The Iraq torture scandal has emphasised the disturbing consequences of the US military's reliance on private contractors, writes Julian Borger
May 6, 2004
By Julian Borger
The repulsive pictures of Iraqi prisoners being tortured by their American captors last week marked a new low point in the sorry story of the occupation, particularly when set alongside the rapidly fading talk of liberation. But just as shocking was the revelation that the interrogation of detainees in Iraq had quietly been privatised. The very idea that the act of extracting information from prisoners might be turned into a for-profit operation would have seemed a black joke not long ago, the premise for a Monty Python sketch, perhaps.
Now it is clearly no more than the next logical step in the creeping privatisation of conflict. Security firms have an estimated 20,000 employees in Iraq, a huge private army (more than twice the size of the British contingent) that guards politicians and pipelines, and which has inevitably been drawn into direct combat in recent months. So, if there were not enough military intelligence and CIA interrogators to get around to the thousands of Iraqis picked up in the security sweeps of hostile areas, hiring freelance "intelligence specialists" must have seemed a no-brainer for cost-conscious government planners.
The initial US military report into the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison makes for unpleasant reading. It is clear that a breakdown in basic norms of humanity occurred amid the filth and overcrowding and under the neglectful eyes of senior officers such as Brigadier-General Janis Karpinski, a reservist who was clearly out of her depth supervising military prisons. The Abu Ghraib report described her as "extremely emotional" and said she demonstrated a "complete unwillingness to either understand or accept" that the problems in her unit might be caused by poor leadership.
At Abu Ghraib - which not long ago was held up by Washington and London as the most powerful symbol of Saddam Hussein's sadism - US military intelligence cordoned off a cell block and coopted young military policemen into softening up the targets of their interrogation. Among the interrogators were employees of a company called CACI International, one of the military and intelligence contractors that has prospered over recent years in northern Virginia, within easy driving distance of the Pentagon and CIA headquarters in Langley. Translators, meanwhile, were provided by the Titan Corporation, a California-based contractor on the point of being bought by Lockheed Martin.
The contractors are no more than the expression of market forces. The shrinking of the cold war US military in the 1990s has created an urgent need for hired guns in the post-September 11 world, in which the armed forces are as stretched as they have ever been. Meanwhile, the downsizing of the army, navy and air force has generated a corresponding supply of ex-military recruits who find they can make $100,000 a year doing what they used to do for peanuts. CACI's website claims the firm "has rapidly grown into a world leader in providing timely solutions to the intelligence community".
The military investigation by Major-General Antonio Taguba reserves some of its harshest criticism for CACI employees, whom he accuses of being among those giving the orders in Abu Ghraib. It also declares a Titan translator a "suspect" in the abuse investigation. Seventeen soldiers and officers have been relieved of their duty, and six low-ranking military police guards face the prospect of court martial. But there is no set of rules for the contractors. One was detained by the military investigators but later released because the military realised it had no jurisdiction over him. Both CACI and Titan said they had not been notified by the Pentagon of any wrongdoing by their employees and had therefore not taken any action.
That is a very important part of the problem with private contractors in combat zones like Iraq. They cannot be court-martialled under the military code of conduct and Paul Bremer, the leader of the coalition in Iraq, specifically excluded them from Iraqi law. They fall through the cracks. When employees of another private security contractor, DynCorp, were found to have been implicated in a prostitution racket in Bosnia, they quietly slipped out the country. They were fired, but so were the whistleblowers who brought their crimes to light. Since then, Congress has passed the 2000 Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which allows for prosecution of crimes committed by civilians attached to military personnel in foreign countries, but there is no record so far of the law being successfully applied.
This legal grey area may well not be entirely accidental of course. It means private contractors can be used to do dirty work for the military or the CIA with plausible deniability and relative immunity. In the eyes of military and intelligence chiefs, this very attribute makes them an attractive weapon in the "global war on terror", a conflict fought out in the shadows where the normal legal niceties are a hindrance. Like Guantanamo Bay, they provide another legal loophole that allows Washington to avoid the conventional rules of war.
The plethora of military contractors also saves the government money, at least in theory. The hired guns can be sent into action in a crisis and dispensed with afterwards. But the very real problems with the privatisation of war, can be summed up in a few words: Fallujah and Abu Ghraib.
At the end of March, four employees of the security firm Blackwater drove into an ambush in Fallujah, Iraq's most dangerous town. Their killing, mutiliation, and the public display of their remains provoked outrage and triggered a bloody battle that lasted a month. The Blackwater workers had none of the protection or access to intelligence of uniformed soldiers and yet the US felt equally obliged to avenge their deaths. It was the worst of both worlds.
Meanwhile, a powerful multi-billion dollar industry has grown up around the US capital with a vested interest in stretching out the conflict.
Abu Ghraib is another urgent warning of the costs of turning war into a business. It is too early to say to what extent the role of hired interrogators contributed to the descent into depravity over the last few months of 2003, but it is clear their murky status will make it harder to administer justice.
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