US: Pentagon Spends Billions to Outsource Torture

In addition to Joshua Holland's article below, five other progressive media outlets have produced articles on war profiteering in Iraq in conjunction with Robert Greenwald's documentary, Iraq for Sale. Make sure to check out these articles, and AlterNet's compendium of recent stories on the war profiteers.

The thousands of mercenary security contractors employed in the Bush administration's "War on Terror" are billed to American taxpayers, but they've handed Osama Bin Laden his greatest victories -- public relations coups that have transformed him from just another face in a crowd of radical clerics to a hero of millions in the global South (posters of Bin Laden have been spotted in largely Catholic Latin America during protests against George W. Bush).

The internet hums with viral videos of British contractors opening fire on civilian vehicles in Iraq as part of a bloody game, stories about CIA contractors killing prisoners in Afghanistan, veterans of Apartheid-era South African and Latin American death squads discovered among contractors' staffs and notoriously shady Russian arms dealers working for occupation authorities. One Special Forces operator told Amnesty International that some contractors are in it just because they "really want to kill somebody and they can do it easier there ... [not] everybody is like that, but a dangerously high element."

While most experts believe that Al Qaeda no longer has the ability to mount the kind of sophisticated attacks that brought it so much notoriety in the first place, its media operations are stronger than ever. From their caves -- or wherever they are holed up -- Bin Laden and his henchmen claim that the "War on Terror" is just a thin cover for a U.S.-led war on Islam. Rightly or wrongly, these incidents prove his point to millions of people around the world.

Osama Bin Laden's greatest victories in the crucial media war have been the series of prisoner abuse scandals at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and a number of detention centers across Iraq, the most infamous of which is Saddam Hussein's former torture complex at Abu Ghraib.

According to a report by Corpwatch, what ties these facilities together are the abundance of private contractors involved in their operations. The Taguba Report (PDF) named four private contractors in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Steven Stephanowicz, an investigator for CACI, a multinational with extensive government contracts (92 percent of which are in defense), encouraged MPs under his command to terrorize inmates, and "clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse."

Another interrogator at Abu Ghraib was John Israel, who, according to the Taguba Report, didn't even have a security clearance, and should never have been hired for an operation as sensitive as prisoner interrogation in the first place. It's not clear whether Israel worked for CACI or a competitor, Titan Corp. (a target of numerous federal investigations for its work in Iraq and elsewhere), but Titan denies it ever provided interrogators to Abu Ghraib. Another un-named private contractor at Abu Ghraib allegedly raped a teenage boy in his custody.

According to Amnesty, half of the interrogators at Abu Ghraib were private contractors -- about 30 in all. Torin Nelson was a military intelligence officer at Gitmo before becoming a CACI interrogator at Abu Ghraib. After the scandal broke, Nelson resigned and charged the military with scapegoating a handful of low-level soldiers -- the only people who have been brought to trial for the abuses -- to "divert attention away from ingrained problems in the military detention and interrogation system." He said: "The problem with outsourcing intelligence work is the limit of oversight and control by the military administrators over the independent contractors."

CACI's contract to provide interrogators for Abu Ghraib stunningly didn't require the personnel to have had any training whatsoever in military interrogation techniques. According to a report by the Army inspector general, 11 of the 31 CACI interrogators had no training in what most experts agree is one of the most difficult and sensitive areas of intelligence gathering. CACI has become a major player in the private intelligence business in recent years, but its core competence is in information technology, not the incredibly delicate process of prisoner interrogation. They filled the contract like any other order -- with warm bodies that could be listed on an invoice.

"It's insanity," former CIA agent Robert Baer told The Guardian. "These are rank amateurs, and there is no legally binding law on these guys as far as I could tell. Why did they let them in the prison?"

Abu Ghraib was a perfect storm, destined to result in torture and murder. The Department of Justice was redefining torture to be "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure," 90 percent of U.S. troops believed they were in Iraq for "retaliation for Saddam's role in 9/11" and, according to the Army, brigade leaders "failed to supervise or provide direct oversight, to properly discipline their soldiers ... and to provide continued mission-specific training." The results were those all-too-familiar images of grinning soldiers posed next to brutalized corpses on ice, stacks of naked prisoners, hooded prisoners in "stress positions" trussed in electrical cords and all the rest. The only winners -- beside Al Qaeda recruiters -- were CACI's shareholders -- its invoices were duly processed.

Amnesty notes that contractors "neither fall under the Military Code of Justice, nor are they answerable to Iraqi law, having been specifically excluded under a decree issued by Paul Bremer, the head of the U.S.-run administration in Iraq." Theoretically, a recent law, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, could be used to prosecute contractors, but the administration has not tried it out yet. According to the Legal Times, it's "narrowly crafted and ... may not cover some of the abuses -- and abusers -- involved in the torture of Iraqi detainees at U.S.-run prisons." It doesn't cover intelligence contractors working for the CIA.

That may be the whole point; critics have argued that one reason the United States has employed so many contractors to handle prisoners is to shield members of the military high command and their civilian leadership from culpability for war crimes or other violations of international and domestic laws.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky said that you can tell what a nation is like by the way it treats its prisoners, and by that measure the United States has not exactly been a beacon of light for the world. But what does the fact that we outsource these crimes to big, faceless transnational corporations say about us?

CACI, for California Analysis Center, Inc. (also known as Colonels and Captains), is among the top 10 information providers in the Fortune 500. The company was founded in 1962 as a computer-engineering firm, and later moved into network management for federal, state, and local governments. The company claims that, since Abu Ghraib, it no longer is in the interrogation business, but it remains a major intelligence contractor. Corporate spying has become a booming business -- it's estimated that half of the $46 billion classified intelligence budget is handled by the private sector, including everything from intelligence analysis to managing spy satellites.

To understanding how a company that started out as a dull computer business ended up implicated in torture scandals, one has to go back to the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1983, then-White House budget director David Stockman -- a dedicated supply-sider best known for his recommendation that the Department of Education reclassify ketchup as a vegetable -- issued a directive calling on government to rely only on "commercial sources to supply the products and services the government needs." Two years later, the military created the Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program, LOGCAP, to transfer its logistics functions to the private sector. But the military was slow to implement it in a significant way at first.

Following the Cold War, a convergence of ideological imperatives broke the military's resistance. With the decline of the Soviet Union, there was little reason to continue military spending at the same clip as the United States had done during the previous four decades. However, Ronald Reagan had largely rehabilitated American militarism after it had taken a public hit during Vietnam, and after the Soviets' fall, Washington's strategic class was intoxicated with American hard power.

At the same time, both parties had embraced -- to varying degrees -- a pronounced antipathy towards government, another piece of the Reagan legacy (these were the years following Walter Mondale's crushing defeat at Reagan's hands that gave rise to the Democratic Leadership Council). The goals of downsizing the military, maintaining U.S. firepower and privatizing many of its functions led to military "modernization" -- much of which meant outsourcing to the private sector.

That task, under the first George Bush, fell to then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who fought a tough battle against the military leadership to eliminate billions of dollars in pet defense projects. Cheney hired Kellogg Brown & Root -- a subsidiary of Halliburton -- to write a classified report detailing how private companies could help support the military in hot spots around the world. Not long after, the Pentagon awarded the first comprehensive five-year LOGCAP contract to none other than Kellogg Brown & Root

The 1992 election brought two of the founding members of the DLC to the White House, and the privatization of defense functions accelerated at a dizzying rate.

Al Gore was tasked with "reinventing government," and he took to it with gusto, attacking a federal government that he called "bloated, inefficient and wasteful." He headed Clinton's National Performance Review (NPR), which was charged with instituting "revolutionary" changes in the way government works and identifying jobs that the government "should simply stop doing."

Writing in the New York Times, Dan Baum explained that Cheney, who became CEO of Halliburton in 1995, got a huge lift under Clinton:

    A lot of Halliburton's business depends on foreign customers getting loans from U.S. banks, which are in turn guaranteed by the government's trade-promoting Export-Import Bank. In the five years before Cheney took the helm, the Ex-Im Bank guaranteed $100 million in loans so foreign customers could buy Halliburton's services; during Cheney's five years as C.E.O., that figure jumped to $1.5 billion.

The intelligence community was a laggard, for obvious reasons. But following the attacks of Sept. 11, lawmakers were itching to pour tens of billions of new dollars into intelligence and didn't have the personnel to do it. Firms like CACI were simply at the right place at the right time. They had well-established revolving doors to the defense and intelligence communities -- the hawkish former undersecretary of state Richard Armitage once sat on CACI's board, and Barbara A McNamara, former deputy director of the NSA, continues to do so -- and they hired thousands of former intelligence officials at premium prices to fill a host of new contracts.

John Gannon, a former CIA deputy director for intelligence and now head of BAE Systems' Global Analysis Group, told journalist Sebastian Abbot that an intelligence contractor "is going to look at a government requirement, and it's going to go and find people wherever it can and get the greatest number of people at the lowest price and maximizing the profit to the business to do it." "When I was in government hiring people," he continued, "I was looking for the best possible people I could get ... [but] that is not what the private sector does." Gannon warned that these companies "are not looking to be right or looking to ensure that they are getting access to the best information and expertise; they are looking to please a customer at the lowest common denominator." It's as clear a case of ideology and cronyism trumping common sense as one could find.

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering
  • 24 Intelligence
  • 176 War Profiteers Site
  • 201 Executive Compensation

Stay Informed