WASHINGTON - Amid growing outrage over allegations that U.S. soldiers abused Iraqi prisoners, a private military contractor acknowledged Friday that its employees had been questioned in connection with the incident at the U.S. military's main detention center in Iraq.
CACI International of Arlington, Va., said the employees had volunteered to be interviewed in a case in which six U.S. soldiers have been charged with sexually and physically abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. An additional 11 soldiers have been suspended.
CACI, which provides services to the U.S. military ranging from intelligence gathering to computer networking, declined to identify the employees or their jobs at the prison, which houses about 8,000 convicted criminals and military detainees.
Military and industry sources said CACI was involved in the interrogation of some Iraqis being held at the prison.
A lawyer for one of the accused soldiers - and some members of their families - said CACI employees had encouraged military police to abuse prisoners to "soften them up" for questioning. That allegation has not been confirmed by Army officials.
"The company has received no indication from the Army that any CACI employee was involved in any alleged improper conduct with Iraqi prisoners," said a statement from CACI, which has about 7,600 employees worldwide.
"CACI has received no indication of pending actions against any employee related to this matter," it said.
The incident at Abu Ghraib prison, infamous among Iraqis as Saddam Hussein's main site for torture and execution, has embarrassed U.S. military officials and enraged Arabs and Americans.
Questions over the role that private U.S. companies played at the prison probably will renew debate in the United States over the use of military contractors in Iraq.
In an effort to cut costs, the Pentagon has increasingly promoted the use of private contractors to perform a variety of roles traditionally carried out by troops.
Private companies in Iraq perform tasks ranging from cooking meals and delivering mail to protecting U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III.
At Abu Ghraib, CACI conducted interrogations and a second U.S. company, San Diego-based Titan Corp., provided interpreters, industry and military sources said.
The sources described a system in which thousands of Iraqi detainees are held for months on suspicion of being an "imperative threat to security." Interrogators attempt to interview each of the detainees to gather intelligence and determine whether the man should be released.
The large number of detainees led the Army, which runs the prison, to hire Titan and CACI.
Titan declined to confirm that its employees worked at the prison. Fourteen Titan employees have been killed in Iraq. The company is one of the main providers of interpreters to the U.S.-led coalition.
"Titan provides no interrogative services to any government agencies. We are not in that business," said Ralph "Wil" Williams, a company spokesman.
"We have no contracts where our people are involved with the contact or handling of prisoners."
Most contracted interrogators who work for CACI are former military interrogators or police officers, said one Army interrogator, who asked not to be named. "They were working for the Army ... and they were more mature than a lot of the Army interrogators."
The Army interrogator said that he did not have firsthand knowledge of the alleged abuses, but that he and others in the compound had learned of the subsequent investigation.
Almost everyone stationed at the prison was required to sign sworn statements indicating whether they had witnessed inappropriate behavior.
The Army interrogator said that although he had not seen instances of abuse, he had seen evidence that some prisoners were mistreated, including "some detainees that had been bruised and kicked."
The interrogator rejected the suggestion that such treatment had been meted out to prisoners who were to be questioned, and that it was somehow sanctioned or encouraged by interrogators.
"That's totally absurd," said the interrogator, who returned from Iraq this year. "That's totally wrong. I didn't want to see anything like that and would have reported it myself if I had."
"We had rules of engagement, and all of those were in accordance with the Geneva Conventions," he added.
"There was no hitting. No touching. You can't humiliate prisoners. The only thing the MPs could do would be to isolate [prisoners]."
Sleep deprivation was used in some instances, the interrogator said, but "had to be approved through channels."
The prison has been beset with leadership problems, according to U.S. sources. Gen. Janis Karpinski, a reservist in charge of prison operations, was suspended after the reports of abuse of as many as 20 prisoners surfaced last fall.
"There's always pressure to get information," said a U.S. official familiar with the prison in Iraq. "But there are certain lines you can't cross. Our soldiers should have known, regardless of pressure."
But Gary Myers, an attorney for one of the accused soldiers, Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick, 37, of Virginia, said that the soldiers had been encouraged by both civilian and military officials to abuse the Iraqis.
Echoing comments by relatives of some of the accused soldiers, he said that the men were praised for their actions. Most of the soldiers accused in the abuse incidents are reservists from the 372nd Military Police Company from Cumberland, Md.
"What the heck are these guys doing there in the first place?" Myers asked of the contractors. "There's a lack of leadership, a lack of guidance."
Times staff writer Esther Schrader contributed to this report.