As a military contractor, San Diego-based Titan Corp. provides linguistic services to assist American soldiers in Iraq. Because Titan employees only translate and don't actually engage in combat, company executives must have been surprised last week to find themselves dodging bullets.
The controversy started after Titan was named in the explosive report by Gen. Antonio Taguba-which chronicles the "sadistic, blatant and wonton criminal abuses" of Iraqi prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison by American military personnel and contractors-that was obtained by The New Yorker magazine.
Titan is one of two contractors named in Taguba's report. The other is CACI International, a Virginia-based company that provides civilian interrogators to the military. The report specifically named three Titan employees, John Israel, Adel Nakhla and Torin Nelson. Nakhla was listed as both a suspect and witness while Israel (who was identified in the report as both a Titan and CACI employee on separate references) and Nelson were labeled witnesses.
Nakhla, who witnessed at least one instance of prisoner abuse, was quoted in the report. Army personnel, he said, made detainees "do strange exercises by sliding on their stomach, jump up and down, throw water on them... [and asked them if] they like to make love to guys, then they handcuffed their hands together and their legs with shackles and started to stack them on top of each other by insuring that the bottom guys penis will touch the guy on top's butt."
But Titan officials have balked at the assertion that employees were involved in the alleged abuse, and have not confirmed all three men's status as employees. One Titan official told the Washington Post that Israel worked for another independent contractor but refused to identify his employer.
"To my knowledge there is no allegations against Titan or any of its employees of wrongdoing," said Ralph Williams, a Titan spokesman, in an interview with CityBeat. "We have not heard a word from the government of any sort of allegations against any employee.... as it is right now there is nothing there and we continue to provide linguistic services to the government at their specific assignment."
While the company may not have heard from Uncle Sam, its officials are getting plenty of feedback from sources closer to home.
Roughly 50 local activists gathered on the sidewalk outside Titan's La Jolla headquarters last Thursday to protest the maltreatment of Iraqi prisoners and demand that Titan officials provide a full account of their company's involvement at Abu Ghraib.
Many of the protestors carried signs, some of them color enlargements of the now-famous photos from the prison. One showing two captives, naked except for hoods, sitting on the heads of two other naked men, was pasted below a hand lettered sign reading "Titan Corp what did you know and when did you know it?" Another featured a photo of seven naked Iraqi prisoners forced to pile onto each other in a haphazard human pyramid below the statement "$87 billion for this? Saddam would be proud."
Martin Eder, an organizer with Activist San Diego, which co-sponsored the demonstration and press conference with the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice, said that although Titan may only be one player in the scandal, it is still responsible for the abuse of prisoners.
"We don't believe that you could be in an Iraqi prison and not know about the kind of abuses that have gone on there," he said. "We are here today in front of Titan Corporation not because we think Titan is to blame for all of what has happened, but because they are part of a circle of silence that has allowed this kind of abuse to fester. Because we believe there is a cover-up not only amongst private contractors and the military and intelligence services, but the Bush administration as well."
To illustrate his point, Eder pointed to a copy of a widely circulated photo depicting a hooded figure draped in a black cloth balancing atop a cardboard box. The man's arms are outstretched and wires protrude from his fingers. If he falls off of the box, he gets electrocuted, Eder said.
"Somebody was translating for this person. Clearly they had to tell [him] what the scenario was so that he understood," he said. "Who translated, and are they not culpable?
"Was this in fact one of Titan's employees?" Eder asked.
Titan employees gathered on balconies overlooking the sidewalk and in the nearby parking lot to listen to the press conference and read the signs. Some took pictures, others pointed and laughed.
Gene Ray, president and CEO of Titan, offered a more formal response, issuing a statement the following day to set the record straight. "On behalf of Titan and all of our more than 12,000 employees, I want to express our distress and dismay over the horrific events at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.... Titan is committed to full cooperation with government investigations into these matters. Should evidence arise of unethical or illegal behavior, we will take appropriate action."
But for many of the protestors, the evidence is at hand and the time had already passed for Titan to act responsibly.
"I don't care if you are just translating," said Carol Jankhow of the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice. "If you were there and you saw it, if you observed it and you didn't report it, you are guilty. You are culpable and the people that sent you there-your bosses-are culpable, too.... They need to be accountable from the highest to the lowest levels."
But holding Titan accountable may prove a difficult task. Experts say that the procedures for prosecuting subcontractors remain murky.
However, Marjorie Cohn, a professor of law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and a protestor who spoke at the press conference, said that international laws established by the Geneva Convention should apply to Titan and its employees. She also said that Titan could face charges under American law.
"Under our constitutional jurisprudence, the Supreme Court has said that corporations are persons... so there very well could be criminal and civil liability," she said. "Criminal charges could be brought against Titan Corporation and other corporations who are found responsible for the acts of their employees, including interrogators and interpreters and translators, if they are implicated in the torture or inhuman treatment of the Iraqi people."
Titan has dealt with controversy in the past. In March, the Pentagon cited Titan for over billing the government for services provided in Iraq. The company is also currently under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Department of Justice has initiated a criminal inquiry into the alleged bribing of several foreign officials. According to a March 5 Titan statement, the allegations "if true, raise questions concerning whether there has been a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act."Those investigations have delayed the proposed merger of Lockheed Martin and Titan, which was scheduled to be voted on by Titan stockholders during an April meeting. A new meeting will be held before June 25 if the Department of Justice clears Titan or the company has entered into a plea agreement.