FORT HOOD, Texas - In the annals of whodunits, the mystery surrounding Dan Johnson has elicited few proper queries. Even as his name popped up again and again during former Abu Ghraib prison guard Charles Graner's court-martial trial this month, few seized on the extraordinary-if incomplete-testimony about his role in prison abuse.
The role of civilian contractors in encouraging prisoner abuse pales compared to the tales of Pvt. Graner's debased escapades as a night-shift prison guard in Iraq, or his sexual exploits with Pvt. Lynndie England, whose trial-one of three remaining after Pvt. Graner received a 10-year prison sentence-is set to begin next. But an overreliance on contractors is one of the plainer lessons of the scandals that began last spring, and by ignoring that lesson lawmakers and pundits are making it harder for the military to succeed against terrorists in Iraq.
Testimony regarding Mr. Johnson's actions at Abu Ghraib show how a handful of civilian contractors ran amok inside American detention centers. Former Sergeant Ivan Frederick testified that Mr. Johnson encouraged the prison guards to restrict the breathing of prisoners and otherwise rough them up, and admitted he assisted Mr. Johnson with an interrogation of an Iraqi prison guard accused of sneaking a gun to a detainee. "I don't give a [expletive] what you do, just don't kill him," Mr. Johnson allegedly said. Sgt. Frederick said that Mr. Johnson wanted him and Pvt. Graner to inflict further pain and encouraged abuse. (Sgt. Frederick pled guilty to five charges in connection with Abu Ghraib abuse, and was sentenced late last year to eight years in prison, forfeiture of pay, and a dishonorable discharge.)
The testimony is similar to allegations against a contractor named "Civilian 11" in the Fay Report, one of many internal investigations outlining abuses at Abu Ghraib. An employee of government contractor CACI International, Civilian 11 was present when Sgt. Frederick put his hands over the Iraqi's mouth and nose, cutting off breathing, according to the report.
With cases pending against up to perhaps a dozen civilian contractors over abuses and assault at Abu Ghraib and in Afghanistan, CACI Executive Vice President Jody Brown said the security firm would not comment on Mr. Johnson's role. Yet CACI continues to advertise on its website a job opening for an interrogator to be based in Baghdad.
This, say critics, is an underreported aspect of the scandal. Leaving war zone interrogations to civilian contractors "just doesn't work," said Milton Copulos, a former Army intelligence officer and current president of the National Defense Council Foundation. Too often, he said, it can lead to freelance methods that are counterproductive.
Mr. Copulos says the military's history of outsourcing all sorts of jobs is longer than many might expect, including "a long history in the intelligence community to use contractors." All branches of the armed services have outsourced in Iraq translation and analysis services, software specialists, engineering support, and other services. The Army doesn't even peel its own potatoes anymore: Halliburton is in charge of food services.
The Army also has hired civilians as boots on the ground. Many have acted as guards over Iraq's infrastructure, and have been called to engage in gunfights with insurgents. Three were killed in Fallujah last year, and one British contractor was killed guarding an electrical power grid. With fewer troops in the armed services and a focus on efficiency, civilian contractors are a necessary part of military missions, says Mr. Copulos. But soldiers taking orders from civilians like Dan Johnson? "That absolutely shouldn't happen."
The military is still relying heavily on contractors, but following the Abu Ghraib media firestorm last May, many things have changed. "There's a vetting process for those involved in interrogations," said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson with the Army's detainee operations in Iraq. "They now all have military experience and training in the interrogation process."
Other changes are also evident at Abu Ghraib. Operations of what Army officials called the "Hard Site"-where the abuses took place-have been turned over to the Iraqi government. The American detainee camps outside the prison building were razed and replaced by more organized, better lit, and what Lt. Col. Johnson calls "more humane" camps. He says new, classified guidelines are also in place for interrogations.
None of this, however, has quieted lawmakers and other administration critics. Many insist on linking overall interrogation policy to the prison abuse even when testimony from Pvt. Graner's trial demonstrated that abuses rarely occurred in the process of interrogating prisoners. Prison guards and others testified at Fort Hood that the well-publicized victims of abuse-naked prisoners forced to make a human pyramid-weren't in prison for battling U.S. troops; they were in nearly every case a collection of burglars, rapists, and thieves held in temporary custody.
Critics continue to claim that Abu Ghraib abuses demand an overhaul of Army interrogation policies and a chain-of-command review. Most recently grilling attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales, Senate critics of the administration have sought to blur the line between the scandalous actions of night-shift prison guards in Iraq and the administration's attitudes toward torture and the Geneva Convention. "So there's a certain kind of sense by many of us here that the administration-and you're the point person on the administration-has not been forthcoming on the whole issues of torture, which not just were committed at Abu Ghraib but is happening today, today," charged Sen. Ted Kennedy in questioning Mr. Gonzales.
He and others are sending a message as dangerous as it is wrong, argues former defense secretary James Schlesinger. As testimony from current courts-martial bears out, lax oversight created an environment that stoked a few soldiers' sadistic tendencies.
In the climate of ongoing hyper-handwringing, U.S. interrogators at the front lines are forced to soften their approach to interrogation, with serious effects. "A chilling effect on interrogation means that we take in less intelligence; that intelligence may come in belatedly, too late to take necessary corrective actions," the former Nixon, Ford, and Carter Cabinet secretary said. The effect, he told Senate investigators in September, has already been made clear: "The Marines, for example, up in Fallujah and Anbar no longer move on the basis of intelligence unless that intelligence can be confirmed. And as a result they are missing opportunities to deal with some of the insurgents."
If the widespread publicity of the Abu Ghraib photos sparked the conversation, Mr. Schlesinger says the resulting dialogue was based on false pretenses. "The photographs are quite misleading," he told a Senate panel. "In contrast to the inferences that some initially drew, those photographs have nothing to do with interrogation policy. None of the detainees abused in the photographs were targets of intelligence or of interrogation to gain intelligence."
But the uproar has netted real results. And Army officials complain that interrogation policies have grown so weak that detainees know how to beat the system: "Interrogators and detainees both know what the limits are," said a senior Army officer recently at an off-the-record briefing at the Pentagon. "They go through and practice it. They know that if the United States captures them, they will get a medical exam. They'll get their teeth fixed. They will get essentially a free physical and they will be released if they don't talk after a certain amount of time."