Hooded prisoner

Hooded prisoner
This image from CBS's "60 Minutes" shows a hooded Iraqi prisoner standing on top of a box that appears to be connected to wires. (April 30, 2004)

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."