The unexpected role of the Department of the Interior, usually associated not with wartime intelligence-gathering but with national parks, grew out of a government plan to cut costs. But in practice, it may have increased costs and reduced scrutiny, said Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution.
"You're placing a military interrogation task under Smokey the Bear," Singer said. "You can't have good oversight."
What's more, legal experts say, contractors for nonmilitary agencies such as the Department of the Interior may be able to escape prosecution for crimes they commit overseas because of an apparent loophole in the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act. The law, passed in 2000, applies only to contractors with the Department of Defense - a flaw some members of Congress want to remedy.
Michael J. Nardotti Jr., a Washington lawyer who served as judge advocate general of the Army from 1993 to 1997, said the law is untested and that it is uncertain whether a court would stretch the law to cover an Interior Department contractor working on Army assignments.
What is certain, Nardotti said, is that a contractor charged with a crime would use the issue to challenge the prosecution.
The Iraq war and its aftermath have focused attention on the extraordinary expansion of the work performed by federal contractors, often in sensitive security and intelligence roles. U.S. security contractors in Iraq, who do everything from guarding U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III to advising Iraqi police, number more than 20,000, making them the second-largest security force after the U.S. military.
Many military officers and outside experts say that using contractors as interrogators is a bad idea no matter what agency hires them, because they are not subject to military discipline and control.
Congress has also expressed concern about contract interrogators. A defense spending bill passed Thursday by the House would require the Pentagon to disclose in greater detail the work of contractors in Iraq, and Senate Democrats have said they might propose legislation banning contractors from interrogating prisoners.
Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat, pressed top Army officials on the issue at a hearing last week. "The contractors seem to be outside of the line of command," he said. "And as a result, some things they do are not known by us."
Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller replied that "no civilian contractors had a supervisory position. It's the military ... who sets the priorities and ensures that we meet our standards."
But in the case of the contract interrogators at Abu Ghraib, the chain of command is especially blurry, because it ends with an obscure Department of the Interior office 70 miles southeast of Tucson, Ariz.
The interrogators work for CACI International, a global government contractor based in Arlington, Va., with more than $1 billion a year in revenue. And CACI's contract is with the Interior Department's National Business Center, which for the past four years has run the contracting office at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Ariz., said Interior Department spokesman Frank Quimby.
Quimby said the arrangement was a result of federal efforts in the 1990s to "streamline and reduce duplication," by having agencies with particular skill at administrative functions such as payroll or contracting handle those jobs for other agencies.
Thus, with efficiency in mind, the Fort Huachuca Contract Administration Office was gradually transferred from the Army to the Department of the Interior between 1998 and 2001.
"Now the Army comes to that office when it needs services," Quimby said.
In 2001, the Interior Department contracting office awarded a "blanket purchase agreement" to a company called Premier Technology Group for services to be provided to the Army. Last year, CACI International acquired Premier Technology.
The blanket purchase agreement allows the Department of the Interior to purchase services from CACI International without going through a new round of competitive bidding for each new job. Since 2001, the department has approved 81 "delivery orders" under the Premier Technology-CACI contract, including 11 for services in Iraq.
Most of the services relate to information technology, but at least two involve the provision of interrogators, Quimby said - one for $19.9 million covering "interrogation support" and another for $21.8 million labeled "human intelligence support."
Under those contracts, Army officials have said that CACI has provided 27 interrogators to work in detention centers in Iraq. Several work at Abu Ghraib, and one - a 34-year-old Navy veteran named Steven Stefanowicz - is sharply criticized in an Army investigative report on the prisoner abuse.
Stefanowicz instructed military police officers to "facilitate interrogations" in such a way that "he clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse," says the report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba. It also declares that Stefanowicz "made a false statement to the investigation team regarding the locations of his interrogations, the activities during his interrogations, and his knowledge of abuses."
Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., an attorney representing Stefanowicz, said his client denies doing anything wrong at Abu Ghraib. "Anything he did there was both appropriate and authorized, and he did not do anything wrong, nor is he aware of any wrongdoing by any other CACI employee," Hockeimer said.
CACI International did not respond to a request for comment, but company officials say they have seen no evidence of wrongdoing by employees.
Taguba's report recommends that Stefanowicz be fired, reprimanded and stripped of his security clearance. The report does not suggest criminal charges.
"Pentagon contractors working in Iraq are operating in a legal fog, where they are not accountable to Iraqi laws, U.S. laws or military laws governing our troops," Rep. David E. Price, a North Carolina Democrat, said in a statement about the amendment he proposed along with Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican.
Their bill would extend the law to contractors with any federal agency, as long as they are "supporting the mission of the Department of Defense." But even if it passes, the amendment would not apply to crimes committed before it takes effect.
Singer, of the Brookings Institution, said the Interior Department's role began with an attempt to be frugal. But by involving two Cabinet departments and having a contractor provide services for years without new bidding, the government has almost certainly increased costs, he said.
"There is no competition and no oversight," Singer said. "The free market can be a wonderful mechanism. But not if you do everything possible to ensure that it won't work."
Quimby, the Interior Department spokesman, sounded frustrated that his agency has been dragged into the prison scandal.
"The Army set the requirements for the contract," he said. "The Army pays for the contract. The Army benefits from the contract.
"But when there's a media inquiry," Quimby said, "it's an Interior Department contract."