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Interior Dept. halts Iraq interrogator contracts

The Interior Department is investigating the awarding of an Army contract for civilian interrogators in Iraq and has blocked the Army from hiring new civilian interrogators during the investigation.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Interior Department has blocked the Army from hiring new civilian interrogators in Iraq while it investigates whether a past contract was awarded properly, a department spokesman said Tuesday.

At least one civilian interrogator working under that contract has been accused of taking part in abusing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.

The Army hired interrogators from CACI International Inc. starting last August through a “blanket purchase agreement” overseen by the Interior Department. That agreement was to provide information technology services, said Interior spokesman Frank Quimby.

Interior’s inspector general is investigating whether it was proper to hire interrogators under an information technology contract, Quimby told reporters in a conference call Tuesday. He said the Interior Department has blocked the Army from ordering any new services under that contract, although CACI workers already in Iraq can continue serving at least until the contract expires in August.

The Army told Interior officials last week it was satisfied with CACI’s performance of the contract, Quimby said.

‘In the interest of prudence’
But the Interior official responsible for the contract decided not to approve any more requests for interrogators under that contract “in the interest of prudence,” Quimby said.

CACI spokeswoman Jody Brown did not return telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment Tuesday.

Uncertainty over who was responsible for oversight of the interrogation contracts added to the confusion surrounding the prison abuse case. In a report on the abuse, Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba quoted military prison guards as saying that military intelligence officers and contractors encouraged abuses, including stripping prisoners naked and handcuffing them in painful positions.

The Army turned over the management of some of its military intelligence contracts to the Interior Department in 2001. Although Interior is ultimately responsible for managing the contract, Army officials were responsible for day-to-day oversight, including investigation of violations by contract workers, Quimby said.

Shopping for services
Under a blanket purchase agreement, a company agrees to provide a set menu of goods or services to federal agencies under set guidelines. Agencies may then choose from a list of companies providing services or goods they need and buy them with a “delivery order.”

Quimby said Army officials in Baghdad asked in August to hire interrogators from CACI, which last year bought Premier Technology Group, the holder of the blanket agreement and employer of contract interrogators.

Quimby said the Interior official who approved the deal believed it was proper because the interrogators need to use information technology such as computer databases to compile and send information to military commanders.

“The contracting officer was convinced, according to his own guidelines, that this could be provided under the delivery order,” Quimby said.

The Army paid CACI more than $3.3 million through May 17 on two purchase orders involving interrogators at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq, Quimby said. Those two purchase orders authorize spending of up to $41.7 million, Quimby said.

Justice Dept. starts parallel inquiry
The Justice Department announced last week it has launched a criminal investigation of a private contractor in Iraq at the Pentagon’s request. Quimby said he could not say if the target of that investigation worked for CACI.

Interpreters supplied by Titan Corp. also worked at Abu Ghraib under a separate contract with the Army Intelligence and Security Command. Taguba’s report named one interpreter as a suspect and several others as witnesses to abuse.

The CACI interrogator named in the Taguba report, Steven Stefanowicz, has hired a lawyer from Philadelphia and left Iraq. The lawyer, Henry Hockeimer Jr., said Stefanowicz did nothing wrong and has not been notified he is under any investigation.

Titan has fired Adel L. Nakhla, an interpreter Taguba named as a suspect. Nakhla’s lawyer, Francis Q. Hoang of Washington, did not return repeated telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment.