By Monica Campbell
To fight the Iraq war, the U.S. military is relying on private military security contractors more than ever before. Pratap Chatterjee, an expert on military contractors and the managing editor of CorpWatch, has partnered with Amnesty International to expose the dangerous lack of accountability in the big business of war.
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL: You were in Iraq recently to investigate the role of private military security contractors (PMSCs). How did you get the information you published in your recent report on PMSCs, and who were your sources?
PRATAP CHATTERJEE: I’ve been to the Middle East and Central Asia over a dozen times, including Iraq four times in the past five years, most recently in late March 2008 for about two weeks. I’ve met with a number of translators, screeners [who determine the potential “intelligence value” of detainees] and interrogators in Iraq, other neighboring countries and back in the United States. I’ve also corresponded with many of these people and their lawyers.
AI: Your research focused on a company called L-3/Titan. What does this company do?
PC: L-3 was started by two wealthy investment bankers in 1997. Their names—Frank Lanza and Robert LaPenta—started with the letter L, as did Lehman [Brothers], which is the Wall Street firm they worked for. Titan was founded in 1981 by former executives of Science Application International Corporation (SAIC) and [the company] was bought by L-3 in 2005 for $2 billion.
Titan used to sell information technology, consulting services and military hardware to the Pentagon. L-3 is very similar; it specializes in electronic guidance and surveillance systems for military aircraft. L-3 quickly went from nothing at all to one of the top 10 military contractors. The first intelligence contracts in Iraq were in 2005, although it is quite possible they had previous contracts also, some of which might not have been public knowledge.
AI: How much business does the U.S. military do with private military security contractors like L-3?
PC: The U.S. government does roughly a billion dollars a year in business with L-3, and a total of $3 billion since the war began. That’s a small but significant chunk of the $115 billion in goods and services purchased from contractors for the war in Iraq—the biggest amount the U.S. military spends is on military hardware, but we’ll leave that out of the equation for now.
L-3 had until recently roughly 7,000 translators in Iraq, although this now has changed because L-3 lost its latest contract with the U.S. military. I believe the main reason was that the company was not providing enough translators. The new contract was awarded to Dyn- Corp’s Global Linguist Solutions joint venture in December 2006.
Mind you, these are exactly the same personnel circulating between companies. The new company may hire some new people, fire some old people, pay them differently, but it’s like old wine in new bottles—almost everyone keeps their jobs, even though the taxpayer thinks the government just hired a brand new contractor. The new management does have the potential to fire bad personnel, so a new contractor could theoretically be a good thing. But by and large they don’t change anything unless they stand to lose money.
AI: How does this compare to the U.S. government’s use of PMSCs a decade ago?
PC: The military has downsized since the Cold War end, but they are trying to engage in just as many military skirmishes as they were in the past. To be involved in two major wars in the world and supply them is very difficult. Either you increase number of troops or you hire contractors. It all boils down to the fact that there isn’t a draft—if there was, you’d have enough soldiers. The only solution is to use contractors.
AI: Given the dramatic rise in the use of PMSCs, who is responsible for the conduct of tens of thousands of PMSC personnel now in Iraq?
PC: L-3/Titan doesn’t manage or train the personnel; they hire them and supply them to the field, but don’t really give them instructions. That is entirely done by the U.S. military. So if a contractor is accused of torture, it’s the military’s fault. Yet the military doesn’t have ability to fire individuals, only the power to end contracts, and that’s very complicated. The original Titan contract for translators expired in 2004, for example, and it took the Pentagon an additional three years to kick them out.
There are of course bad apples among the contractors who can be manipulated or are ill-trained and unaware. Some of that is because L-3 and Titan have done a very poor job of monitoring who they’ve hired.
AI: Is that the result of bottom-line considerations?
PC: It comes back again to the military, which requires the PMSCs to supply a certain number of interrogators, screeners and analysts. If the companies fall short, they have to pay fines, and that hurts their profits. So, for example, a company may be required to supply 330 interrogators, screeners and analysts per month. If it supplies 329, it is fined $10,000 per month.
This is not a good business model at all, and the companies don’t like that, so they endeavor to supply as many people as possible regardless of the quality. There is actually a disincentive to hire only the very best because they would lose money. The problem is with the way these contracts are structured.
AI: What kind of people is L-3/Titan hiring to do translation work?
PC: The quality of the personnel these companies supply is uneven—it’s not a very common skill set to be fluent in both Arabic and English, for example. Even fewer actually understand how to do good interpretation. To be a court interpreter is quite difficult, because you’re required to speak both languages simultaneously. But in Iraq they hire anyone who has any modicum of both languages, even if they are unable to speak both fluently.
AI: Have sectarian hostilities affected how PMSC personnel handle their duties in Iraq?
PC: There is definitely a lot of anecdotal evidence that many of the translators who were used were from rival communities— for example, Kurds sent to interview Arabs, or Shia to translate for Sunni. That creates unnecessary confusion or even sectarian vendettas. For example, a friend’s brother was a translator in Aadhamiya. It’s the most conservative Sunni part of Baghdad, the last place Saddam Hussein was seen. My friend’s brother worked for Titan there. When my friend was talking to him, he asked, “Are you worried you may have caused unnecessary deaths or human rights abuses in Aadhamiya?” He answered, “I know I didn’t.”
So my friend asked, “How do you know?” His brother said, “There are no innocent people in Aadhamiya; every man, woman and child there is guilty of terrorism.”
You have a problem when you hire people from a different context and put them in situations where they interrogate or translate for someone they don’t like. They are in positions of power when they are translating for people whom they consider to be their enemy. They can translate things incorrectly when they desire a bad outcome for that person.
AI: Who is responsible when PMSC personnel commit abuses and are caught?
PC: Typically the military cannot fire anyone. Only the company can. They can fire the contractor, for example, but that can take years. The military was not happy with Titan’s performance, for example, but it took three years and tens of millions of dollars, because you can’t fire someone you depend upon so heavily.
L-3 will move around problematic staff to another site. They don’t fire because they would lose money. You have a lot less control than you think. You don’t know who you’re getting.
The idea behind competition is a good one. I don’t believe it’s necessarily a bad thing to use private contractors. But the incentives the military gives these contractors are absurd. “You provide 7,000 translators, or else” means that if [contractors] provide 7,000 bad translators, they are doing well. It becomes a logistical nightmare to manage.
AI: Have you seen evidence that PMSCs might participate in combat activities?
PC: Yes, I’ve learned about this from contractors themselves who have done this. If you are a translator, your job is supposed to be translation. It doesn’t involve targeting people, shooting them, whatever. There is certainly evidence that, on occasion, some Titan translators have taken their own guns, even though it’s against the law. The soldiers say, “Hey, buddy, we’re shortstaffed here, can you pick up a gun and help us?” They know a contractor happens to be ex-military and asks him to get involved. The corporation would not condone that, but these translators travel with the soldiers and wear the same uniforms. They live together out in small combat posts. Often a combat post is literally someone’s house, where they all live together.
A translator named Goran Habbeb, who worked for Titan before it was owned by L-3, explained to me how the soldiers would say, “We hear there’s a terrorist in a village near Kirkuk. Can you go and find out where that guy is so we can go back and catch him?” He’d go into a village and find out where someone lived, note the coordinates of that particular house and report it to the military. Then soldiers go, raid the house, capture [the suspect] and bring him back.
The military classifies that as intelligence gathering, which should be a military activity. This is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. There is a blurring of the lines. The soldiers don’t have the language skills to do these things. But this practice is illegal and fraught with problems. Most countries consider spying for a foreign government an act of treason.
AI: Your research has also revealed that PMSC personnel may sometimes be the victims of labor abuses. What are some of the labor issues you have documented?
PC: Out of the approximately 7,000 translators they have there, something like 280 have been killed and hundreds more injured. The number of Americans killed is quite small. The bulk of the deaths are Iraqis. Habbeb, the translator I just mentioned, was from Kirkuk, so his task was very risky. In fact, someone came back to hunt him down and shot him and his daughter, wounding them seriously.
Then there’s the huge disparity in pay. There are three kinds of military translators: Category 1, 2 and 3. The most basic category is local nationals, who are paid about $11,000 a year. Back in 2003 when these companies hired translators, they paid them $10 a day. Now it’s $30 a day for local nationals. Category 2 typically consists of Arab Americans paid at a different rate—a minimum salary of $100,000 to $180,000. Category 3 is if you have security clearance and are U.S. citizen or resident. The average interrogator in this category is paid $200,000 to $250,000 per year, and L-3 bills the military $320,000. Similarly, L-3 bills the U.S. military vastly more for translators than what they’re paying them.
AI: What is the status of these contractors under U.S. law: military or civilian? Does this status determine the kind of legal protections that apply to them?
PC: They were not covered by U.S. military law or by Iraqi law until quite recently, but I understand that a change in the law was introduced as part of the 2007 Defense Authorization Act that may make them subject to military law. U.S. nationals are typically subject to a variety of civilian laws like the War Crimes Act, the 1994 federal anti-torture statute and the 2000 Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, in addition to PATRIOT Act expansion of the Special Maritime and Territorial Jurisdiction. But these laws are not really being used to prosecute interrogators or translators when they are implicated in the abuse of detainees.
AI: With so many problems inherent in this type of arrangement, why does the U.S. government continue to rely so heavily on PMSCs? Why are other governments, such as that of the Netherlands, studying this model for possible use by their own countries?
PC: It is a quick, effective solution to shortstaffing. And, of course, there is the plausible deniability if anything goes wrong.
AI: Have you seen any evidence that PMSCs may be changing their practices?
PC: Yes. They have changed a little, and so has the military oversight. For example training is conducted for interrogators before deployment and “0502” refresher courses are provided to these interrogators by the military in the field every 90 days.
However, there still is no training for screeners or translators. And some people who have attended the new 0502 trainings say that they are just pro forma PowerPoint slide presentations, which allow the military to claim that they did their best—in case anything goes wrong again. ai