On the Importance of Following the Rules

Editorial from The Signal

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

ho said what to whom inside Abu Ghraib prison last fall is a story that will take months to unfold, if indeed the facts ever become fully known at all.
    While the national media chase the story and its myriad permutations in 1,000 different directions, we focus our primary attention on the "local angle": the involvement of a man from Canyon Country who was under contract as an interpreter for Army intelligence at the prison.
    To date, we've learned few specifics about his actions, and he isn't offering his account. His current whereabouts are unknown and his otherwise high-profile lawyer isn't talking.
    Nor do we know how the Army intends to back up its allegation that he and three other men assigned to the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade were "directly or indirectly responsible" for the prisoner abuse that has led to criminal charges against seven prison guards. Critical portions of a March 9 report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba haven't been leaked. Yet.
    One thing we do know: The deeper we dig into the facts surrounding civilian contractors like the man from Canyon Country, the more disturbing they appear.
    Take, for instance, the four-year-old Army memo that prohibits the Army from using civilian contractors for the gathering and analysis of intelligence information.
    That's exactly what the Army has been using civilian contractors for at Abu Ghraib — and still does, for that matter, and not only at Abu Ghraib but also at other U.S.-run prisons in Iraq and Cuba.
    The exception to the rule, according to the Army official who set the policy, is when a private contractor has the "sole capability" for an intelligence function.
    Most people — government or civilian — would interpret that to mean it's OK for the Army to use a private company when that company has some new-fangled technology or some other discrete skill that the Army doesn't possess.
    Apparently that's not how the Army interpreted the exception to the rule.
    "If you don't have enough military personnel, there is no alternative but to use the resources available," an Army spokeswoman told The Signal on Monday.
    By "resources available," she was referring to civilian contractors. Evidently the Army believes it's OK to hire bodies under a contract when it doesn't have enough skilled employees of its own.
    But that's not OK, according to other federal regulations.
    Federal hiring rules generally prohibit "personal services contracts," where workers are hired to perform a government function under direct and continuous government supervision.
    If the government wants to hire an employee, it's supposed to hire an employee — whether military or civil service. It's generally not allowed to use the mechanism of a contract to replace the civil service hiring process.
    But that's what seems to have happened in the case of civilian contractors at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. According to Army staffers and the contract companies themselves, the individual contract workers take their orders directly from Army commanders.
    That's a no-no under another Army regulation discussed at length in The Signal today.
    Army Regulation 715-9, which took effect in late 1999, specifically states that civilian contract workers are not to be "under the direct supervision of military personnel in the chain of command."
    Instead, civilian contractors are supposed to be supervised by a manager from their own company, which is supposed to appoint an "on-site liaison" to communicate with Army officers at the job site.
    Dan Guttman, a government contracting expert at John Hopkins University, likened it to hiring a contractor to build a house.
    "If you get somebody to build you a house, you don't tell the (individual) workers what to do," he said.
    Some might say it's understandable for a few pesky rules to be set aside in the heat of war.
    We would disagree.
    We are a nation ruled by laws. They're the backbone of the democracy we're trying to spread. Only if we continue to heed them will they still be there to protect us.