On May 31st, 2008, Titan will officially relinquish the translation contract to GLS. Most of the translators that they hired will keep their jobs; most observers agree that Titan lost the contract not just because it failed to meet quotas but also because it did such a poor job of vetting and hiring translators. What is astonishing is that it has taken approximately four years from the time that the original contract expired in spring of 2004, for it to effectively be canceled.
Is L-3 doing better in hiring analysts, screeners and interrogators? Anecdotal evidence gathered by CorpWatch suggests that there are similar problems, particularly in the hiring of screeners. The U.S. military has the option of concluding the intelligence contract in July 2008 or extending it for one more year. If there are indeed problems with the intelligence contract, one would sincerely hope that it will not take four years to find a replacement.
Will GLS do a better job with the mammoth translation contract?If the system of vetting and incentives are not changed there is no reason to believe that Spider Marks, the new president of the project, will do any better despite his background with both Fort Huachuca and with intelligence during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He will be compensated, as will his company, handsomely for this work which he would previously have overseen as a public servant. Some may have a legitimate issue with this (particularly in light of the fact that he has promoted himself as an expert on the war with CNN television, while lobbying to get this multi-billion dollar contract). But the bigger issue is why the contract was so poorly managed for so long.
Why has the U.S. government taken so long to create strict rules for the vetting and hiring of translators and interrogators - which could have been legally enforced upon the contractor? The system of fining the company for failing to meet quota must be removed - it is more important to have fewer good, qualified, honest translators than many bad ones. Why has the government failed to crack down on human rights abuses by translators and interrogators? (Not one contractor has been brought to court in the Abu Ghraib scandals, despite the fact that their military counterparts have been sentenced to prison.)
The answer is simple: the U.S. government does not have the capacity to enforce existing rules, challenge abuses or write better rules, because it is overwhelmed by the task it has set itself in Iraq. Private contractors thus enjoy virtual (though not complete) impunity. Would the public be better served if the translation had been done by the public sector? It would not be unprecedented: in the wake of the September 11th, 2001 attacks, the U.S. government nationalized airport security screening by creating the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Whether this work continues to be done by the private or the public sector, transparency and accountability are key tools that the government needs to use in order to solve these problems. We believe that the U.S. Congress should demand sunshine into these contracts; in particular it needs to investigate what oversight actually exists for the work of L-3/Titan (and its sub-contractors) and how effective this oversight is, precisely because these companies are implementing inherently governmental functions. There also needs to be robust on-the-ground oversight and support for whistleblowers to detect problems with the contract.
But there is much more to this than just contractor accountability and reform.The government and the military also have much to answer for their own actions: Why have civilian contractors been used in combat roles? Why does the military continue to arbitrarily round up thousands of suspects with little or no evidence and hold these innocent people for months at a time? This cannot be the best way to pursue justice. Indeed, it may well be one of the reasons that there is so much resentment of the U.S. military and its allies in Iraq. This also begs the bigger question of U.S. political/ military strategy in Iraq. If the U.S. troops leave Iraq or at least ceased to arrest so many innocent people and allowed the Iraqi government to deal with its own internal problems, the need for so many translators might be reduced considerably.
We also believe that enforcement and punishment are important tools: human rights abuses should never be tolerated. We call on the U.S. government to investigate and prosecute offenders in civil courts (not arbitration or in military tribunals). (Clearly this must apply equally to contractors and soldiers.)
And finally we call on L-3/Titan and the ultimate paymaster, the government, to do the right thing by its employees who have been injured in the course of their work, and those who lost their lives, by paying adequate compensation, and more importantly ensuring that they are adequately protected for their work.