The U.S. military's use of private contractors for the sensitive task of wartime interrogation marks a sharp shift from traditional practices and is raising difficult issues of accountability as authorities investigate the alleged role civilian workers played in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
Defense Department officials said that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks they turned to private sources to meet the burgeoning need for linguists, translators and ultimately people to question prisoners for intelligence gathering. One of the companies now under investigation in Iraq said yesterday that it has supplied interrogators to the military since the mid-1990s.
But critics say that reliance on nonmilitary personnel undermines a key safeguard - the threat of punishment. While U.S. soldiers allegedly involved in the acts face a military court-martial or other sanctions, the legal status and possible penalties for private workers are far less certain.
Two federal laws adopted in the past decade - each intended to protect Americans abroad - could be used to pursue charges against private military workers overseas, legal scholars and military experts said yesterday. Neither statute has been tested in any situation like the Iraqi prison abuse.
"The whole status of private contractors is murky," said law professor Scott L. Silliman, executive director of Duke University's Center on Law, Ethics and National Security. The growth in the use of private contractors to fill even the most sensitive military roles has in some ways outpaced U.S. law, he said: "It is an area of great concern."
As many as 20,000 civilian military contractors are serving in Iraq, and their work in the past decade has increasingly turned from mundane tasks such as meal preparation to high-profile security details, said Peter W. Singer, a scholar with the Brookings Institute and the author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.
"We've pushed the envelope of military outsourcing past the point of what anyone contemplated," Singer said. "It ain't KP duty."
J.P. "Jack" London, the chairman and chief executive officer of CACI International Inc. - an Arlington, Va., company implicated in an internal Army investigation of abuses in Iraq - acknowledged in a phone interview yesterday that his company has done interrogation work for the U.S. government since the mid- to late 1990s.
"We do have interrogation work," London said. "We do have people involved in collection projects in various parts of the world. We've been in the general business of intelligence collection and analysis, with which interrogation is one part of it."
London declined to identify other countries where his employees have worked as interrogators or intelligence analysts. He estimated that less than 5 percent of its 9,400 employees are engaged in such work.
All of the work is legal, London said: "We will not tolerate any illegal behavior on the part of our employees."
CACI said in a statement yesterday that company officials had not reviewed the Army's investigative report, which is confidential but has been obtained by a handful of media outlets, including The Sun.
Even before the abuses at the Iraqi prison became public, several Democratic lawmakers had raised concerns beginning last year about the accountability of private security firms operating in Iraq. Military officials have said they had little choice but to turn to private firms such as CACI and Titan Corp., also implicated in the Army's report.
At an October Senate hearing, a Pentagon official said that staffing shortages, particularly of Arabic linguists, had forced the Department of Defense to hire contractors not only as interpreters but for interrogation work as well.
"We do use contractors as a means to hire linguists and interrogators," said Charles Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. "The Titan Corporation is among those. They run a background check and then, of course, the military does a more detailed check. ... In our rush to meet the requirements, the mere numerical requirements, I think folks were brought on based on those initial checks and then the more detailed checks followed as time permitted."
Abell said the Defense Department recruited contract employees rapidly after the Sept. 11 attacks, largely in response to a shortage of linguists, "either to translate or to interrogate, depending on their skill set."
The San Diego-based Titan Corp. was one of two private contracting firms that came under criticism in the Army report, which documented alleged abuses of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
The report recommended the termination of a CACI employee who was accused of allowing or ordering military policeman who were not trained in interrogation techniques "to facilitate interrogations by 'setting conditions' which were neither authorized" by nor comported with Army regulations.
U.S. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday on ABC's This Week that, if warranted, civilian contractors would face punishment, "The same way we'd deal with any civilian abuses where you have a contract."
"We have contractors all over the world working for the U.S. military in Japan, in Europe, I mean, literally all over the world, and they're handled through the U.S. court system," Myers said.
Legal scholars said two U.S. laws could be used to bring charges against American workers overseas.
The most likely route for prosecutors would be to pursue charges under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, adopted four years ago as a way to address American crimes against other Americans overseas, said Paul C. Forage, a military analyst and history professor at Florida Atlantic University.
Forage and Silliman said U.S. prosecutors also could pursue charges against civilian contractors under a 1996 federal law intended to address foreign war crimes and to protect American soldiers who were victims of war abuses overseas.
"It is up to the prosecutors - that is where the realities of the court system step in," Forage said yesterday. "I think it's a pretty clear case. ... It's not an area of legal limbo."
But Forage acknowledged that the law is untested in regard to the fast-growing world of military contractors, where companies such as CACI illustrate the rapid explosion of private workers in what have traditionally been government jobs.
Founded in 1962 as a small consulting firm, CACI now has more than $1 billion in annual revenue. It specializes in information technology but also has branched into every corner of the Defense Department to become "essentially an odd-jobs provider for the federal government," according to Tim Quillin, an analyst for the investment banking firm Stephens Inc.
More than 90 percent of CACI's business comes from its main customer - the Pentagon - and other federal agencies, according to reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Among the company's former directors is Richard L. Armitage, who resigned in 2001 to accept an appointment from President Bush as deputy secretary of state.
Outside observers are split on whether such companies also should be given the sensitive tasks of intelligence gathering and interrogation.
Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said the revelation that civilian contractors are serving as interrogators could be "coming as an unpleasant surprise to a lot of Americans." But John E. Pike, director of the defense think tank GlobalSecurity.org, said that from a "human resources standpoint, it makes perfect sense."
"The operation in Iraq needed to ramp up quickly, no one knew how long the interrogators would be there, and lots of people out there have experience in the business of asking people inconvenient questions," Pike said. "I don't see anything abnormal or peculiar about civilian interrigators. It's a line of work."
David W.P. Elliott, a former military intelligence interrogator and professor of international relations at Pomona College, said he thinks contractors are being overused in many roles in Iraq. But he believes it is particularly unwise to use contractors for the difficult and delicate task of questioning Iraqi prisoners.
"It's a bad idea because there's not the same accountability" as with military personnel, said Elliott, who served with Army intelligence in Vietnam from 1963 to 1965 and returned there later in the war with the Rand Corp. "What's their chain of command? Who are they really responsible to?"
Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington, raised the same concern about accountability.
"It makes very little sense to do this with a delicate, sensitive mission like interrogation where you have contractors not in the chain of command, and not even clearly legally responsible for their actions," Hanlon said. "Anybody doing this needs to be aware if they screw up, they're going to be held accountable in an American court of law."
Sun staff writers Tom Bowman, Robert Little and Scott Calvert contributed to this article.