Seeking to avoid torture controversy, Pentagon to issue new interrogation rule

The Obama administration is in the final stages of implementing a law that bars contractors from interrogating military detainees.

As part of the defense authorization bill passed last year, Congress approved a provision that would bar contractors from interrogating detainees in the custody of the Department of Defense. The Pentagon will implement that policy through an interim final rule, which was sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review earlier this week.

Lawmakers pressed to see the law passed after abuse scandals at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the U.S. military detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, during the George W. Bush administration brought to light the unregulated role of private contractors in the interrogation of military detainees.

Crafting the regulations to implement laws passed by Congress can take months, if not years, to complete.

The Obama administration initially objected to the interrogation provisions in last year's defense bill. It called on lawmakers to rewrite the legislation so that the rules and regulations applying to military interrogators would also apply to those under contract.
“In some limited cases, a contract interrogator may possess the best combination of skills to obtain critical intelligence, and this provision, therefore, could prevent U.S. forces from conducting lawful interrogations in the most effective manner,” said the statement of administration policy issued by the OMB.

At that time, the CIA had already stopped using contractors for interrogations after the agency came under fire during the Bush administration for using interrogators for hire.

The final bill that Obama signed into law ultimately reflected the administration’s request. Congress allowed for contractor personnel with proper training and security clearance to be used as linguists, interpreters, report writers and information technology technicians.

It also allowed for contractors to be used in interrogation if they are covered by the same rules governing detainee interrogations as the government personnel performing the same interrogation functions.

Qualified and trained military or civilian Defense Department personnel must oversee a contractor's performance. Congress also allowed for the prohibition to be waived "if such a move is vital to the U.S. national security interests."

The Supreme Court on Oct. 4 asked the Obama administration for its views and advice regarding a lawsuit filed on behalf of 26 Iraqis who claim that employees of CACI International Inc. and L-3 Communication’s Titan unit tortured and abused them while they were detained at the Abu Ghraib prison. CACI provided interrogators, while Titan provided interpreters to the U.S. military.

The companies have denied the Iraqis’ claims and are now asking a Virginia federal court of appeals to declare them immune from the lawsuits because their employees performed duties that the military required.

While U.S. courts are dealing with the aftermath of the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal, the hundreds of thousands of military logs from Iraq recently published by WikiLeaks have returned the spotlight to the abuse of Iraqis.

The nearly 400,000 documents, mostly written by soldiers on the ground in Iraq, do not focus on the role of contractors in detainee interrogations, but highlight abuses by Iraqi security forces. They also indicate that U.S. forces turned over detainees to their Iraqi counterparts even after signs of abuse, or continued to interrogate injured detainees after they had been held by Iraqi security forces.

Some of the documents chronicle events from dates after Obama took office. Soon after his presidential election, Obama vowed to change how the U.S. deals with detainees.

The Obama administration said this week it did not turn a “blind eye” to the abuses and that the U.S. troops reported the abuses to the appropriate authorities. The Pentagon condemned WikiLeaks for releasing the documents, warning that they could put U.S. and Iraqi lives at risk.