Commentary

Some Publicity Is Bad

The case of CACI, the private military contractor that became notorious after its employees were investigated over allegations of torture at the U.S. military detention center at Abu Ghraib, seems to challenge the proposition that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

After the Iron Curtain came down, CACI knew it had to diversify beyond weapons contracts to survive. It began offering tech support services that the Pentagon needed. It worked to acquire smaller firms that had partnered on contracts with CACI and inherited interrogation work from the acquisition of Premier Technology Group in 2003.

Previously, the Interior Department contracting office awarded a “blanket purchase agreement” to Premier Technology Group for services to be provided to the Army.

This allowed the purchase of services from CACI International without competitive bidding — ironic, given that cost-savings are the original justification for contracting out. While many contracts related to information technology, at least two involved the provision of interrogators. Under those contracts, CACI provided interrogators to work in detention centers in Iraq. Several worked at Abu Ghraib, including Steven Stephanowicz, named in Gen. Antonio Taguba’s report on the abuse of detainees.

Taguba’s findings charged Stephanowicz “made a false statement to the investigation team regarding the locations of his interrogations, the activities during his interrogations, and his knowledge of abuses” and “allowed and/or instructed (Military Police personnel) who were not trained in interrogation techniques to facilitate interrogations by ‘setting conditions’ which were neither authorized or in accordance with applicable regulations/policy.”

“He clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse,” concluded Taguba.

Stephanowicz said Army guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq kept some prisoners awake for as much as 20 hours a day at the direction of private contractors and military intelligence personnel.

Stephanowicz was an example of the wrong man for the job. He was trained at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., to inspect satellite pictures, not to be an interrogator.

Stephanowicz was never charged with a crime.

Daniel Johnson, another CACI interrogator, interrogated an Iraqi prisoner using what an Army investigation calls “an unauthorized stress position.” Two soldiers — who served as Military Policemen at Abu Ghraib and already had been sentenced and imprisoned for their mistreatment of detainees — told Army investigators Johnson had directed and participated in prisoner abuse. The Army found “probable cause” that a crime had been committed and referred the case to the Justice Department for prosecution. But in early 2005 a Department of Justice attorney told the Army the evidence in the case did not justify prosecution.

Finding itself at the center of a media firestorm, CACI decided it needed additional help in dealing with the public relations elements of the crisis. CACI initially turned to its external public relations firm for help but realized it needed crisis management specialists to advise the company and build a custom-tailored response. The media team reviewed all news reports on the company as they related to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and sent letters to publications that it believed had incomplete or erroneous information. It also hired Washington consulting firm Clark & Weinstock to set up meetings with lawmakers and their staffs on Capitol Hill.

In June 2004 lawyers for Iraqis tortured while in U.S. custody sued the two private security companies — CACI and Titan — that provided translators operating in the prison and three individuals who work for the firms — including Stephanowicz. In November 2007 the judge let the suit against CACI proceed. He rejected the company’s claim that it should be immune from such a lawsuit because it worked at the behest of the U.S. military. He said he believes a jury should hear the case, in part because CACI had its own chain of command.

Now, more than four years later, CACI is continuing its public relations offensive with the release by conservative Regnery Publishing of a new book, “Our Good Name: A Company’s Fight to Defend Its Honor and Get the Truth Told About Abu Ghraib,” authored by the firm’s CEO, J. Phillip London.

The book’s blurb says, “The media twisted the unsupported allegations (about Abu Ghraib) into a guilty verdict without regard for the facts or the truth, creating a damning public perception of CACI.”

It “recounts how CACI battled to defend itself against erroneous and malicious reports by a rampaging media, how it responded to the wide-ranging government investigations, and how it overcame misplaced anger and criticism that put the company’s dedicated employees and excellent reputation — even its future — at risk.”

On May 5 a new suit was filed against the company. The plaintiff, Emad Khudhayyir Shatuth al-Janabi, charges CACI, its parent corporation L-3 Communications, subsidiary CACI Premier Technology, and Steven Stephanowicz with torture.

In his complaint al-Janabi alleges that, among other things, he was repeatedly punched and slammed into walls; struck with a baton-like instrument and beaten; deprived of food; deprived of sleep; exposed to a mock execution of his brother and nephew; told that he would be executed or crushed by a helicopter or a tank; hung upside down with his feet chained to the steel slats of a bunk bed until he lost consciousness; stripped naked and threatened with rape, and hung by his arms.

The suit notes London’s new book, which says CACI conducted a thorough investigation and found none of its employees at fault. But the suit challenges that, based on the description of the investigation in the book, alleging that the company failed to interview any of the Iraqis who had been the victims of mistreatment.

Nor, says the suit, did the investigation include an interview with CACI employee Torin Nelson, who blew the whistle on the misconduct of his colleagues.

David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs and a US Navy veteran. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, and the author of a forthcoming book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.