BAGHDAD, IRAQ, March 2009
One of the most controversial aspects of the Iraq war has been the use of private contractors, who provided everything from bodyguards to catering. President Obama’s has ordered a review of the practice saying that the American people’s money must not be spent lining the pockets of contractors and that a fundamental public trust must be upheld. One of the darkest incidences of Iraq was the Abu Ghraib prison scandal where – although working under US military command many of the interrogators and translators had actually been supplied by private companies. The companies deny doing anything wrong, but Washington officials say clearer regulations must be drawn up.
The book I’d ordered was too big for the letter box, so I cycled round to pick it up from my local post office. It was a door-stopper of a tome, entitled Our Good Name. Prefaced by quotations from Sir Walter Scott on patriotism, Byron, on adversity and the Old and New testaments on truth, it formed a rebuttal of accusations being leveled against private military contractors working in Iraq.
The focus was on the atrocities carried out at the Abu Graib jail, revealed in those now iconic photographs of Iraqi prisoners being threatened by dogs, some stripped naked and another standing hooded on a stool with electrical cables running from parts of the body.
The book’s author was J. Phillip London, the head of a company called CACI, that specialized in information technology, but also, in the unplanned frenzy that erupted in post-invasion Iraq, had ended up supplying private interrogators to the American military that was running Abu Ghraib. CACI now finds itself embroiled in an expensive civil law suit.
A few weeks earlier, I had been in Baghdad with Suhail Najim, a farmer in his late forties, who was showing me family photographs, but with a difference. They were of his wife, children and grandchildren gathered outside the rubble of their farmhouse destroyed in an American military raid in late 2003. Suhail was dragged off to Abu Ghraib and in exchange for seeing his photographs, I showed him the famous pictures of the abuses that went on there.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “It happened to all of us. It was horrible. It felt helpless as if it were the end of the world. They stripped me naked, forced me to sit on sharp gravel. They brought in a dog.” He pulled up his shirt to show a scar he said had come from being beaten inside the prison. “What I heard was that it was a private security company that did this to us.”
Back then Suhail was known simply as prisoner number 153919, but now, together with more than 300 others, he’s central to a court case, seeking compensation. If successful, it could determine how much immunity private contractors should have. That, in turn, will focus minds on how American fights its future wars.
Private companies have historically been intrinsic to America’s military, but became even more so in the 1990s when the Pentagon downsized after the Cold War. Now they’re responsibility ranges from basic logistics such as transport, catering, providing bodyguards, satellite surveillance, intelligence gathering – and of course, interrogation.
I tracked one former CACI interrogator to his new home in Salt Lake City. Trained at a special US military school for interrogation, Torin Nelson had worked in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay while with the army. Then when he left, he took a contract with CACI to go to Iraq.
“Guantenmo Bay and Abu Ghraib were like night and day,” he said. “Abu G has to rate as probably the worst assignment I have ever had in my entire life.”
He rearranged his small home to show different types of interrogation technique, from the lone chair under a naked light bulb to the comfortable sofa in a relaxed room with pictures and drinks which, he said, often produced the best results. As for the abuses, he said they were done by people who had watched too many TV cop shows.
Nelson said he was unaware of them until the very end. But how much did he feel his employer CACI was responsible for what went on there?
“Once you’re on the ground, you fall under the military chain of command,” he said. “Abu G was poorly run. There was no accountability. It was the most insecure place.”
In Washington, I asked James Carafano, from the conservative Heritage Foundation that stands up for the military how Abu Ghraib and other scandals had impacted on the private defense industry. “There’s been a lot of thinking about this,” he said. “And the biggest lesson learned is that if the US government wants companies to serve the nation, then it’s got to be a better customer. If it’s not going to give good guidance, if employees are going to be put in situations that are untenable, then may-be, these private firms are thinking they shouldn’t do business with the American government.”
But probably not too much. Private contractors have made billions out of the Iraq war and although the rules might change, CACI at least plans to stay in the business.
CACI refused to discuss these issues at length, but the corporate communications vice-president, Jody Brown, e-mailed me recommending I buy her boss’s book that through its 770 pages emphasized that CACI had done nothing wrong.
“CACI is committed to a safe, secure America,” she wrote, “And remains ever vigilant in the war on terror.”