Part Two: The Translators
HISTORY OF TITAN
Titan was co-founded in 1981 in San Diego, California, by Gene W. Ray, a former senior Air Force advisor anda board member of Science Applications International Corporation (most of whose work comes from the CIA and the NSA) who then became the company CEO.(50)
Titan was bought by L-3 in June 2005 for approximately $2 billion in cash, specifically so that the company could expand its intelligence portfolio.(51) "It elevates us a notch to be a prime contractor in intelligence" work, Frank Lanza, L-3's chairman and chief executive at the time told the Wall Street Journal. He noted that until then the company had been mainly a products company, making everything from night-vision goggles to sensors to luggage-scanning devices. Lanza noted that Titan had 9,000 employees with security clearance for classified work, of whom 5,000 had top-secret clearance, a classification that can take the government two years to process.
The buy-out was made on condition that the San Diego company settle outstanding federal charges of bribery as well as related shareholder lawsuits in California and Delaware for $67.4 million. In June 2006, Steven Lynwood Head, Titan's Africa president, pled guilty to making payments to support the 2001 reelection of President Mathieu Kerekou in the West African nation of Benin, where Titan was building a telecommunications system. The company paid $28.5 million to settle charges under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.(52)
In late 2001 Titan bought up a company called BTG for $141.9 million, soon after the September 11th attacks on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Just two years prior to being acquired BTG had won a competitive bid worth $10 million to provide about 30 translators to the Coalition Forces Land Component Command in Kuwait for five years.(53) Soon after that, Titan started to aggressively recruit translators in Arabic, Aramaic, Dari, Farsi, Georgian, Kurdish, Pashto, Tajik, Ughyur, Urdu and Uzbek by faxing community groups and visiting job fairs and language clubs. This contract would eventually swell some 250-fold by the time it was canceled in 2008.(54)
The company provides three different kinds of translators to the military. Category One is comprised of local hires who were initially paid $10 a day in 2003, rising to about $45 a day today or about $15,000 a year. Category Two are U.S. residents or citizens who started out being paid about $70,000 in 2003, rising to $140,000 and more today for well-qualified candidates.(55) Finally, the company also provides a limited number of "Category Three"translators with "Secret" and "Top Secret" clearances forclassified work such as in the field of intelligence. (However, many of the translators who work in the interrogation facilities do not possess these high-level security clearances.)
From the very first day Titan began providing translators to the military, the biggest issue has been the uneven quality of the personnel. "They came from Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, from the 22 Arab countries in the neighborhood, even from Somalia," Wadie Deddeh, a senior Titan manager who was born in Baghdad, admitted to the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2004. "They spoke good English, but maybe broken Arabic. Or good Arabic, but no English. So both sides were unhappy with this situation."(56)
A number of Titan translators are equally critical. "I saw people who cannot spell Bob. B-O-B," Walid Hanna, an Iraq-born executive director of Michigan Community Financial Services in Sterling Heights, Michigan, and a former translator in Iraq told the American Prospect. "I saw translators who didn't even understand English."(57) A Titan supervisor, who worked in the Sunni Triangle in 2003, interviewed by CorpWatch, says the reason for this was that initially contract translators underwent little or no background checking and their qualifications varied. "I'd say most of them were just there for the pay check and should never have been involved in military operations because they were incompetent or unqualified. Many of them did a terrible job," the former U.S. soldier said.(58)
This is still true today. An L-3 interrogator who worked in Iraq in 2006 told CorpWatch: "I can tell you some of the interpreters I worked with knew less Arabic than I, and I don't know crap. I had one person (Iraqi) tell me I should replace my translator. He told me this in English after he got tired of the translator messing up the translation. We conducted the rest of the interview in English."(59)
Over the course of our work in Iraq, CorpWatch staff have met with dozens of Titan translators (as recently as April 2008) that confirm that the language skills of translators hired is still uneven. To this day, the company hires translators on the basis of a simple resumÃ© review and phone interview. Although translators have to travel to Virginia to pass a written test, the company mails prospective employees sample tests to help them pass. Anecdotal evidence suggests that very few are rejected once they pass the initial phone interview.(60)
Despite the fact that the quality of the personnel hired has been poor, Titan has still struggled to provide the 7,000 translators mandated under its contract. Indeed in 2006, the Iraq Study Group noted that the 1,000-staff U.S.Embassy in Iraq had only six translators that spoke fluent Arabic.(61)
The government sent L-3 a "cure notice" in December 2007 for failing to fill quotas. In a call with financial analysts, Michael Strianese, L-3's CEO explained: "... the percentage that were actually hired versus the target was at about 84%, than which, of course, is the desire to be at 100%. It is actually true, but again, as I mentioned, it is in a war zone, and people are targeted for assassination. It is not like you are recruiting kids off a college campus. It is a difficult environment. We believe that rate represents an excusable delay."(62)
Several of the translators hired by the company have done worse than just provide poor quality language services. Indeed some have even been arrested, and indictedor charged with criminal action, such as stealing classified documents from the military and at least one who was caught trying to bribe Iraqi and U.S. officials. Others have been dismissed after being implicated in human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib.
A: Human Rights Abuses
U.S. Army records show that there were 15 Titan translators and sub-contractors working at Abu Ghraib prison in late 2003 where a number of human rights abuses occurred. The abuses happened mostly at the hands of military police, although a couple of contract interrogators have also been accused of torture (see CACI box). Only one of the Titan translators held a security clearance. For example Khalid Oman was a hotel manager in Kalamazoo, Michigan, while Emad Mikha, a Chaldean from Basra, managed the meat department at a supermarket in Pontiac, Michigan, before going to work in Iraq. Most had no military background at all, nor did they receive training on working with prisoners, let alone in human rights.(63)
Major General George R. Fay, one of the military officials who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandals, wrote: "The contracting system failed to ensure that properly trained and vetted linguist and interrogator personnel were hired to support operations at Abu Ghraib."(64)
The CCR/Susan Burke lawsuit (see CACI box) that was filed against Titan goes further. It states that company recruiters hired individuals "known to be full of hatred and violent animus towards Iraqis in the custody of theUnited States." Many translators were members of minorities- Kurds, Iraqi Christians - whose communities had been victims of oppression in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.(65)
Three translators have been named in the military investigations into the scandals. At least one - Adel Nakhla - has been accused of participating in the abuses, while the role of the others is unclear. John Israel, who was Steve Stefanowicz's translator, is accused of lying to investigators (he said that he had not witnessed any abuses), while a woman by the name of Etaf Mheisen has simply been identified as having been present from photographs of the abuses but has not been accused of any crime.(66)
Nakhla has been clearly identified in three October 2003 photos of abuses where he is shown with three naked male prisoners shackled together, lying on the floor. In one, Nakhla has his hand near a detainee's neck. Nakhla is alleged to have accompanied and helped Charles Graner, a soldier, commit human rights abuses at the prison (Graner has since been found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison). A vivid description of Graner and Nahkla's abuses by former prisoners was recounted in the American Prospect:(67)
"That night, Nakhla told him to step on a platform in the doorway of the cell. He climbed up. His hands were shackled behind his back."You son of a bitch," Nakhla said, as A.A. recalled. "You move your legs from the surface." He took his feet off the platform and stepped into the air,hanging now by the arms that were handcuffed behind his back. This is known as a "Palestinian hanging," a form of torture reportedly once used by Israeli troops.
"I tried to put my hands out ... and to put my feet back on the bar, but Abu Hamid [as Nakhla was known by the prisoners] said, 'Don't,'" he recalled. "He was right behind me. I heard whistling in my head. I cried out to Abu Hamid for help. I told him, 'Abu Hamid, I am dying. Abu Hamid, I am going to die.' I hoped he would influence [Graner] for my sake because he is an Arab. But he was even worse than Graner."When Abu Hamid saw that I was going to put my feet back on the bar, he became very angry," he says. "He cursed. I started to sweat, and I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I was lying on the floor. I don't know who untied me or who put me on the floor. ...This was the last I saw of Abu Hamid and Graner."
Two military investigations relate similar accusations.The Fay report describes a civilian, widely believed to be Nakhla, who is accused of cutting a detainee's ear "to an extent that required stitches."
In the first Abu Ghraib investigation report written by Major General Antonio Taguba, Nakhla told military investigators that he watched as soldiers "handcuffed [detainees'] hands together and their legs with shackles and started to stack them on top of each other."(68) Detainee Kasim Mehaddi Hilas also told Taguba that he saw Abu Hamid "f*cking a kid," said Hilas. "His age would be about 15 to 18 years. The kid was hurting very bad and they covered all the doors with sheets. Then when I heard the screaming I climbed the door because on top it wasn't covered and I saw Abu Hamid who was wearing the military uniform, putting hisd*ck in the little kid's as* ... And the female soldier was taking pictures."
Tabuga said he found the accounts "credible based on the clarity of their statements and supporting evidence provided by other witnesses." He named Nakhla as a suspectin detainee abuse.
Interviewed by Army investigators, Nakhla first claimed he tried to help the prisoners. Later Nakhla acknowledged holding down a prisoner. "I did not say the part of how I held the detainee's foot that was on the floor so he would not run away," adding. "Not in any powerful way."(69)
So far Nakhla has not been charged with any crime and the CCR lawsuit against him/Titan was dismissed. Legal experts say that there isn't enough evidence against him to pursue him in court.
Both Israel and Nakhla have stated that they did not speak up because they were afraid of losing their jobs.This is a clear indication that using private contractors who can be dismissed at a moment's notice is a significant deterrent to the tradition of whistleblowers reporting questionable or egregious practices.
B: Criminal Charges
Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, a taxi driver from Boston, failed Army interrogation school in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and received a medical discharge from the Army in May 2001.While at the interrogation school, one of his classmates was dishonorably discharged after allegedly being caught with a stolen laptop containing classified information. When she was under probation, Mehalba wrote to a superior court judge in Arizona to ask permission for her to serve probation in Massachusetts so he could marry her.(70) Placed under surveillance by the Massachusetts state police following these incidents, he then applied for a job as an airfield gatekeeper at Boston airport in the wake ofthe September 11th, 2001 attacks, but was rejected. Nonetheless, Titan hired him as a translator to aid interrogations in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in late 2002.
"It seems like this guy tried three different ways to get in, and just kept trying doors that were locked until he found one that was unlocked," Tim Brown, an analystwith GlobalSecurity.org told the Orlando Sentinel. "Red flags should have gone off when he showed up."(71)
Mehalba was arrested in September 2003 after returning from his native Egypt with what authorities claimed was classified information from the Cuban base. Customs officials found 132 compact discs in his luggage. The discs contained at least 368 government documentsmarked "SECRET" and "SECRET/NOFORN," meaning they should not be viewed by foreign governmentofficials.
Mehalba said he did not know how the information got there. He initially told FBI interrogators that he got the CD from an uncle who had worked in military intelligencein Egypt but had long since retired. In January 2005, he changed his plea to guilty under an agreement with prosecutors that would give him a 20-month prison sentence, most of which he had served before the plea bargain.(72)
Noureddine Malki/"Abu Hakim"
"Abu Hakim" (the father of Hakim) - another Titan employee- pled guilty in February 2007 to stealing classified national defense documents while deployed with an intelligence group in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Divisionto the Al Taqqadam Air Base in the volatile "Sunni Triangle" in Iraq from September 2003 to March 2004.(73) He was also accused of having sympathies for Al Qaeda and communicating with insurgent groups in Iraq, although those charges were dropped under the plea-bargain arrangement.(74)
Abu Hakim was charged by the U.S. Department of Justice with downloading classified 82nd Airborne documents onto his unclassified "thumb drive," and then taking the computer drive back to New York along with several physical documents containing classified 82nd Airborne information. The documents included "highly detailed descriptions of insurgent activity in Iraq. One document, for example, details the precise coordinates from where the U.S. Army believed insurgents were using weapons to fire on Al Taqqadam Air Base, and specifies the weaponry being used to try to destroy those locations." Another document detailed the routes Iraqi Shiite pilgrims were to take on their pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It "specifies which routes will have military protection, and describes insurgent groups likely to attack the pilgrims during their religious journey."(75)
Complicating the matter was the fact that Abu Hakim allegedly faked his name and birth date, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Calling himself Noureddine Malki, he claimed he was single and that his parents and siblings had been killed by shelling in Lebanon, to acquire U.S. citizenship and then to obtain secret and top-secret clearances. The FBI's investigations suggest that he was actually Moroccan and married.(76)
Faheem Mousa Salam
Faheem Mousa Salam, of Livonia, Michigan, an Iraqi-American translator with Titan, was arrested in March 2006 for offering to pay a senior Iraqi police official approximately$60,000 to help him buy approximately1,000 flak jackets and a sophisticated map printer for approximately$1 million for the multinational Civilian Police Assistance Training Team (CPATT) in Iraq. Salam was caught when he finalized the arrangements with Michael DuBois, an undercover FBI agent posing as a procurement officer.(77)
A spokesman for L-3 Government Services, Rick Kiernan, said that "L-3 has not been related in any way to the incident itself. We have been cooperating with the Department of Justice on this entire matter."(78)
C: Taking Part in Combat?
Goran Habbeb started working for Titan in 2003 doing stints with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 64th Military Police Company and the 21st Infantry, among others. Officially, he was a civilian translator, but the job often encompassed military functions. For example, he was sometimes sent alone into villages to look for insurgents and to covertly record locations on a global positioning device to provide to the troops- a task normally reserved for counter-intelligence officers.(79)
"We have to find the terrorists and sometimes go with the troops to identify them," he said. If he did not accompany the troops, the American soldiers often raided the wrong houses, he added. Sometimes he would get caught in a firefight and have to fire back, another task not covered by his job description.
His active role in gathering intelligence and combat was probably one of the reasons Habbeb and his family were targeted for assassination. In November 2004, after working for Titan for over a year, he left his house to drop his daughter off to school before going to work at a U.S. Army base in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.When he got into his car with his brother and his seven year-old daughter, Soleen, a group of armed men dressed in police uniforms opened fire. Taken by surprise, he just managed to get the white Toyota Previa van into motion and escape.
But Habbeb's relief lasted only a few minutes. After he dropped his brother off, the nightmare began again. Two cars pulled alongside him and opened fire again, so he pulled out his pistol and fired back while trying to push his daughter out of the direct line of fire. She received three bullets and he took seven, including one that damaged his spine.
"I felt something in my back and I fell down," he told CorpWatch. Perhaps taking him for dead, the gunmen sped away. Local people helped Habbeb get first to the Azady hospital and then his father called the military base, which arranged for him to be airlifted to the U.S.military's largest base - Camp Anaconda in Balad. The military doctors told him that they did not have any medicine for children, he said, so his daughter went to the local hospital and then to an Italian hospital in the nearby city of Sulamaniya.
"I heard the terrorists saying on television that they killed Goran Habbeb because he was a collaborator, but they don't know that I am still alive because the doctors said they couldn't save me," he said.
Other Titan employees have confirmed that troops have occasionally asked them to assist them in combat roles. Drew Halldorson, a Titan site manager, was asked to accompany the 82nd Airborne Division in patrolling downtown Mosul, one of Iraq's more dangerous cities.
In January 2005 he says he took part in more than 40 combat missions, kicking in doors, rounding up suspected insurgents, and "shooting and being shot at," he told the San Diego Union Tribune. "In January alone I fired between 300 to 500 bullets in self-defense," Halldorson told the newspaper, which confirmed the story with an 82nd Airborne company commander.(80)
Some Titan translators have also been mistakenly trapped by blunders made by the U.S. soldiers they were accompanying.
Tunjay Celik and Savas Dalkilic, two Turkish translators who also worked for the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Kirkuk, had to flee the region after the American troops they were accompanying mistakenly jailed 11 Turkish special forces. When a Turkish colonel realized that the translators were his countrymen, they were told that serving as translators was illegal and they would be "severely punished" when they returned to Turkey.(81)
Today, Celik and Dalkilic, who have been granted political asylum in the U.S., are seeking damages of at least $1 million each from Titan for failing to protect them on the job.
Meanwhile both Halldorson and Habbeb have lost their jobs. Halldorson was fired for selling assault rifles and handguns to fellow contractors and other civilians in Iraq and returned to Maryland. Habbeb remains in Kirkuk, where the 33 year-old suffers from severe back pain from his spinal injuries.
In September 2004, the New York Times described how Titan's Iraqi employees were being assassinated one-by-one: Zeena, a 31-year-old translator who worked on a U.S. military base in western Baghdad was blocked by gunmen in two cars a few blocks from her house. When she tried to hide in a neighboring house, she was shot to death at the gate. Atimad, a translator at the Falcon base, was killed when she hailed a taxi to go home. "They grabbed her out of the car, shot her and just left her there," her friend told the newspaper. "No one could do anything about it." Hameeda, another Titan employee, was shot five times and her body dumped in a garbage heap.(82)
It got more gruesome. In October 2004, the Army of Ansar Al-Sunna posted a video on the internet of the execution of Luqman Mohammed Kurdi Hussein, a 41-year-old Titan translator from the nearby city of Dohuk.(83) All told, more than 280 Titan translators have been killed in Iraq and several hundred more have been injured, according to a Titan tally provided to the media in August 2007, the highest of any company in Iraq. (That number that does not include former translators, killed after they quit the company.(84)
Rick Kiernan, a spokesman for L-3 Communications, says that their employees face the highest risks: They're "with the combatants; they're with the special forces; they're with the infantry units. That probably puts them out in the most dangerous places," he said. He told KnightRidder newspapers that two-thirds of those killed before the end of last year were murdered because they collaborated with Americans.(85)
A San Diego Union-Tribune reporter puts the blame for the high death rate on both the company and the government: "Employees of Titan and other corporations have become part of an experiment in government contracting run largely by trial and error." The newspaper quoted Rick Inghram, who was Titan's highest-ranking executive in Iraq for most of 2004, acknowledging that their Iraq contract was "a working experiment."
"I never had that kind of training," said Inghram. "In 31 years in the Marine Corps, nobody ever sat me down and gave me a class on contracting on the battlefield. Ever."
Titan employees that have been injured in the course of their duties say that the company has been very unsupportive of them. For example, American Insurance Group (AIG), the company that provided insurance for Titan employees, refused to pay for Goran Habbeb to get treatment in Germany despite the fact that the military doctors strongly recommended it. They also refused to pay for care for Soleen, his daughter, saying that she was not covered by the insurance.(86)
"Other translators who were injured went to Germany and to America," said Habbeb. He is bitter because these translators, who typically had U.S. citizenship, were also paid as much as ten times more than the locals for less work.
"We got paid $750 a month to work with the troops and up to $1,000 if we went on missions outside the city, but they were paid $7,000 to stay at the base and translate documents," he said, noting that many of these translators were born in Iraq, and received the same education as he did, but had the advantage of having acquired U.S. residence or citizenship at some point in their lives.
AIG paid for him to go to Jordan three times for treatment, he says, but the doctors took advantage of him. "The first time they kept my weekly allowance, but when I found out I was supposed to get money, I demanded that they give me better treatment," he said. Habbeb was also disappointed that his $300 weekly allowance didn't meet the cost of his daughter's treatment.
In the spring of 2007, Alico, the company that represents AIG in Jordan, offered Habbeb a cash settlement of $125,000, which he accepted.(87)
Saad Abdul Taha, an Iraqi translator hired by Titan, has suffered a similar fate. Employed near Baghdad, he was severely injured in a bomb explosion that occurred on July 22, 2005. Taha first received treatment in a U.S. military hospital in Iraq, then transferred to the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC, and finally to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he lived in a house owned by his cousin.(88)
Titan paid Taha permanent total disability benefits of $2,400 a year, a compensation rate based upon his actual salary, which was $10 a day, neither of which are a living wage in Iraq. Ironically his average annual wage as adriver during the regime of Saddam Hussein, prior to his employment by Titan, was about $5,000 a year. Subsequently Taha moved to the United States, and initiated a claim in order to have the compensation increased to a rate based upon an average weekly wage of other translators in Iraq who were from the U.S. (which would have increased his compensation to about $53,000 or more).
On March 10, 2006, Janice Hill, an administrative law judge in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, reviewed Taha's case and ruled against his claim, stating: "Although I am not without sympathy for Claimant's plight, he has not established that his wage earning capacity at the time of his injury was any more than the actual wage of $10 per day which Titan paid him."
Even U.S residents claim that the company has been deaf to their plight if the injury was not clearly documented in the course of working for the company. For example, Mazin al Nashi, an Iraqi American from San Diego, who worked for Titan from April through November 2003, was injured in a "friendly-fire" incident when a soldier accidentally discharged his weapon inside a Humvee. The bullet ricocheted inside the vehicle and hit Nashi on the side of his helmet. In the melee that ensued he was knocked unconscious - but partly because he was a civilian and partly because the incident coincided with the bombing of the United Nations compound, he did not get medical attention. Titan did not help either. "We contacted Titan four or five times, and they just gaffed off," William Black, who befriended Nashi in the hospital, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "They didn't care."(89)
Two months later, Nashi started to lose his vision and eventually went blind, with stroke-like symptoms on the right side of his body. Today Nashi says that he experiences pain in his neck so severe that he cannot stand up straight for any length of time or sleep through the night. He also says that Titan has not fully paid him the compensation that he believes he is owed under the law.
Habbeb, Nashi and Taha are not isolated cases; there are dozens of injured Titan employees who have been left to fend for themselves and literally hundreds of families who have lost a breadwinner with little by way of compensation. (The company's official tally stands at 280 as of August 2007, the vast majority - probably over 90 percent - of whom are Iraqi.)
PENALIZING THE COMPANY
Titan has been investigated and reprimanded several times in the last four years, which led to its losing the translator contract in December 2006. The company has tried to challenge the verdict, but recently INSCOM ordered it to relinquish the contract no later than May 31st, 2008.(90) The first major challenge to Titan came in March 2004, when the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) discovered that Titan had inadequate systems for documenting its labor costs and for tracking the work of non-U.S. consultants. The agency said it would hold as much as $4.9 million in payments until the company fixed the accounting deficiencies uncovered by the audit.(91)
After several abortive attempts to write and bid a new contract (partly stymied by challenges from potential competitors), in August 2006, the translation contract was successfully put up for competitive bid by INSCOM, which oversees the work. The translation work was split into four parts: Iraq is the largest at $4.6 billion. The three other contracts awards were set aside to go to small businesses- one in Afghanistan valued at as much as $703 million; one in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for up to $66 million; and a support contract worth as much as $104 million.(92)
Titan lost the bid, and instead a new Iraq contract was awarded to a joint venture named "Iraq Global Linguist Solution" (GLS). GLS was set up by DynCorp, a Virginia-based security company (which already has several Iraq contracts, including training the Iraqi police) that teamed up with McNeil Technologies, which had the advantage of employing James "Spider" Marks. Marks was the Pentagon official in charge of planning intelligence operations for the 2003 Iraq invasion and for running the interrogation training school at Fort Huachuca.(93)
L-3/Titan promptly filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office, which upheld the challenge in March 2007, saying that the Army did not "reasonably apply" evaluation factors laid out in the bid - but the Army refused to back down.(94) The company finally dropped its opposition when GLS agreed to sub-contract approximately a quarter of the work in Iraq back to Titan. Other Titan employees are to be offered jobs with GLS, so effectively the U.S. military will be employing the same workers, but they will have a new boss who will collect the profit on the contract.(95)
By April 2008, an initial 45 GLS staff members, led by Mike Simone and Brian Greene, had deployed to Iraq for the 90-day transition period. The company also established regional recruiting centers in the U.S. to hire an additional 2,000 linguists.(96)
Note: The $703 million contract to provide linguists in Afghanistan was awarded to California-based Thomas Computer Solutions, while the $66 million contract for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was awarded to Virginia-based Calnet.