Contract to torture

A rare look at the entire Abu Ghraib report reveals that inexperienced, under-supervised private-sector employees actively took part in horrifying prisoner abuse.


Osha Gray Davidson
August 9, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

The world's outrage over the abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has focused largely on the seven U.S. soldiers caught in the infamous photographs; they are now facing criminal charges. But several thousand pages of classified military documents reveal that private contractors, hired as interrogators at Abu Ghraib, played a key role in the abuses. According to the testimony of one detainee, a male contract worker carried out one of the most heinous crimes at the prison, raping a boy while a female soldier took pictures.

In January of this year, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Anthony Taguba was ordered to investigate the actions of the military police at Abu Ghraib. The 53-page executive summary of his findings caused a sensation when it was leaked in April. The full report -- 106 "annexes" composed of internal Army memos and e-mails, as well as sworn statements made by soldiers and detainees to the Army's CID (Criminal Investigation Division) -- shows the prison under siege and out of control.

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In violation of Army policy, Abu Ghraib was located in a war zone, where detainees and U.S. soldiers alike were under daily assault by mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. Prisoners were regularly beaten, sodomized with broomsticks and police batons, terrorized by military attack dogs, and subjected to psychological torture, including at least one mock electrocution.

When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a congressional hearing in March that the worst images of abuse at Abu Ghraib were still to come, he may have been speaking of what Kasim Mehaddi Hilas, detainee number 151108, witnessed. Hilas was a prisoner in Tier 1A of what was known as the "hard site" -- a two-story cinderblock structure with dozens of cells, built by Saddam Hussein. Most of the thousands of detainees lived outdoors in canvas tents. Tier 1A was reserved primarily for prisoners thought to have "intelligence value." The hard site was also home to a little-known entity, JICD (Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center), run by Military Intelligence but used also by the CIA, FBI and other intelligence units.

Kasim Hilas told a CID investigator that he witnessed a harrowing incident one night on Tier 1A. "I saw the translator Abu Hamid fucking a kid," Hilas stated. "His age would be about 15-18 years. The kid was hurting very bad and they covered all the doors with sheets. Then when I heard screaming I climbed the door because on top it wasn't covered and I saw Abu Hamid, who was wearing the military uniform, putting his dick in the little kid's ass. I couldn't see the face of the kid because his face wasn't in front of the door. And the female soldier was taking pictures. Abu Hamid, I think he is Egyptian because of his accent, and he was not skinny or short, and he acted like a homosexual (gay). And that was in cell #23 as best as I remember."

The use of civilian contractors is key to understanding Abu Ghraib. As the full Taguba report makes clear, private contractors held many sensitive positions at the prison. The wealth of classified documents suggests that once the administration decided to privatize military intelligence operations -- giving inexperienced contract workers nearly unlimited power over detainees -- with only a pretense of military oversight, the door to prisoner abuse was thrown open.

Among the individuals not qualified for sensitive interrogation positions at Abu Ghraib were many hired by CACI International, a Virginia company that provided intelligence services to the U.S. military, and Titan Corp., a San Diego company that supplied translators. According to an investigation released July 21 by the Armys inspector general, a third of contract interrogators at Abu Ghraib "had not received formal training in military interrogation techniques, policy, and doctrine."

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The problem might not have been so serious if there had been only two or three contract workers on interrogation teams. But according to the Taguba report and an inside source, all 20 of the interpreters at Abu Ghraib worked for Titan. The classified documents contain an organizational chart that indicates that on Jan. 23, 2004, nearly half of all interrogators and analysts employed at Abu Ghraib were CACI employees.

How easy was it to get a job with CACI? Torin Nelson, who was sent to Abu Ghraib in November of last year, a few weeks after the photos of abuse were taken, calls it "the strangest job interview I've ever had."

Early last fall, a man phoned Nelson and spent a half-hour selling him on the position. A six-figure salary, great benefits. Only at the end of the call did the man get around to asking Nelson about his qualifications. That lasted a mere five minutes -- and then the 35-year-old Nelson was offered the job. He accepted. No résumé. No follow-up office interview. No fingerprints or permission to run a criminal records check. Granted, those last two items aren't required for most jobs, but this job was ... unique.

Hired as a civilian interrogator, Nelson's job was to get information out of "high-value" prisoners so that the military could hunt down militiamen who were then (as now) killing U.S. troops in Iraq.

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Nelson was one of 31 interrogators hired by CACI, which held contracts with the U.S. military worth tens of millions of dollars. While CACI had snapped up the lucrative deals, it had problems, according to Nelson, finding enough qualified people to fill the positions. If the company failed to meet its quota, it faced a large fine or, worse, the prospect of being locked out of future government contracts. According to Nelson, CACI was "desperate for people."

So was Titan, according to news reports in the Washington Post and Associated Press. With contracts up to $657 million, the company couldn't find enough Arabic speakers. Titan won't say how many employees it has in Iraq, but a military spokesperson told a reporter that there are 4,700 Titan translators working for the military, most of them in and around Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nelson had 11 years' prior experience in uniform as an interrogator, serving in Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay. But most of the other contract workers at Abu Ghraib had just two to six years' experience as military interrogators. And most of them, says Nelson, had no real-world experience whatsoever.

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The fact that the other half of the JIDC interrogators were active-duty military is not as reassuring as it may sound. Twelve of the 19 soldiers on interrogation teams at Abu Ghraib were at the bottom of the military ladder, specialists or privates first class. No one held a rank above sergeant. Military interrogations were conducted by inexperienced, low-ranking soldiers.

Army Spc. Luciana Spencer is a good example of the problem. A military interrogator, Spencer was cited in the Taguba report for forcing a detainee to strip and walk back to his cell naked, in an effort to humiliate him. In a still-classified sworn statement, she also admits to hearing other interrogators instructing the military police to abuse prisoners, and once witnessed Spc. Charles Graner slapping a detainee. Asked why she didn't report Graner, Spencer told investigators that she didn't know that what he had done constituted abuse.

That's not surprising given her level of experience. Spencer had graduated from "the schoolhouse," the military training ground for interrogators at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., in the summer of 2003, just months before arriving at her first assignment, Abu Ghraib.

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"She didn't speak the language," says a friend of Spencer's who didn't want to be named for this article. "She didn't know the culture, didn't know the history. She didn't really know how to do the job." The friend blames the military for placing her in a situation for which she was not prepared.

Given their inexperience, Nelson says, interrogators were easily influenced about how to do their jobs. He characterizes many of them as "cowboys" who "try the tactics they see on really bad TV shows."

Even before pictures of abuse surfaced among military officials in January 2004, Nelson was concerned enough by what he saw and heard to begin compiling his own list of possible maltreatment. He included many of the same offenses found by Taguba: painful stress positions, prolonged use of weakening techniques such as limiting food and sleep, physical abuse, and blatant threats of violence against people close to the detainees.

Nelson says some interrogators may have believed their "gray zone" tactics had at least the tacit approval of the highest levels of the military and government.

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"You have tough-talking people [in the Bush administration], saying 'Bring 'em on' and 'The gloves have come off,' and 'These are the worst of the worst'," says Nelson, quoting, in turn, President George W. Bush, J. Cofer Black (the administration's coordinator of counterterrorism) and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "Then you get people who go into theater who listen to that and they feel fully justified to abuse prisoners."

The same problems applied to the interpreters, some of whom had little or no experience working as translators in any setting, let alone in the high-stakes wartime environment of Abu Ghraib. They heard the same inflammatory rhetoric and had little supervision or accountability, according to Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the former commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, in charge of all military prisons in Iraq.

In his final report, Taguba named three civilians. He accused Steven Stefanowicz, a CACI interrogator, of instructing M.P.'s on how to handle prisoners, directions that, according to Taguba, "equated to physical abuse."

Taguba also cited Titan interpreter John Israel for lying under oath when he denied having witnessed detainee abuse. The last civilian named by Taguba was Adel Nakhla, also a Titan interpreter. In the widely leaked 53-page executive summary of Taguba's report, Nakhla's role is unclear. But more details about him emerge in the classified documents.

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According to Nakhla's own résumé, which he had posted on a Web site devoted to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, Nakhla had never worked as a translator before being sent to Abu Ghraib. Born and educated in Egypt, the 49-year-old Nakhla had lived in suburban Washington, D.C., for many years, working in computer sales, support and programming.

Like all other translators at Abu Ghraib, Nakhla began working for military intelligence officers in the interrogation center. But at some point, he was moved over to assist the military police with translating -- possibly because Nakhla didn't have the secret clearance required to work in interrogations. (Although that problem didn't hinder Israel, another Titan interpreter, who worked at the interrogation center without security clearance.)

A large man, Nakhla is seen in a few of the pictures from Abu Ghraib. According to Guy Womack, the lawyer representing Graner, Nakhla is the figure seen kneeling on or next to a group of three naked men, suspected of rape, handcuffed together on the floor.

In a sworn statement about the incident, made to the CID on Jan. 14, Nakhla presents himself as a Good Samaritan. He tried to lessen the detainees' pain by rearranging their cuffed hands, he said. He told the soldiers, "This is not acceptable behavior in this society," a plea that, according to Nakhla, moved the soldiers to end the abuse.

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Four days later, Nakhla returned to the CID to made a second statement. He had left something out. "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," Nakhla admitted. He hastened to explain, that, although he did hold the man's foot down, it was "not in any powerful way." Nakhla was also contrite, saying that what he had done was wrong. On the other hand, he told the investigator that he had apologized to the alleged rapists that night: "I told them I thought what had happened was very degrading."

Asked if he had ever abused a prisoner, Nakhla replied, "I just held his foot down," but then added, "and I shook them by grabbing their clothes."

The questioning then suddenly veered into new territory:

"Q: Was there ever a time when you were in a cell with a detainee alone?
A: I do not recall ever being alone in a cell with any detainee. I always have a guard present when I am in the cell.
Q: Have you ever been in a cell alone and the detainee was nude?
A: No, not alone, only when they were being questioned by [Military Intelligence] or someone and I was translating.
Q: Did you ever engage in sexual intercourse with a male detainee?
A: No."

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The interview ended soon after that exchange. In the classified interviews of the CID investigation, no one but Nakhla was asked similar questions.

But the CID report does have an allegation, made by a detainee, of a male-on-male rape. This was the written statement -- made two hours before Nakhla's second interview -- by Kasim Mehaddi Hilas. Hilas identified the rapist only by the pseudonym Abu Hamid. The man was a translator, recalled Hilas. He was also large ("not skinny or short"), and his accent was Egyptian.

In the CID report, Nakhla is never mentioned by the detainees in Tier 1, even though the translator had been reassigned there. When asked about Nakhla, Nelson says that he didn't really know the man. "He would have had much more interaction with the M.P.'s," Nelson says, "and especially the Tier 1 M.P.'s."

While Nakhla's name is absent from the detainee claims of abuse, there are references to a man named Abu Hamid (sometimes spelled Abu Hamed by an interpreter). Hayder Sabbar Abd was one of the six victims of the November night of torture and humiliation that was documented in photographs that have caused outrage around the world: pictures of men naked, hooded with sandbags, forced to form a human pyramid, to ride on each other's backs, and to simulate oral sex. Abd, whose prison number was 13077, said in his sworn statement that a translator named Abu Hamed was there, translating the commands of Abd's tormentors. In May, after Abd was released, he told a New York Times reporter the same thing. The translator's name isn't mentioned in the Times piece, just the fact that the man was Egyptian. Titan fired Nakhla on May 21, the same day as the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it was opening an investigation into possible prisoner abuse by an unnamed civilian worker at Abu Ghraib.

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In a phone interview on July 30, Mark Corallo, director of public affairs at the Department of Justice, confirmed that the investigation is ongoing, but declined to say who was being investigated or for what specific crime.

Titan spokesman Wil Williams confirmed that Nakhla no longer works for the company, but he, too, declined to go into specifics, citing employee privacy rights.

It's fair to ask whether we will ever learn the full truth about what happened at Abu Ghraib. So far, military investigations have seemed little more than exercises in damage control, designed to place a ceiling on how far up the chain of command the responsibility will go. The Army has attempted to make Karpinski -- the first woman to command troops in combat in U.S. history -- the primary scapegoat for the sins of Abu Ghraib. She was reprimanded and relieved of her command for not preventing the abuses, even though her superiors had ensured that she couldn't have known about them. Over her objections, control of the interrogation facility at Abu Ghraib had been handed over to a military intelligence unit that didn't report to her.

Karpinski could be partially vindicated if rumors are correct about the forthcoming report by an independent panel appointed by the Department of Defense. The final report, scheduled to be released Aug. 18, is said to place at least some responsibility for the prison abuses on Pentagon officials, perhaps including Secretary Rumsfeld.

Torin Nelson doesn't have much confidence in another ongoing Army investigation -- this one examining the role military intelligence may have played in prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. "There are a lot of people who would like to see this just go away," he says. "Or at least the reporting on it."

Perhaps the best chance for a resolution lies in the courts. Two civil suits have already been filed in federal courts on behalf of detainees claiming they were tortured at Abu Ghraib. Defendants include Titan, CACI, Steven Stefanowicz, John Israel and Adel Nakhla.

A class action suit was brought in June by several lawyers affiliated with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York human rights group. That suit seeks unspecified damages for prisoners who were abused at Abu Ghraib. But it goes much further, alleging an ongoing pattern of abuse at Abu Ghraib, which allows harsher sanctions under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. The suit asks the court to prohibit CACI and Titan from entering into any future contracts with the U.S. government -- a move that would likely put the companies out of business.

The most recent suit was brought by a smaller group of lawyers representing five plaintiffs and calling itself the Iraqi Torture Victim Group. In addition to seeking damages, that suit also asks the court to prevent Titan and CACI from doing business with the government. One of the plaintiffs is Saddam Saleh Aboud, who charges he was taken by U.S. military forces in a raid on his home in early November and wasn't released from Abu Ghraib until April 2. According to the suit, "Mr. Aboud is able to identify one of the individuals who was involved in his torture at Abu Ghraib as Adel Nakhla, also known as Abu Hamid."

Currently, the military has no ongoing investigations into the involvement of private-contractor employees in the horrors at Abu Ghraib.


Osha Gray Davidson

Osha Gray Davidson is the author of five books of nonfiction and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone.

MORE FROM Osha Gray Davidson

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