Friday, November 24, 2006

Torture in Iraq, intimidate at home: Ah, that's the American Way®

Consider the unique problems faced by the corporate suits at CACI International, a defense contractor whose services have included "coercive" interrogations of prisoners in Iraq -- interrogations most people simply call "torture."

Think about the image problems a major multinational corporation faces after becoming inextricably linked with the abuses at Abu Ghraib, a firm whose employees have contributed to the iconic images of the occupation of Iraq -- the symbols of American cruelty and immorality in an illegal war. What can a company like that possibly do to protect its brand name after contributing to the greatest national disgrace since the My Lai massacre?

CACI's strategy has been two-fold: its flacks have distorted well-documented facts in the public record beyond recognition, and its senior management has lawyered up, suing or threatening to sue just about every journalist, muckraker and government watchdog who's dared to shine a light on the firm's unique role as a torture profiteer.

Lately, the company's sights have been set squarely on Robert Greenwald, director of Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, in which CACI plays a starring role. Greenwald has been in a back-and-forth with CACI's CEO, Jack London, and its lead attorney, William Koegel, during "months of calls, emails and letters" in what Greenwald calls a campaign to "intimidate, threaten and suppress" the story presented in the film.

"The threatening letters started early, trying to get us to back off," Greenwald told me. "We refused, and went back at them with a very strong letter saying, 'no, you're war profiteers and we won't be silenced.' Like any bully, they backed down when confronted. No lawsuit was filed-- they're a paper tiger."

The story they don't want told is of a federal contractor that, according to the Washington Post, gets 92 percent of its revenues in the "defense" sector. The Washington Business Journal reported that CACI's defense contracts almost doubled in the year after the occupation of Iraq began, and profits shot up 52 percent.

[snip]

But while the firm had experience in electronic surveillance and other intelligence functions, it, too, didn't have the interrogators. Barry Lando reported finding an ad on CACI's website for interrogators to send to Iraq, and noted that "experience in conducting tactical and strategic interrogations" was desired, but not necessary. According to a report by the Army inspector general, 11 of the 31 CACI interrogators in Iraq had no training in what most experts agree is one of the most sensitive areas of intelligence gathering. The 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, which was in charge of interrogations at Abu Ghraib when the abuses took place, didn't have a single trained interrogator.

"It's insanity," former CIA agent Robert Baer told The Guardian. "These are rank amateurs, and there is no legally binding law on these guys as far as I could tell. Why did they let them in the prison?"

That's one of many questions the company doesn't care to have asked. It's common for corporations to be fiercely protective of their brand's image, often obsessively so. That's true of multinationals selling soda pop or accounting services or military intelligence. But a company on a federal contract that rents out interrogators who become involved in a torture scandal that ends up splashed across the cover of Time Magazine -- that's the kind of thing that can be a real problem for the PR flacks back at corporate headquarters.

Colonel William Darley with the Military Review wrote of Abu Ghraib's impact:

We have never recovered from the Abu Ghraib thing. And it's likely all the time we're in Iraq, we never will. It will take a decade and beyond. I mean, those pictures, a hundred years from now, when the history of the Middle East is written, those things will be part and parcel of whatever textbook that Iraqis and Syrians and others are writing about the West. Those pictures. It's part of the permanent record. It's like that guy in Vietnam that got his head shot. It's just a permanent part of the history. That will never go away.

But CACI's tried hard to make it go away. The company sued Air America Radio host Randi Rhodes for $11 million for defamation, including $10 million in punitive damages. The supposed defamation? Rhodes read a portion of an interview with Janice Karpinski, the former Brigadier General who commanded the MPs at Abu Ghraib. The suit was dismissed with a summary judgment in April.

After the Institute for Policy Studies named CACI and CEO London in its annual "Executive Excess" report on CEO pay, they received "a blistering seven-page letter" from London himself, demanding that CACI be removed from the report. Later, Sarah Anderson, one of the study's co-authors said she got "a rather ominous email just saying that they were monitoring everything I wrote about them."

Then a blogger at Blogcritics got the "CACI treatment" for reporting on the Air America suit, as did the online media watchdog Newsbusters. When David Rubenstein, a columnist for the alternative paper Pulse of the Twin Cities, wrote an article about former Minnesota Congresman Vin Weber that mentioned CACI, it triggered, as Rubenstein would later recall, "a bombastic two-page single-spaced letter" from London with a "wholesale attack on my credibility." Runbenstein wrote of London's letter:

He doctors a quote from a newspaper interview. He quotes selectively from a Senate hearing. He constructs logical absurdities and lays them out as if they were pronouncements from an oracle. Apparently he thinks because he is the CEO of a $1.6-plus billion company that is willing to throw its weight around, he can say whatever he wants. It's a calculated strategy to shut down critics.

According to the New Standard, CACI has even characterized suits brought against it by human rights lawyers as slander. In a press release responding to a case brought by the Center For Constitutional rights on behalf of prisoners abused at Abu Ghraib, CACI's attorneys said the firm "rejects and denies the allegations of the suit as being a malicious recitation of false statements and intentional distortions" and called the allegations of abuse "ill-informed" and "slanderous."

After the article ran, The New Standard got a threatening letter (PDF) that quickly made its way around the internet.

CACI's problem is, ultimately, with reality. The firm claims that it was vindicated by the military's investigations into Abu Ghraib, including in a Washington Post editorial by Koegel in which he wrote that "no CACI employee has been charged with any misconduct in connection with interrogation work." It's technically true in that no CACI employee has faced formal charges -- it's unclear what jurisdiction civilian contractors in Iraq fall under, if they fall under any -- but the Taguba Report (PDF) said that CACI's Steven Stephanowicz had encouraged MPs under his command to terrorize inmates, and "clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse."

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