There's nothing quite as thrilling as receiving a letter from a fancy corporate law firm addressed to me as "Brian Dominick, Editor" -- it means I upset someone powerful.
And so we seem to have done with Lisa Croke's recent article on new allegations of abuse and torture throughout US-run prisons in Iraq, which we posted on September 23rd. The lawyers who wrote us the scolding letter (Steptoe and Johnson LLP -- you can't make this stuff up, folks) are upset that we have "cast aspersions" on the "character, prestige and standing" of CACI International -- Steptoe's client -- "within its field of business." They say our article "constitutes defamation," and they point out that it does so "per se" (which means they couldn't write a whole letter without using an impressive legal term).
Well, we showed the letter to our industry-renowned legal department. The team of high-priced lawyers there (who work on Saturdays just in case) said we should encourage CACI International to sue The NewStandard.
Evidently, the list of attorneys who would line up to defend us pro bono (we know some legal terms, too!) in a defamation case is longer than the list even a big military industrial complex partner like CACI could ever afford -- especially given that the suit would bring them untold negative attention and probably expand our readership multifold.
Now, as to the substance of CACI's letter, there might be something to address without posturing. CACI's claims about our "misrepresentation" of them aside, the letter constitutes the most direct response to anything raised by reporters that I am aware of.
Their website is chock-full of FAQ-type documents and press statements that contain responses to various accusations, but the company wouldn't speak to me when I contacted them for a response to a previous report, and they haven't given interviews to any journalists that I've seen. And, in fact, even the Army wouldn't talk to us about the scope of CACI's role in Iraq.
One part of the letter reads:
In fact, none of the reports issued [by the US government] to date states that any CACI employee is guilty of any criminal behavior.
I guess CACI's lawyers haven't read the Taguba report, which says:
Mr. Steven Stephanowicz [sic], Contract US Civilian Interrogator, CACI, 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, be given an Official Reprimand to be placed in his employment file, termination of employment, and generation of a derogatory report to revoke his security clearance for the following acts which have been previously referred to in the aforementioned findings:
- Made a false statement to the investigation team regarding the locations of his interrogations, the activities during his interrogations, and his knowledge of abuses.
- Allowed and/or instructed MPs, who were not trained in interrogation techniques, to facilitate interrogations by "setting conditions" which were neither authorized and in accordance with applicable regulations/policy. He clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse.
You'll recall that the "setting conditions" accusations formed some of the clearest indication of the systemic nature of torture uncovered at Abu Ghraib -- at least, that is, until lawyer Shereef Akeel and his colleagues at the Center for Constitutional Rights began discovering evidence that unethical interrogation tactics and other abuses are remarkably consistent throughout US-run facilities all over Iraq.
For good measure, that same report also lists Mr. Stefanowicz among people who "were either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib."
And CACI itself has admitted:
Steven Stefanowicz is a CACI employee.
Our "lawyers" are presently trying to figure out where the confusion at Steptoe & Johnson stems from.
In addition, CACI writes to me:
The public record is devoid of any factual information supporting the conclusion that CACI personnel have been assigned to work at locations other than Abu Ghraib, much less participated in abuses at such locations.
Since we couldn't get CACI or the Army to tell us whether CACI employees have been assigned as interrogators at other facilities, we didn't report whether they were or were not. But we do not want to know about evidence in the public record, we want to know, point blank: Has any employee of CACI International operated as interrogators or assistant interrogators at any other facilities in Iraq?
In any case, if you read the relevant portions of our article, you'll see that we were more than responsible when discussing CACI and Titan (the other firm accused of abuses). We took all the usual journalistic precautions against libel, like calling the claims against CACI/Titan "allegations" and making it clear that evidence uncovered so far by Akeel and his colleagues does not yet indicate any specific employees at either corporation. In fact, here's the full snippet from the article:
Akeel had teamed up with attorneys in Philadelphia and New York to work with the Center for Constitutional Rights in bringing a lawsuit against private security firms Titan Corp and CACI International. The class action suit accuses the US firms of violating the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) by engaging in illegal abuse and torture of detainees with the goal of securing lucrative government contracts.
In fact, despite a recent military report recommending criminal charges be filed against at least two Titan employees contracted as translators at Abu Ghraib prison, the US Army has awarded a six month "bridging contract" to the San Diego-based security firm to continue providing translators and interpreters after its current contract ends this month. The Associated Press reports that the new contract could bring Titan as much as $400 million.
Both Titan and CACI have repeatedly denied allegations that their personnel have been involved in any illegal activity or wrongdoing. They have said the lawsuit against them is unfounded and have stood by specific employees accused of abuses in Iraq.
Akeel says the discovery of gross mistreatment at over two dozen prisons controlled by the US military is "another piece of the puzzle," and could strengthen the legal teamâ€™s case. Pieces have been put into place with the declassified sections of three military reports investigating prison abuse in Iraq. Though the findings have been limited to activities at Abu Ghraib, Akeel says they still provide evidence of private contractors at both firms engaging in crimes against former detainees.
The legal teamâ€™s next move is to fit former detaineesâ€™ descriptions of assailants and prison release papers with names and photographs of Titan and CACI employees contracted to the prisons. It is not yet known if Titan or CACI workers were contracted to the majority of the prisons where detainees allege abuse took place.
We stand by that reporting 100 percent, and unfortunately for the good people at CACI and the Steptoe & Johnson law firm, there's no way they can build a case against us, since the law and the Constitution are squarely and unambiguously on our side as journalists reporting news of public relevance.