Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Torture and Accountability
distributed 5/7/04 - ©2004

A connection between torture in Iraqi prisons and the management of public lands in the United States? Unfortunately, that linkage is not far-fetched. The same practice that makes it difficult to prosecute abusive interrogators is also threatening accountability in the stewardship of the country's parks and forests.

Vivid and disturbing photos made public in the last week have created an international crisis. Pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq -- an institution under US control -- have documented terrible abuses in the treatment of detainees. A report from the Red Cross says that the US mistreatment of prisoners was "tantamount to torture."

The revelations have created a political mess in the US, and the photos are fueling intense reactions in the Middle East and around the world.

A week into the scandal, the words, "I'm sorry" are finally being spoken by President Bush and key people in the military chain of command. Several soldiers who were involved are facing discipline. Investigations are continuing at the Iraqi prison, and in many other settings. It is likely that many more people will be punished.

While most of those who have been implicated are subject to the authority of the military command, some others who have been involved are not. Civilian contractors have been working as prison guards, security agents and military interrogators. The Wall Street Journal, for example, speaks carefully of reports of mistreatment "carried out by U.S. military and civilian intelligence personnel seeking information."

The civilian personnel work for companies that are under contract to the US government, but they are not subject to the military's disciplinary rules and procedures. This week, NPR's Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr spoke of the difficulties in investigating -- let alone prosecuting -- the civilian contractors.

Before this scandal broke into the headlines, Peter Singer, of the Brookings Institution, wrote that "the legal and regulatory issues surrounding the new privatized military industry are by no means clear." Schorr quoted Singer as saying, "We have pushed the envelope of military outsourcing past the point of what anyone contemplated."

In this outsourced war, civilians are employed by the US government to do sensitive and controversial jobs. In the eyes of the world, those contract employees represent this nation, but they are essentially outside of our government's control. These civilians contractors stand outside of international law, and outside of the standard lines of military accountability.

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The situation in Iraq shows the need for clear accountability when critical jobs are privatized. That need is not unique to the military. Many other critical government jobs are being outsourced.

Under a federal program called "competitive sourcing," as many as one fourth of all jobs in the US Forest Service could be privatized. The Los Angeles Times reported that about 70% of the full-time jobs in the National Park Service would be candidates for outsourcing. The Park Service jobs that could be privatized include not only operations and maintenance staff, but also biologists, archeologists and park rangers.

Just as we're seeing so vividly in the military realm, when a government job is privatized, the flow of information and accountability changes.

Data and procedures used by a private company to do public business can be claimed as "proprietary" and not open to public inspection. That's a problem when the contractor is doing environmental impact statements for a national park, or sifting through the public comments on a proposed federal regulation. (The Forest Service "Content Analysis Team" has already been outsourced; the national park EIS work may be privatized.)

When a private company -- instead of a public agency -- is interpreting data, shaping policy, and arranging other contract services, there's a much higher likelihood of conflicts of interest. And when there's diminished information and reduced accountability related to those contract services, the public good is at increased risk.

Contracting out information and policy services to a diverse pool of businesses presents another risk. As one wildlife biologist commented, "I know many ethical contractors, but you can shop around for one to tell you what you want to hear."

Mark Matthews, a columnist for "Writers on the Range" news service, wrote: "Is President Bush's plan to save money an ingenious scheme to circumvent environmental safeguards and turn the nation's public lands into industrial zones? It may not be the major thrust of the privatization movement, but it would be surprising if someone in the administration hadn't pointed out the extra benefits to the president."

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The news from Iraq reveals that there are different levels of outsourcing. Meal service is categorically different from military interrogation. So, too, in the management of public lands, there's a difference between cleaning campgrounds and doing the research that defines broad environmental policy. Not all jobs should be candidates for outsourcing.

Whether in Iraqi prisons or biological labs, it is important that there be direct accountability for the most sensitive and controversial government services. It is a matter of justice in both cases.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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