Thursday, June 12, 2008

Interrogation for Profit

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Congress is finally moving to ban one of the Bush administration’s most blatant evasions of accountability in Iraq — the outsourcing of war detainees’ interrogation to mercenary private contractors.

Operating free of the restraints of military rule and ethics, some of these corporate thugs turned up in the torture scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison and walked away with impunity. Others are now believed to be in the employ of the Central Intelligence Agency at secret prisons that remain outside the rule of law, exempted even from the weak 2006 rules on interrogating prisoners.

Civilian interrogators are part of the broader pool of hired guns that the administration has deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other spots around the world. Their actions regularly enrage Iraqis, most notably last September, when a phalanx of trigger-happy contractors assigned to protect American diplomats sprayed a crowd and killed 17 civilians.

These depredations continue to undermine the United States in the eyes of both citizens of war zones and the watching world. Their use as interrogators are a symptom of the administration’s ducking accountability under international law by concocting ersatz redefinitions of civilized behavior and undermining legitimate intelligence operations.

In the current military budget debate, both houses are proposing an outright ban on the use of contractors as prisoner interrogators. They also would order the Pentagon to finally rein in its use of tens of thousands of contract guards as laissez-faire warriors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon would have to write rules specifying which security operations are military missions that cannot be outsourced.

Abuses by mercenaries operating beyond the reach of criminal and military law have been an outgrowth of the administration’s failure to adequately staff its military invasion force. The most notorious of the favored war contractors has been Blackwater Worldwide. But numerous other bidders have been awarded plums to amass “private security” stealth forces estimated to total near 50,000 fighters.

The White House, of course, is threatening a veto, citing its all-purpose plaint that the interrogator ban would hobble the nation’s “ability to obtain intelligence needed to protect Americans from attack.” In leading the House to passage of the ban, Representative David Price, Democrat of North Carolina, laid bare the folly of using for-profit gunslingers to undertake the highly sensitive task of handling and questioning detainees.

Anyone interested in protecting America, Mr. Price pointed out, must see the wisdom of using interrogators “who are well trained, who fall within a clear chain of command and who have a sworn loyalty to the United States” — not to some corporate bottom line.

Congress should stand up to the veto threats and go even further: approve measures to make war-zone contractors liable for criminal behavior and to assign the Federal Bureau of Investigation to on-the-scene inquiries into contractor crimes. The way out of the Iraq fiasco must include an end to the outsourced shadow armies.

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