`Outsourcing torture' decried


WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government's use of private contractors to conduct interrogations in Iraq and to transport suspected terrorists creates "rule-free zones" and allows abuses to go unpunished, Amnesty International charged yesterday.

There are 20 known cases of civilian contractors suspected of committing criminal acts while handling detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, but only one has been prosecuted thus far, said Larry Cox, Amnesty's U.S. executive director.

"Amnesty International is not opposed to the use of private contractors," Cox said at a news conference to release the group's annual report on human rights. "But the reliance of the United States government on private military contractors has helped create virtually rule-free zones sanctioned with the American flag and firepower."

The human rights organization said its research also showed at least 25 American companies appear to have been hired by the U.S. government to transport suspected terrorists to countries known for human rights violations, a practice that can make them "complicit in the U.S. government's practice of outsourcing torture."

The CIA has come under intense international criticism for the practice of "extraordinary rendition," in which it captures terrorism suspects in one country and moves them to another for interrogation and detention. Less attention has been paid, however, to private companies whose airplanes and other transportation services have been used in the CIA's program.

Private military contractors based in the United States and other countries have been a controversial presence in Iraq. Ever since four employees of North Carolina-based Blackwater USA were killed and their corpses hung from a bridge in Fallujah in 2004, the role of private security workers has come under greater scrutiny.

An estimated 25,000 private security workers are employed in Iraq, at a cost of nearly $50 billion since the start of the war. Estimates based on government reports indicate more than 200 have been killed.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has repeatedly defended the Pentagon's use of private contractors, saying it is an effective way to free up military personnel and other government employees working in combat zones.

In December, Rumsfeld acknowledged such contractors are not covered by military law but argued that Iraqi law and U.S. civilian laws govern the behavior of Americans working in Iraq.

President Bush was asked about the legal status of contractors in Iraq at a town-hall session last month. He said he delegated such policy decisions to the Pentagon.

"I don't mean to be dodging the question, although it's kind of convenient in this case," Bush joked after a talk to graduate students in Washington. "I'm going to call the secretary [Rumsfeld] and say you brought up a very valid question, and what are we doing about it?"

In January, the Justice Department acknowledged that it was probing 11 allegations of detainee abuse by civilians from the Pentagon and by nine civilians from "another agency," believed to be the CIA.

Amnesty officials said that despite allegations of abuses, there are signs the industry is beginning to establish self-regulating guidelines that could help prevent such problems in the future.

Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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