Accessibility links

Civilian Interrogators in the Crossfire - 2004-05-17

Pictures of naked, abused Iraqi prisoners have aroused anger around the world since their revelation in late April. Congressional hearings into this abuse have found that some mistreatment may involve U.S. civilians who were brought into Iraqi prisons to interrogate detainees. Two of these civilian contractors are currently under investigation for misconduct, but so far, have not been officially charged. In addition, the New York Times and other sources report that the U.S. Justice Department is looking into the possible involvement of civilian contractors in the deaths of two persons detained by the United States in Iraq.

Some ask why would civilian contractors be employed in such sensitive positions? Washington Times Pentagon Correspondent Bill Gertz says the Defense Department is moving toward a smaller active-duty military supplemented by outsiders who can help soldiers fulfill their missions. He says “It seems to be part of Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld’s transformation strategy – to try and find jobs and missions within the military and the defense community that perhaps could be done more efficiently outside of a formal military or defense structure.”

George Washington University Professor Deborah Avant, a specialist in the outsourcing of traditionally military job functions, says in recent years the war on terror has made civilian interrogators especially necessary. “The need for interrogations,” she says “rose after September 11th. There are a lot of detainees all over the world, and the need for specific kinds of skills that were stretched thin in the U.S. military rose. People looked to resolve the problem by using contractors.”

What sort of persons would be hired to interrogate detainees or prisoners? After all, this is not a skill commonly found in the private sector. A Washington-based trade association called the International Peace Operations Association represents companies that provide services to the military. Its president, Doug Brooks, says these civilian contractors come to the job with the exact experience the Pentagon is looking for. “Most of the interrogators that they hire,” says Brooks, “are former military interrogators themselves, and in fact have much more experience than your average interrogator in the military.”

When a person takes off a military uniform and becomes a civilian contractor, more than clothing is shed. Jeff Kojac, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, points out that such civilians working overseas do not answer to the U.S. military’s legal system despite being under contract to the Pentagon. Mr. Kojac notes that “A United States soldier is accountable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice regardless of what country that soldier does something wrong in. He adds “But when these American citizens that are contractors do something wrong in another country, then it gets really murky.”

In 2000, Congress passed a law called the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which puts U.S. federal courts in charge over any crimes that may be committed by civilian contractors working overseas for the defense department. Peter Singer, of the Washington-based Brookings Institution, and an analyst of private military companies, explains why this law might not be usable in the case of wrongdoing by civilian interrogators. “That act has two very clear problems with it,” asserts Mr. Singer, explaining “One, it only applies to contractors who are working for the Defense Department, not those working for these other government agencies. The second problem is that the Defense Department has had four years to lay out the regulations of who, when, and where and how it is applied. For example, does the Defense Department apply it, or does the Justice Department apply it?”

Peter Singer says that so far, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act has not been applied in any criminal case involving U.S. personnel in Iraq. He adds that if civilian contractors in Iraq charged with wrongdoing are not prosecuted under this act there are few other viable avenues. Mr. Singer notes the possibilility of pursuing wrongdoers through the court system of the U.S. state in which their company is registered, but says that is not likely to happen.

Along with the issue of what laws govern the behavior of civilian contractors working overseas for the United States is another - the chain of command these people follow. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee that these contract interrogators answer to military intelligence, which hired them and is responsible for their supervision. When the hearings resumed several days later, Deputy U.S. Army Chief of Staff Lt. General Keith Alexander restated that position to the committee. “The intel people there at Abu Ghraib,” he says “were responsible for oversight of those contractors. The contractors were to read and state that they understand the interrogation rules of engagement.”

These chain of command structures and the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act apply to civilians hired by the U.S. military. However, if the interrogators were hired by another part of the U.S. government, that law does not directly apply. Just whom were these civilian interrogators working for?

Senate Armed Services Committee member Robert Byrd demanded to know the identity of those agencies from Lt. General Alexander. Senator Byrd asked him “Who are they? What other government agencies?” General Alexander replied “CIA,” adding "The CIA also conducted some interrogations as I understand it at that facility.” Senator Byrd asked him about whether the Defense Intelligence Agency also conducted interrogations. General Alexander replied “I don’t know if the DIA conducted that. I would have to check that.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee hearings brought up something else regarding the possible conduct of civilian contractors at Abu Ghraib prison – whether they acted improperly by commanding military personnel to engage in certain acts portrayed in the now infamous photographs. Committee member Daniel Akuka sought answers to these questions from Major General Antonio Taguba, who wrote the report on military police activities at the prison. Senator Akuka asked “Were either of these contractor personnel supervising soldiers, or in a position to direct soldiers to take specific actions?” General Taguba told him “Sir, they were not in any way supervising any soldiers, Military Police or otherwise.”

Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone told panel members that strict rules were laid down for civilians working at Abu Ghraib prison, including prohibiting them from being in positions of authority. The Undersecretary testified that “Contractors may not perform interrogations except under the supervision of military personnel,” though he admitted that “There may have been circumstances under which this regulation was not followed.” Mr. Cambone went on to testify that “In addition, contractors may not supervise or give orders or directions to military personnel. Furthermore, criminal sanctions for any crimes the contractor may commit may be available in U.S. federal court.”

Undersecretary Cambone’s testimony drew a skeptical response from Pratap Chatterjee, who is with a private group called “Corporate Watch” that monitors corporate activities for possible wrongdoing. Mr. Chatterjee says that such orders clearly were not followed at Abu Ghraib. “Stephen Cambone,” he says “may interpret very strictly what the U-S military has laid down. It doesn’t mean that what he says is actually what’s happening in Iraq.”

The interest shown by Congress regarding the role of contractors working in Iraqi detention facilities has prompted much discussion regarding whether civilian interrogators should be reigned in or barred outright. Jeff Kojac of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says he fully expects someone in Congress to take action to stop the use of civilians in this sensitive role. Mr. Kojac told VOA “At least one member of the United States Congress is going to author legislation that restricts the use of civilian contractors to interrogate prisoners. That’s going to happen.”

Since the Senate Committee hearings into Iraqi prisoner abuse, and the role of contractors in that controversy, several developments have taken place. U.S. authorities released more than 300 Iraqi prisoners from Abu Ghraib prison. In another development, one of the Military Police guards at that facility, Specialist Jeremy Sivits, has decided to cooperate with prosecutors as they continue their investigation into prisoner abuse. Specialist Sivits is expected to plead guilty to reduced charges in exchange for that cooperation.

However, the activities of civilian interrogators at the prison may not be fully known until one or several such interrogators are formally charged with abuse, if indeed that happens.