Three civilian employees who allegedly participated in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners have yet to face any disciplinary action, their employers said Monday, raising within the Pentagon the issue of accountability for thousands of private contractors in Iraq.
A senior U.S. official involved in detention issues said the Defense Department was struggling to determine a legal basis upon which to pursue prosecution of the civilians, who were working as interrogators and translators at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad when Iraqis were sexually and physically abused by Americans there.
"One of the issues that people are dealing with is who can investigate them," the official said. "In the military chain, it's fairly clear. It's not clear in the legal framework that we have how to deal with this."
Government contracting experts said the delay in prosecuting the interrogators and translators is causing further damage to the image of the U.S., already sullied by photos of American troops grinning as they pose near naked, hooded Iraqis.
"You have to deal with this immediately. You have to show that when crimes happen, we punish them to the full extent of the law," said Peter W. Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written a book on private military contractors. "So far, that doesn't appear to be the case. We've let the contractors fall through a gap in the law."
The controversy surrounding the abuse, which include reports of prisoners being beaten, sodomized with a chemical light and forced to pose nude in simulated sexual acts, continued to grow Monday.
A United Nations human rights expert called for an investigation into violations at Abu Ghraib. The U.N.'s special rapporteur against torture, Theo van Boven, said in Geneva that he was "seriously concerned" about reports of degrading treatment of detainees by American and British forces. Van Boven is an independent expert appointed by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
President Bush telephoned Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to urge action against those guilty of "these shameful and appalling acts," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Monday. But according to Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita, Rumsfeld had not read the March report on Abu Ghraib by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba. Reports on small numbers of troops "isn't necessarily something" Rumsfeld or other top officials "would get involved with," he said.
Seven soldiers have been reprimanded in connection with events at the prison, officials said Monday. Six have been charged and face court-martial. An Army report on abuses at the prison listed 12 officers who had been disciplined.
But the question of what actions to take against the civilian contractors at the prison remains unsettled. An internal military report on the incidents, which occurred last fall, identified a civilian translator from San Diego-based Titan Corp., Adel L. Nakhla, as a "suspect." His alleged crime was unclear.
Steven Stephanowicz, a contractor working for Arlington, Va.-based CACI International as an interrogator, and John Israel, another Titan translator, were alleged to have been "directly or indirectly responsible" for abuses at the prison.
The report recommended that Stephanowicz be fired and that Israel be reprimanded. It made no specific recommendations about Nakhla.
Military officials were scrambling Monday to determine the legal status of the three contractors.
CACI officials said they had not yet received a copy of the military's internal investigation or even been formally notified by the Army that any of its employees had been involved.
"In the event there is wrongdoing on the part of any CACI employee, we will take swift action to correct it immediately, but at this time we have no information from the U.S. government of any violations or wrongful behavior," said CACI's chief executive, J.P. "Jack" London.
Wil Williams, a Titan spokesman, told Associated Press that he was not aware of any wrongdoing by the company's employees in Iraq and that none had been disciplined.
Legal experts said that the allegations of abuse at Abu Ghraib raise anew some of the thorniest questions in the military's drive to contract out jobs usually shouldered by U.S. soldiers.
At the prison, according to sources and the military report, CACI employees interrogated detainees with the help of translators from Titan, which provides translation services to the U.S. military throughout Iraq.
Soldiers have said that military intelligence officers at the prison, along with civilian interrogators, instructed them to "loosen up" the captives. Stephanowicz, according to Taguba's report, "clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse."
However, it remained unclear Monday whether the civilians could be charged with any crimes under existing statutes.
Under military law, a person working for the military is not subject to court-martial jurisdiction unless Congress has declared war, which it did not do against Iraq.
However, after civilian contractors with El Segundo-based DynCorp escaped prosecution on accusations in 2000 of running a prostitution ring in Bosnia, Congress passed a law allowing criminal proceedings against Defense Department contractors working abroad.
Chuck Blanchard, former general counsel for the Army, said the law does not necessarily apply to companies employing contractors who do not work directly for the government.
Still, many legal experts interviewed pointed to a decree that L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, issued last summer requiring non-Iraqis to face criminal charges in their country of origin.
That blanket order should allow prosecutors to charge U.S. citizens in a federal court.
"Whether the accused are military or civilian, there are clear laws that address these allegations, and the incident must be fully investigated and the perpetrators should face justice," said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Assn., a trade group for private security contractors.