Agencies Mum On Inquiry of John B. Israel
• Justice, Defense departments say the other is investigating actions of local resident.

By Leon Worden
Signal City Editor

Saturday, May 29, 2004

hile seven lower-level Army reserve guards have been charged in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, including one who has already pleaded guilty, government officials remained tight-lipped Friday about the fate of four higher-ups who evidently remain free despite allegations that they orchestrated the torture.
    John B. Israel, 48, of Canyon Country, is one of the four men identified in an Army report as having been "directly or indirectly responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib." A civilian, Israel worked as an interpreter under contract with Army intelligence.
    Israel returned to Santa Clarita around April 1 and has not responded to messages left this week at his home. His wife said Wednesday he has not yet hired an attorney.
    Defense Department and Justice Department officials pointed fingers at each other when asked Friday which agency is following up on Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's call for a formal inquiry into Israel's activities.
    "The lead agency is the Department of Justice," said a Defense Department spokesman who refused to provide his name.
    The Washington Post reported last week that the Justice Department had opened a criminal investigation of an unidentified civilian contractor with ties to Abu Ghraib.
    However, Justice Department spokesman Robert Nardoza told The Signal on Friday that his office is not conducting an investigation of civilian contractors. He referred inquiries to the Defense Department "because they are investigating it."
    Vartan Djihanian, press deputy to U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon — Israel's congressional representative and a House Armed Services Committee member — said he has been unable to learn what agency may be conducting an inquiry.
    Staff members of the House Armed Services Committee were equally in the dark.
    The unnamed Defense Department spokesman did say Army investigators "will leave no stone unturned to make sure it doesn't happen again" but refused to disclose whether current investigations include the activities of civilian contractors like Israel.
    An Iraqi-born American linguist, Israel is one of two high-level civilians Taguba accused of responsibility for the actions of prison guards.
    The other civilian is Steven A. Stephanowicz, sometimes spelled Stefanowicz, a 34-year-old ex-Navy reservist from Philadelphia who worked under contract as an interrogator.
    Stephanowicz's attorney, Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., did not return calls Friday. The Washington Post quoted him May 11 as saying his client's conduct at the prison "was both appropriate and authorized."
    Submitted in early March, Taguba's report on abuses at Abu Ghraib paints a picture of a prison where military police units lacked training and civilian contractors lacked supervision.
    Although military police are barred by policy from participating in interrogations by military intelligence personnel, Taguba found that intelligence officers and other interrogators "actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses."
    From October to December, setting "conditions for favorable interrogation" at Abu Ghraib meant things like sodomizing detainees and forcing them to masturbate.
    In Senate testimony, Taguba said the guards considered the two civilian intelligence experts, Israel and Stephanowicz, "as competent authority" to give instructions.
    In his report, Taguba determined that Stephanowicz "instructed MPs, who were not trained in interrogation techniques, to facilitate interrogations by 'setting conditions' which were (not) authorized."
    "He clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse," Taguba wrote.
    He said Israel claimed not to have observed abusive interrogations despite several witness statements to the contrary.
    Taguba recommended that Stephanowicz be fired and Israel be reprimanded, and that both men face a formal military inquiry to determine their culpability.
    Civilian contractors who commit crimes while working overseas for the military can be prosecuted under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000.
    The law applies to military personnel and civilian employees who "(engage) in conduct outside the United States that would constitute an offense punishable by imprisonment for more than one year if the conduct had been engaged in within the ... United States."
    "If it (the investigation of Israel) goes through the (Department of Justice), then it will be handled through that law," said Djihanian, McKeon's spokesman.
    Attorney General John Ashcroft has said civilian contractors could be prosecuted for violations of civil rights and anti-torture statutes.

    Signal staff writer Judy Ann Mook contributed to this story.