Taguba: Guards Took Cues From SCV Translator
• Iraqi-American interpreter wanted to help his people, neighbor says.

By Leon Worden
Signal City Editor

Friday, May 28, 2004

hen Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba told the Senate Armed Services Committee that two professional civilian contractors gave direction — if not exactly orders — to the guards at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, one of the civilians he referred to was a 48-year-old Santa Clarita resident.
    John Benjamin Israel, an Iraqi-born American interpreter from Canyon Country, was "either directly or indirectly responsible" for the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees, according to Taguba's classified report on the improper interrogation tactics at the prison outside Baghdad.
    Taguba completed the report in early March, and it was mistakenly released in late April.
    Israel could not be reached Thursday. On Wednesday, his wife, Roza Israel, refused to discuss the allegations.
    "I'm instructed not to say anything until we get an attorney," she said.
    Israel came to Santa Clarita from San Fernando around 1995 with Roza and their three daughters. They purchased their current home shortly after it was built seven years ago.
    While one neighbor described Israel on Wednesday as a loner, others said Thursday that he is friendly and mild-mannered.
    "He seems to be a very nice man. It seems so out of character that he would be accused of that," said Blanche Muscia, who lives next door and frequently chats with Roza.
    "He usually doesn't speak until he's spoken to," Muscia said. "I don't think he has it in him to hit a man."
    John Israel reportedly told Army investigators he arrived in Iraq on Oct. 14 to work as an interpreter at Abu Ghraib under contract for Army intelligence. Muscia said Israel was back home in Santa Clarita the first week of April.
    "He was an interpreter," the neighbor said. "I assumed he (served as) a go-between between the Americans and the Iraqis."
    Muscia said that prior to October, she knew Israel as "a computer guy," but he seemed to like his new job.
    "I saw him a few weeks ago and he said he was going back to Iraq," she said. "I asked him why. It's so dangerous. He said he needed the money."
    "He was really bent on going back. He said, 'I want to help my people. It's my duty to try to help them.'"
    "He's a Christian," she added.
    But Israel didn't return to Iraq. By late April the so-called Taguba report had gone public and the Senate was gearing up for hearings.
    Taguba's report names only one interpreter — John Israel — and one interrogator, Steve Stephanowicz, a 34-year-old Philadelphia native recently living in Australia.
    In his May 11 Senate testimony, Taguba said he "personally interviewed a translator and I also personally interviewed an interrogator, both civilian contractors" — referring to Stephanowicz, who did the interrogating, and Israel, who did the translating.
    Taguba said the prison guards considered the two men their superiors, although the pair didn't command any U.S. troops.
    "They were not in any way supervising any soldiers, (military police) or otherwise," Taguba told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "However, the guards, those who were involved, looked at them as competent authority as in the manner by which they described them — as 'the MI' (military intelligence officer), or by name, or by function."
    Taguba testified that the civilian interrogator and interpreter answered to the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center, which answered to a lieutenant colonel, Steve L. Jordan, who answered to the brigade commander, Col. Thomas M. Pappas.
    "That was the chain (of command), sir," Taguba told Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawaii.
    In his classified report, Taguba said the responsibility for the "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" of prisoners, including stripping them naked and handcuffing them in painful positions, fell on the four men. He said Pappas, Jordan, Stephanowicz and Israel "were either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib," and he recommended "immediate disciplinary action ... as well as the initiation of (an) inquiry to determine the full extent of their culpability."
    "At the end of the day," Taguba told the Senate panel, "a few soldiers and civilians conspired to abuse and conduct egregious acts of violence against detainees and other civilians outside the bounds of international law and the Geneva Convention."
    The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 allows for the prosecution of civilian contractors who commit crimes while working overseas for the military. Attorney General John Ashcroft has said civilian contractors involved in the mistreatment or murder of Iraqi prisoners could be prosecuted for civil rights violations and for breaking anti-torture laws.
    A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and John Israel's congressional representative, referred questions to the Army's public affairs office.
    "We believe that we are a democratic country and we will let the DOD (Department of Defense) investigation follow its proper course to get to the bottom of it," McKeon spokesman Vartan Djihanian said.
    An Army public affairs official wasn't sure who is investigating civilian contractors implicated in the prison scandal.
    "My best guess, and it's only a guess, is that it would be the Army's Criminal Investigation Command or the Department of Justice," Army spokeswoman Deborah Parker said.
    Justice officials did not return calls.
    Reporting from inside Abu Ghraib prison earlier this month, a correspondent for the London Telegraph confirmed that Israel had left Iraq and reported that Stephanowicz was on leave from CACI International Inc., a private intelligence firm based in Richmond, Va., "pending inquiries that could lead to criminal charges being brought against them."
    Israel worked through SOS Interpreting Ltd., a New York-based translation service whose stated specialties include intelligence, counterintelligence, force protection and "psychological operations" for government agencies. SOS is under contract with Titan Corp. of San Diego to provide linguistic services at Abu Ghraib.
    An SOS executive told The Signal on Thursday that Israel still works for the company and could not be contacted.
    "We are not providing access to John Israel at this point," Chief Financial Officer Bruce Crowell said in a phone message.
    Another SOS official said Israel is on temporary assignment.
    "It is true that John Israel works here," Crowell said in a subsequent telephone interview. "We are not at liberty to make any further comments, other than what we have said in a prepared statement."
    The statement said, "SOS Interpreting Ltd. is a subcontractor to Titan (Corp.), responsible for employing, and then secunding (sic) to Titan and ultimately the Army, interpreters. SOS understands that the government is conducting reviews that may relate to issues regarding this subcontract. SOS intends to cooperate with the Army and Titan. It would be premature to comment further at this time."
    Crowell declined to answer questions about his company's employment requirements. In its online job postings, SOS tends to advertise for U.S. citizens or longtime U.S. residents, and it pays about $75,000 for translation work overseas.
    Public records show Israel owns his home. His 1993 bankruptcy was discharged in 1994.
    Although prison translators require a U.S. security clearance, an Army spokeswoman couldn't corroborate Israel's citizenship and referred questions about his nationality to Titan.
    A Titan executive said Israel is a U.S. citizen and he dismissed the current chatroom "buzz" that he might be a foreign agent.
    "I do know he's an American," Titan spokesman Will Williams said. "Because of his last name, I have never in my life seen so much speculation. ... He's just an American interpreter working for a subcontractor."
    One inconsistency in Taguba's report is the listing of Israel as an employee of both Titan and CACI. He was not directly employed by Titan, and a personnel executive with CACI said Thursday she was unfamiliar with him.
    The London Telegraph said three CACI contractors are still working with 30 military intelligence interrogators at Abu Ghraib and another six are employed as screeners to process detainees and determine whether they have any intelligence value. About 20 contract employees from SOS and Titan are still working at the prison as linguists.
    Col. Foster Payne, newly in charge of interrogations at Abu Ghraib, defended the use of civilian contractors.
    "They're professionals in their own right," Payne told The Telegraph. "They have wide experience in the field and contribute to the team."
    "We've taken the actions of two people (Israel and Stephanowicz) and now we're questioning whether we need to use contractors," Payne lamented.
    The scandal prompted a complete troop overhaul in February. The Telegraph reported that the "abuse appears to have been stamped out" although a tour of the facility revealed that living conditions were still "miserable and highly dangerous."

    Signal staff writers Lila Campuzano, Burt Stillar, Judy Ann Mook, Brandon Lowrey and Diana Sevanian contributed to this story.