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POLITICS-US: Business Booms for Contract Interrogators

Pratap Chatterjee*

WASHINGTON, Nov 17 2005 (IPS) - This summer, dozens of people converged in the high desert town of El Paso, Texas, en route to spending six months in Iraqi prisons.

They were going not as prisoners, but as their interrogators, walking a legalistic tightrope stretched across the Geneva Conventions. Just for signing up, they got a 2,000-dollar check from a company that is rapidly becoming one of the key employers in the world of intelligence: Lockheed Martin.

After a week of orientation and medical processing, they flew to Tampa, Florida, and on to their final destinations – Iraq’s infamous prisons including Abu Ghraib, Camp Cropper, a prison at Baghdad International Airport, and Camp Whitehorse, near Nasariyah.

Known in the intelligence community as “97 Echoes”, these contractors will work side-by-side with military interrogators using 17 officially sanctioned techniques, ranging from “love of comrades” to “fear up harsh” – violently throwing detainees to the ground. Their subjects will be the tens of thousands of men and women put into United States-run military jails on suspicion of links to terrorism.

Jobs for this new breed of interrogators typically begin with a phone call or email to retired Lt. Col. Marc Michaelis, in the quaint old flour milling town of Ellicott City, Maryland, about an hour’s drive from Washington.

Michaelis, who is the main point of contact for new interrogators, came to Lockheed in February after it acquired his former employer Sytex in a 462-million-dollar takeover.

Sytex, and thus Lockheed, now appears to have emerged as one of the biggest recruiters of private interrogators. In June alone, Sytex advertised for 11 new interrogators for Iraq, and in July the company sought 23 interrogators for Afghanistan.

Ads on several websites frequented by current and former military personnel offered a 70,000-dollar to 90,000-dollar salary, a 2,000-dollar sign-up bonus, 1,000 dollars for a mid-tour break, and a 2,000-dollar bonus for completing the normal six-month deployment.

Those returning for a second tour get double bonuses at the beginning and end of their stints. In return, the employees are expected to work as necessary- up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

The issue of private contractors conducting interrogations first came to light in mid-2004, when a military investigation revealed that several interrogators at the Abu Ghraib prison were civilian employees of a Virginia-based company called CACI.

It emerged that no one knew what laws applied to private contractors who engaged in torture in Iraq, or whether they were in fact accountable to any legal authority or disciplinary procedures.

When the media began to question the role of the private contractors and the legality of their presence under unrelated information technology contracts from non-military agencies, the Pentagon swiftly issued sole-source (“no bid”) military contracts to CACI and Lockheed.

Human rights groups are openly critical of this new trend. “The Army’s use of contract interrogators has to date been a failed experiment,” said Deborah Pearlstein, director of the U.S. Law and Security Programme at Human Rights First.

“Based on the Pentagon’s own investigations and other reports that are already public, it seems clear that contractors are less well trained, less well controlled, and harder to hold accountable for things that go wrong than are regular troops,” she said.

Pearlstein warned that “unless and until contract interrogators can be brought at the very least up to the standards of training and discipline expected of our uniformed soldiers, the United States may well be better off without their services”.

Former interrogators have a more nuanced opinion. “The problem is not the use of civilian contractors,” one former Army interrogator with over 10 years of field experience said in an email. “What is necessary is an active means of supervision and oversight on ALL of our assets in the field…not just the civilian ones.”

“If you take a look at many of the investigations of the military intelligence activities, you will find just as many uniformed individuals breaking the law as contractors,” he said.

But Susan Burke, a lawyer for Iraqi prisoners who say they were tortured at Abu Ghraib, challenges the legality of using private contractors for interrogation.

“Interrogation has always been considered an inherently governmental function for obvious reasons. It is irresponsible and dangerous to use contractors in such settings given that there is a long history of repeated human rights abuses by contractors,” she said.

The Philadelphia attorney charges that the use of private contractors is illegal. “The United States Congress has passed laws (the Federal Acquisition Regulations) that prevent the executive branch from delegating ‘inherently governmental functions’ to private parties,” Burke explained.

Asked about the details of the interrogation contracts, Lockheed declined to comment. Joseph Wagovich, a spokesman for the company’s information technology division that includes Sytex, initially said that the company had only a minor role in the interrogation business and that it had wrapped up its interrogation contract on Guantanamo.

But he confirmed that Lockheed was still supplying other kinds of “intelligence analysts” on the Cuban base.

Sytex also likes to keep a low profile. “Most of the law enforcement organisations, as well as the other surreptitious organisations we may be supporting, would just as soon not see their names in print,” Ralph Palmieri Junior, the company’s chief operating officer, told the Congressional Quarterly in 2004.

The company’s reach and influence go far beyond the military. A New York Times profile of the company in 2004 opened with the sentence: “Lockheed Martin doesn’t run the United States. But it does help run a breathtakingly big part of it.”

“Over the last decade, Lockheed, the nation’s largest military contractor, has built a formidable information-technology empire that now stretches from the Pentagon to the Post Office,” writes Tim Weiner. “It sorts your mail and totals your taxes. It cuts Social Security checks and counts the United States census. It runs space flights and monitors air traffic. To make all that happen, Lockheed writes more computer code than Microsoft.”

The national security reporter for the New York Times explains how Lockheed gets its business: “Men who have worked, lobbied and lawyered for Lockheed hold the posts of secretary of the Navy, secretary of transportation, director of the national nuclear weapons complex, and director of the national spy satellite agency.”

Bill Hartung, senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York, believes that, “Giving one company this much power in matters of war and peace is as dangerous as it is undemocratic.”

He says Lockheed Martin is now positioned to profit from every level of the war on terror from targeting to intervention, and from occupation to interrogation.

*Pratap Chatterjee is the managing editor of CorpWatch.

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