Can Obama Avoid Another Abu Ghraib?

When I directed Iraq for Sale, it became appallingly evident that private contractors like CACI and Titan played a critical role in the torture and abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. Much like Blackwater, KBR, and others, these war profiteers were never held accountable for their unconscionable crimes. Instead, they were rewarded with hundreds of millions in new contracts. The Obama administration has already taken some laudable steps to prevent another Abu Ghraib: ordering the CIA to end enhanced interrogation techniques and follow a more lawful code of conduct; and ordering the Justice Department to investigate the use of torture. However, the president's recent objection to a provision in the 2010 defense funding bill that would make interrogation an "inherently governmental function" is a huge step backwards.

This provision, backed by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), states "the interrogation of enemy prisoners of war, civilian internees, retained persons, other detainees, terrorists, and criminals when captured, transferred, confined, or detained during or in the aftermath of hostilities is an inherently governmental function and cannot be transferred to contractor personnel." In other words, our government would no longer be able to hand off interrogation duties (and the lavish contracts that come with them) to mercenary firms out to profit from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What's more, if interrogators are caught violating the law and abusing detainees, our government would have the power to hold those interrogators accountable.

According to the Washington Post, both the White House and the Pentagon have a litany of excuses for opposing this provision. They don't want US forces to be "limited" in conducting lawful interrogations, but the whole point of the provision is to set limitations and create transparency for interrogation practices. And either the US military should be training new interrogators themselves, as a senior Senate aide has suggested, or, lacking enough soldiers to accomplish this goal, perhaps our government should seek diplomatic alternatives to military escalation in Afghanistan.

Last month, Jeremy Scahill reported that the use of "private security contractors" has shot up 23 percent in Iraq and 29 percent in Afghanistan during the second quarter of 2009. Scahill estimated that there are over 242,000 contractors working on these two wars, and that contractors comprise a whopping 50 percent of our total forces in the region.

Our morals mean nothing if we do not act on them. Our tax dollars are funding this abuse and we must not be complacent. Call your senators today (202-224-3121) and tell them contractors have no place in interrogations, and you expect them to support Senator Levin's government-only interrogation provision. Once you have done that, call the White House (202-456-1414) and leave a message for President Obama, urging him to stand with you to end prisoner abuse.