The Contract the Military Needs to Break

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

September 12, 2004

No fewer than six separate military investigations have been empowered to probe the terrible abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the breakdown in the military chain of command that allowed those crimes to happen. Repeatedly, though, investigators have come across an element of the scandal that is altogether outside the military orbit—independent corporate contractors.

Private contractors have been an inescapable part of this public embarrassment, and yet little to nothing is being done to make sure that such a fiasco doesn’t happen again. Moreover, while two U.S. Army reports issued last month explored the question of military command responsibility, no one has demanded accountability from the corporate chain of command that played an incontrovertible part in the Abu Ghraib abuses. Members of the 372nd Military Police Company are facing prosecution for dereliction of duty and the mistreatment of prisoners, but none of the contractors implicated in similar offenses have yet faced that sort of scrutiny.

More than 20,000 private contractors are working for the U.S. government in Iraq, performing a wide range of military functions. Employees from CACI International Inc.—whose motto is “Ever Vigilant”—made up more than half of all the analysts and interrogators at Abu Ghraib, while all the translators who made it possible for the interrogators and guards to communicate with the prisoners were employees from the Titan Corp.

Sixteen of the 44 incidents of abuse the Army’s latest reports say happened at Abu Ghraib involved private contractors outside the domain of both the U.S. military and the U.S. government. Army investigators have reported that six employees of private contractors were involved in incidents of abuse, but potentially more may have been involved in other crimes in Iraq and elsewhere. For example, one unidentified contractor has been accused of an alleged rape at Abu Ghraib, while a CIA contract employee has been indicted in North Carolina on charges of criminal assault for allegedly beating a detainee in Afghanistan with a flashlight. The detainee died shortly afterwards.

Thus, while Lt. Gen. Anthony Jones and Maj. Gen. George Fay, lead authors of the most recent Army reports, were assigned the task of looking only at the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, it is no surprise that time and again they mention private contractors—on 38 pages of their reports to be exact. What is a surprise is how much their reports, focused on an Army brigade, reveal about an outsourcing episode gone bad.

Both Jones and Fay concluded that a key reason for the predicament at Abu Ghraib was the failure of Pentagon planners to send sufficient forces, and the right kind of forces, to Iraq. Thus, when the war turned into a troubled occupation and the number of detainees rose, the Pentagon turned to private companies to hire additional help quickly.

Confronting the problem of controlling private contractors requires challenging a common myth: that outsourcing saves money. This philosophy stems from a wider craze of privatizing government services that began long before President Bush took office. But hiring private employees in Iraq at pay rates several times more than what soldiers make, plus paying the overhead at the private firms, has never been about saving money. It’s more about avoiding tough political choices concerning military needs, reserve call-ups and the human consequences of war.

In fact, the contract to hire private interrogators at Abu Ghraib wasn’t even opened to competitive bids designed to find the best price. Instead, the program was run through a preexisting information technology contract CACI had with the Interior Department—and contrary to federal acquisition regulations, the contract was written by an employee of the firm. The process used was so convoluted that months later, neither Gen. Fay nor Gen. Jones could figure out just who wanted private interrogators in the first place or why.

Hiring private contractors comes with another hidden price: corporate practices that would not pass military muster. Well before the Fay and Jones investigations, former employees of CACI had alleged that many of their fellow interrogators lacked proper experience or training. They asserted that in the rush to fill the billable interrogator jobs, the firm had conducted five-minute phone interviews with applicants and hadn’t bothered to check their rTsumTs, fingerprints or criminal records. The firm denied this, but the Army investigators found that 35 percent of the contract interrogators “lacked formal military training as interrogators.”

The Fay report blandly summed up the use of contractors at Abu Ghraib as “problematic.” But the report’s details provide a searing indictment of the practice. Hiring private contractors for sensitive, mission-critical and dangerous roles is contrary to long-standing military doctrine on what jobs civilians are supposed to have in warfare and what roles are to be kept within the force. “Doctrine provides the foundation for Army operations,” Fay noted. The non-doctrinal use of contractors opened the door to making up other rules along the way, such as the non-doctrinal use of torture.

The arrival of contract interrogators blurred lines of authority and obscured the differences between civilian and military tasks. This resembled the confused military command structure that investigators found at Abu Ghraib between military intelligence and military policy units. Civilians lie outside the chain of command, but contractors should answer to their clients—in this case, the U.S. taxpayer and the military. While Pentagon officials previously testified to Congress that contractors were never in supervisory roles, Army investigators documented numerous instances in which contractors “supervised” military officers (as specified in the job advertisements they answered) and other instances in which contractors demonstrated disdain for their uniformed clients. One CACI contractor (who, the Fay report said, tossed about and dragged a handcuffed prisoner) allegedly drank alcohol at the prison and refused to take orders from a military officer, saying, “I have been doing my job for 20 years and do not need a 20-year-old to tell me how to do my job.”

The Fay report noted that one of the Army’s mantras is to “train as you fight.” But training that took place before the Iraq invasion didn’t include so many contractors in so many roles critical to the mission. Thus, Fay wrote, the military was “unprepared for the arrival of contract interrogators and had no training to fall back on in the management, control, and discipline of these personnel.” Soldiers didn’t know how to handle contractors in order to “protect the Army’s interests,” he added.

Despite all these dark findings, Army investigators are at a loss over how to hold the contractors accountable. The Army referred individual employees’ names to the Justice Department more than three months ago, but Attorney General John Ashcroft has yet to take action. By hiring people through an Interior Department contract, the Army may inadvertently have created a legal loophole that might prevent any attempt to bring charges against employees of the private companies. Existing laws cover Pentagon hires working on U.S. bases, but not those working for other agencies.

Some people have proposed the use of war crimes statutes and even the Patriot Act. CACI and Titan are also targets of separate Abu Ghraib-related lawsuits—a class action by torture victims’ families and a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act suit filed by a human rights group.

But so far nothing official has actually been done. Much as the civilian leadership at the Pentagon escaped unscathed, the corporate leadership at the firms has avoided investigation and possible punishment. So far, the only formal investigation has been one conducted by the firm involved; CACI’s investigation of CACI cleared CACI. Clearly, this is insufficient.

One recourse could be to let market forces punish bad corporate behavior by firing, or at least not rehiring, the companies that have done wrong. But the Army has not even exercised that minimal option; it awarded a $23 million extension to CACI just last month, before the investigations were complete.

The abuses at Abu Ghraib—arguably the worst military scandal in a generation—cannot be put to rest until we come to grips with military privatization gone wrong. The government can investigate the issue, bring people to justice and ensure that lessons are learned so that the same mistakes are not repeated. Or it can continue to have private firms do our public jobs.