Several high-ranking military legal officers believe the Pentagon used private contractors to interrogate prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan in a deliberate attempt to obscure aggressive practices from congressional or military oversight, according to a civilian lawyer who has spoken with them.
The civilian lawyer said that the military lawyers, part of the Judge Advocate General corps, complained to him about the use of private contractors during meetings last year, before the scandal over abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison became public.
"They believed that there was a conscious effort to create an atmosphere of ambiguity, of having people involved who couldn't be held to account," he said.
JAG lawyers have also raised concerns about the Pentagon's decision to bar them from interrogations, which they routinely attended during the first Gulf war.
Two private companies were involved in the interrogations at Abu Ghraib. One, CACI International, supplied interrogation specialists, while the other, Titan International, supplied interpreters.
Their participation has been highly controversial because of concerns that their confused legal status could preclude them from effective oversight.
Private contractors are not subject to the same military legal code as uniformed soldiers. They have also been exempted from local laws in Iraq, under a decree passed by the Coalition Provisional Authority.
A Pentagon spokesman denied that contractors were used for reasons of secrecy, and said they were held to the same standard as regular military intelligence: "The regulations - both Geneva and otherwise - apply the same exact way to the contractors as they do to uniform personnel."
Contractors, he suggested, could be caught up in continuing army and Justice Department investigations.
But critics of such outsourcing arrangements note that while seven US soldiers are already facing court martials for their conduct at Abu Ghraib, no contractors have yet been punished despite being implicated in the abuses in a report filed by army Major General Antonio Taguba in late February.
Civilian contractors in Afghanistan have also avoided sanctions even though at least one has come under investigation in connection with the death of a prisoner at an army detention facility there.
CACI has said that its interrogators "meet or exceed" all required military qualifications. It has not taken any action against employees named in the Taguba report, saying that it is awaiting results of separate military and company investigations.
The Pentagon has generally justified its use of private sector interrogators on the same grounds as a broader outsourcing of non- combat tasks such as fuel delivery.
Private companies are more efficient, they say, because they can be used only when needed.
The Pentagon's own capabilities were also depleted after Congress repeatedly cut intelligence spending following the end of the cold war.
However, critics such as Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution have alleged that one of the chief benefits of private contractors is that they allow the Pentagon to perform operations with less outside scrutiny.
They cite the example of Colombia, where private-sector contractors have augmented a US troop presence that has been limited by congressional mandate. Contractors handle sensitive tasks such as drug eradication work that might be too politically sensitive for US soldiers. They also train Colombian troops.
© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2004