This Unasked-for Learning Experience Is Still Unfolding

Commentary By Leon Worden
Signal City Editor

Thursday, July 8, 2004

s Iraq's new interim prime minister gets his feet on the ground, there are no signs America will lessen its resolve to help him.
    "We don't see in the near term changing the amount of soldiers on the ground for months and months," the Pentagon reported last week, adding that no deadline has been set for the withdrawal of troops.
    About 140,000 of the 160,000 coalition troops in Iraq are American, and "after six months or so, an opportunity may arise to review the force numbers," the Pentagon said. But for now, "(they are) needed to help train Iraqi troops to defend the country."
    "Help" is the right word. Our troops are the most vital component of the retraining and reconstruction effort, but the job isn't exclusively theirs. Since the end of major hostilities, the Army has spent about $12 billion on private contractors to do everything from guard oil fields to interrogate detainees. Now, another $19 billion has been budgeted for the next several months of post-transition operations.
    Last summer's complaints about all the contracts going to Dick Cheney's old haunt, Halliburton, didn't resonate too deeply. We'd won a quick victory, Saddam Hussein was dethroned, and the Iraqi people would soon realize the democracy they'd seldom if ever known.
    A year later, Saddam proved more elusive, insurgents more tenacious, and casualties harder to forestall than many expected. And with no exit strategy yet drafted, much less carried out, there's a whole lot of scrutinizing going on.
    The nuts and bolts of those private military contracts stayed under the radar until May, when Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker got his hands on the so-called "Taguba report."
    The report said two of the four men who were "directly or indirectly responsible" for the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib were civilian contractors — and lo and behold, one of the two contractors hailed from Santa Clarita.
    What was John B. Israel doing at Abu Ghraib? And what made an Army general conclude he was at fault?
    We're still working on that second question. Witnesses tell us they didn't know him by name, and salient parts of Taguba's 6,000-page report remain under lock and key.
    As to the first question, what was he doing there? The answers confound.
    Civilians aren't supposed to be involved in interrogations. Intelligence information is considered too sensitive to be trusted to contractors.
    That has been Army policy since December 2000. But it isn't an Army regulation. When the Army regulation, "Contractors on the Battlefield," was revised in January 2003, the policy wasn't included, despite specific instructions to add it. And who rewrote the Army regulation? Military Professional Resources Inc., a private contractor.
    Dan Guttman, the public-interest contracting expert who first exposed the policy, wasn't surprised. "Official documents are routinely prepared by contractors and presented to the world as official work products," he said.
    Now the Pentagon is rewriting the rules governing civilian contractors because, a senior official said, existing regulations don't always "capture lessons from recent operations."
    Perhaps it will become officially OK for civilians like John Israel to translate sensitive papers and interpret statements taken from prisoners under duress. The Army is proceeding as if it will be a sanctioned civilian activity. It has rebid the linguist contract that covered Israel and, currently, 4,700 other civilian translators.
    The new contract for "worldwide linguist support services" seeks translators to "allow our forces to communicate with the local populace, gather information for force protection (read: intelligence information), and interact with other foreign military units."
    The contract could well be returned to Titan Corp., which holds it today. No Titan translator has been charged with a crime, and even though the Taguba report implicates two of them, including Israel, the Army has never communicated any problem to Titan.
    Titan is one of 62 companies that received the bid package. Another is SOS Interpreting Ltd., Israel's direct employer, which gets preference points under the federal contracting system because it's a woman-owned business. Another is CACI International Inc., the company that shipped civilian interrogators to Abu Ghraib.
    Compared to Halliburton, CACI wasn't even a blip on the screen until the abuse scandal broke. The ensuing scrutiny revealed that the Army had exploited CACI's standing contract for information technology (computer systems and support), using it to requisition human information gatherers.
    "Problems with awarding contracts plagued the Iraq reconstruction process from the get-go," the Center for Public Integrity in Washington said Wednesday. Congressional hearings and government inquiries have "painted a picture of undermanned and overworked contracting staffs without sufficient knowledge of the contracting process, who stretched contracting rules for the sake of expediency," it said.
    Contractors sometimes drafted their own scope of work, set their own prices, and were allowed "to begin work before key terms of the contracts, including price, had been agreed on."
    Peter W. Singer of The Brookings Institution tells the story of Aegis Defense Services, a British firm that won a $293 million Pentagon contract to provide security personnel — and ultimately, to police itself and 50 other private security firms in Iraq.
    "They had outsourced the security roles, and they decided they were hard to manage," Singer told me. "So what was the solution? They outsourced the management. They had contracted the jobs; now they contracted the management" to the same company.
    Things have gotten better since October, when the Center for Public Integrity issued a prior report.
    "The agencies that have been awarding these postwar contracts have ... become more organized with contract information and more responsive to requests from the media," it said.
    "Still, much of the work continues to be uncoordinated within federal agencies, and no agency seems to have a full picture of all the postwar contracts" — which the center pegged at $48.7 billion, spread across 150 U.S. companies operating in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    Deplorable as the abuse of Iraqi prisoners was, and as distant in time and space as it may seem, we're only in the initial stages of its aftermath. The real story is the sweeping learning experience it's turning into — for the public and the government alike.

    Leon Worden is The Signal's city editor.