-sector positions exist because the military has downsized its interrogation units in recent years, several military analysts told us. The cutbacks came as part of longtime Pentagon plans to trim its personnel levels while expanding spending on technology and weapons systems, said David Isenberg, an analyst who follows private military companies for the British American Security Information Council. In earlier days, before the privatization of war, interrogators would typically be trained at intelligence schools, located at posts like the Army's Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona.
It seems a double standard is emerging when it comes to the corporate warriors. In contrast to the Army grunts with whom they worked, no contractors have been charged with any crime, and within the beltway, debate is raging about the slim body of law that currently exists to regulate the activities of government contractors.
As Brookings Institution fellow Peter Singer, an expert on the subject, put it in a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece, "while the military has established structures to investigate, prosecute and punish soldiers who commit crimes, the legal status of contractors in war zones is murky. Soldiers are accountable to the military code of justice wherever they are located, but contractors are civilians—not part of the chain of command."
Iraqi law is even less helpful—at this point it doesn't even exist, so don't expect any private warriors to face trial in Iraq.
There is a specific law that's supposed to govern U.S. military contractors, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, and it was enacted by Congress in 2000 after revelations that employees of a U.S. firm called DynCorp trafficked in prostitutes during the Bosnian war. But Singer and other students of the statute say it's a flawed vehicle, with jurisdictional question marks that may hinder its use and at the very least ensure it'll be years before any contractor ever sees the inside of a courtroom.
Some suggest, in fact, that the enlisted soldiers may wind up taking the rap for problems orchestrated in part by corporate mercenaries. In an interview with us, William Lawson, the uncle of Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick, one of the Army soldiers currently facing a court-martial, claimed his nephew told the family that the private contractors were partially responsible for the Abu Ghraib abuses.
He told us via telephone from his home in Newburg, West Virginia, that Frederick "tried to complain and that he was told by superior officers to follow instructions from civilians, contract workers interrogating the Iraqi prisoners. They said go back down there. Do what the civilian contractors tell you to do and don't interfere with them and loosen these soldiers up for interrogation."
Lawson said the company employees should be prosecuted if culpable. "I've spent 23 years in the military, including time in Vietnam. I love this country, but I will not allow my nephew to be used as a scapegoat."
STANDARDS OF BEHAVIOR
Even before the words "Abu Ghraib" were on everyone's lips, Titan, a publicly held, 23-year-old company with about 12,000 employees and revenues of about $2 billion a year, was mired in serious legal trouble back here in the States.
Just two months ago the Army suspended 10 percent of Titan's payment for current work in Iraq, after auditors uncovered billing irregularities, and in a separate matter the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission are following up on allegations that company officials bribed government ministers in five countries.
In March the Pentagon's Defense Contract Audit Agency discovered "deficiencies in the labor accounting controls" on one of Titan's Iraq gigs, prompting the Army to penalize the company. DCAA director William Reed told us, "In layman's language it basically says, 'You submit a bill to us and we are only going to pay 90 percent of it until you fix these labor accounting deficiencies.'"
Titan is also being investigated for purportedly bribing officials in foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and parts of West Africa, the Wall Street Journal reported March 22. The firm's most recent 10-K report, an official document that must be filed annually with stock market regulators, acknowledges it is being investigated for its dealings overseas.
At Titan, Williams downplayed the legal issues. "Every large company has a large number of audits," he told us. "It doesn't mean there's something wrong." He added that the controversy with the DCAA "has already been solved. Whatever they've found, we've already fixed it." He characterized the various inspectors general probes as routine and said that Titan's marriage to Lockheed was on track.
CACI (referred to as "Khaki" in military circles) was originally called California Analysis Center Inc. and was formed in the 1960s by a pair of propeller-heads named Herbert Karr and Harry Markowitz, the latter of whom went on to win a Nobel Prize in economics in 1990 for his research on stock portfolio diversification. At a time when other businesses continue to struggle, notably those whose fortunes aren't hitched to the war on terrorism, CACI has enjoyed growth reminiscent of the dot-com era, on April 21 reporting a surge in net income, with profits doubling between 2001 and 2003, shooting from $22 million to $44 million.
In contrast to Titan, CACI hasn't gotten entangled with the law in more than a decade, but the firm definitely has skeletons in its closet: in 1987 CACI pleaded guilty on a felony charge for overbilling the Navy to the tune of $297,000 on a $6 million contract and agreed to pay more than $640,000 in fines and penalties.
Asked for comment on CACI's recent and past controversies, the company, which has brought in a high-powered public relations firm, directed us to a statement by president and chief executive officer J.P. "Jack" London on the company's Web site: "CACI does not condone or tolerate or endorse in any fashion any illegal, inappropriate behavior on the part of any of its employees in any circumstance at any time anywhere. If, regrettably, any CACI employee was involved in any way at any time in any of the alleged behavior that occurred in Iraq and has been reported in the media and elsewhere, for those employees I will certainly personally take immediate, appropriate action."
Pratap Chatterjee is program director and managing editor for CorpWatch. Bay Guardian staff reporter A.C. Thompson is on sabbatical working as a researcher for CorpWatch. Thompson reported from Washington, D.C.