WASHINGTON -- A legal loophole could allow four American civilian contractors allegedly involved in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners to escape punishment, US military officials and specialists said yesterday.
US commanders in Iraq announced that seven military supervisors have received administrative reprimands over the alleged abuse of the detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of US forces in Iraq, said the investigation into the supervisors -- officers and non-commissioned officers -- was complete and they would not face further proceedings.
Letters of reprimand were issued to the seven on Saturday, a Pentagon spokesman said yesterday, adding that two of the supervisors were relieved of their positions of responsibility. Another six soldiers, members of a military police unit, are already facing criminal charges before a court-martial.
President Bush, on a campaign trip yesterday in Michigan, urged Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to make sure that US soldiers involved in the abuse are punished, said a White House spokesman.
"The president wanted to make sure appropriate action is being taken against those responsible for these shameful and appalling acts," said spokesman Scott McClellan.
But the four civilian workers identified in an internal army report for their involvement in the physical and sexual mistreatment of the prisoners -- including the alleged rape of one detainee -- cannot be punished under military law, and it is unclear whether they will face any charges under either US or Iraqi laws.
The army report -- written in February and obtained by a reporter for the New Yorker magazine -- found evidence that civilian interrogators employed by the Virginia-based firm CACI and civilian interpreters with the San Diego-based
The allegations of prisoner abuse, ranging from sodomizing a prisoner with a chemical lightstick, to forcing Iraqi prisoners to simulate sex acts on film, to connecting wires to the genitals of one prisoner, have also raised new questions on the role of civilian interrogators in Iraq and on the heavier military reliance on private contractors who often operate outside the code of military conduct and largely under their own rules.
"This is not something we have seen in previous wars," said Peter W. Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry," referring to the use of civilian interrogators. Singer said the tendency to use private contractors for a wide variety of services -- instead of calling up more troops -- could pose serious legal problems for the US military.
Singer estimated that there were more than 10,000 civilians in Iraq working for private contractors.
US officials say private contractors offer special skills -- like languages and technical know-how -- that are useful in situations such as interrogations. But critics say well-paid contractors, whose deaths are not factored into the official tally of war dead, are also increasingly employed to avoid the politically unpopular move of sending more US soldiers to Iraq.
Attention began to focus on civilian workers last month, when four Blackwater Security employees were ambushed and mutilated in Fallujah in an attack that led to the recent standoff there between insurgents and US Marines.
Military officials said yesterday that the contractors could not be tried under military laws and that they were unsure if Iraqi or US laws would be applied. A US spokeswoman in Baghdad said the military usually refers such cases back to the companies that employ them, and she believed that is what is being done in this case.
"The military has no jurisdiction over the civilian contractors," said the spokeswoman, who has been assigned by military officials to handle inquiries on the prison abuse scandal. She asked not to be identified. "The military can make recommendations, but it is going to be up to the employer to decide what measures to take."
But CACI chief executive Jack London said yesterday that the firm has not received any information from the US government or military about the alleged crimes, despite inquiries and a request for a copy of the internal report.
"I think it is disgusting, and I certainly would believe that our people would not do these things," London said in a telephone interview. "On the other hand, if it turns out that our people did, we won't tolerate it. We won't permit it to continue. We, certainly to the best of my knowledge, we never trained people to do those kinds of things at all."
London said the employees he sent to fill the Iraq contract for interrogators were almost all former soldiers with years of experience. London added that his company would cooperate with any military investigation.
Singer said it is not enough to refer the crimes back to the companies, because they rarely take them seriously enough and cannot impose sufficient punishment for a crime like rape.
"No company can properly punish a felony offense. . . . All you do is you lose a paycheck," said Singer. "This pushes out to way past the envelope. We've already outsourced logistics, we've outsourced training, we've outsourced certain activities in combat. What's left? My concern is we really need to take a step back and look at what should be outsourced."
The internal Army investigation, written by Army Major General Antonio M. Taguba, recommended that CACI employee Steven Stephanowicz be fired and that civilian translator John Israel also be punished for his alleged role in the mistreatment of prisoners, according to The New Yorker. Two other civilians were also identified, according to a former defense official who had seen the report.
The New Yorker said Taguba reserved his harshest criticism for civilian contractors and military intelligence officers.
Calls to Titan were not returned yesterday. Websites from the two companies show they have reaped contracts in military support and intelligence, a private industry that has boomed with government funding since Sept. 11.
CACI, which was once an information technology firm, has been increasingly concentrating on homeland security issues, London has said in recent interviews. Last year, the company won a $154.7 million contract to provide mission support to the US military and national intelligence agency sites worldwide, according to the company Web site.
Titan has a contract for $657 million to provide 4,800 linguists in the US Central Command area, which includes Iraq, according to Deborah Parker, a spokeswoman for the US Army Intelligence and Security Command. Those linguists serve "wherever needed" and are not all in intelligence fields, she said. The growing reliance on private contractors has drawn more concern among lawmakers over the cost effectiveness of using more civilian workers in dangerous zones.
Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said it is more difficult to hold civilians accountable than soldiers in places like Iraq.
"If there are military officers doing the interrogating, there are military standards and military instruments to hold them accountable," said Diamond, who was a senior adviser on governance to the Coalition Provisional Authority. "But with civilian contractors, what are the parallel means of accountability?"
US officials insisted the alleged crimes at the Abu Ghraib prison were isolated.
"The vast majority of the contractors that are out on the battlefield are doing excellent work, not only for the military but for the Iraqi people," said Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Yoswa.
British officials are also conducting an investigation into alleged abuses of Iraqi prisoners after a London newspaper published photos purporting to show members of a British Army regiment mistreating detainees. But a former commander of the unit said yesterday that the photos had "too many inconsistencies" to be genuine.
Farah Stockman can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.