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Titan's Translators in Trouble

by Pratap ChatterjeeSpecial to CorpWatch
May 7th, 2004

Titan corporation of San Diego, California, one of the two companies accused of complicity in the prison abuse scandal in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, is currently facing numerous federal investigations for work done in Iraq and around the world.

The 23-year old company, which has about 12,000 employees and revenues of about $2 billion a year, sells information and communication services to military and spy agencies.

Titan manages to score those federal contracts despite the company's history of running afoul of the law. Just two months ago, the Army has suspended 10% of Titan's payment for current work in Iraq pending an audit of employment practices while the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is investigating bribery charges against the company in five countries.

More on Titan and CACI

Internal Army Report by Major General Antonio Taguba (pdf)

Private Contractors and Torture at Abu Ghraib, Iraq by A.C. Thompson and Pratap Chatterjee

Gained in Translation...

Titan earned $112.1 million dollars for translation services to the U.S. military around the world last year. Starting in 1999 the company has aggressively recruited translators in Arabic, Aramaic, Dari, Farsi, Georgian, Kurdish, Pashto, Tajik, Ughyur, Urdu and Uzbek by faxing community groups and visiting job fairs and language clubs. A toll-free number (1-800-899-6200) and email addresses for Titan employees Basir Kakar and Chiman Zebari have appeared on numerous discussion groups.

For example the ad posted to Afghan groups read: "This unique employment opportunity affords you the chance to simultaneously assist Afghanistan and the United States in forging a new and promising future for the Afghan people and to bolster global security....As a Titan Systems Corporation contractor linguist, you will be called upon to support critical missions such as interpreting during interviews, translating key documents of interest, and providing the U.S. Government with an understanding of the culture that only a native can provide."

Titan and Irradiated Foods

In the past Titan had a subsidiary called SureBeam that sold electron beam technology for irradiating food, a spin-off of its research work under the "Star Wars" missile program designed to neutralize threats from the Soviet Union.

SureBeam, described this process as "electronic pasteurization" on its web site and in press releases. The technology was used widely by companies like Anchor, Cargill, Del Monte, Kraft and Tyson to destroy E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria and other food-borne pathogens as well as treat potentially anthrax-infected mail.

Public Citizen activists complained to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that this description was misleading, because irradiation involves exposing foods to ionizing radiation in order to kill pathogens while pasteurization kills pathogens by exposing them to heat.

Irradiation technology is also believed to have dangerous side-effects such as forming toxic chemicals, destroying vitamins, breaking down protein and ruining flavor.

The Public Citizen campaign resulted in a government survey of consumers that said unanimously that companies should not be permitted to label irradiated foods "electronically pasteurized" or "cold pasteurized." These phrases were called "sneaky," "misleading," "deceitful," "dishonest" and "a fake."

In response USDA deputy administrator Philip Derfler wrote to Public Citizen, saying that "neither SureBeam nor any other firm has yet presented (the USDA) with labeling bearing the term 'pasteurized' that was not viewed as misleading."

In a later filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission just before SureBeam was sold, company executives said that the company was doing badly because food irradiation "is opposed by several organized and vocal consumer groups who claim that irradiated food products are unsafe for consumption....We risk not being able to overcome these fears through our educational efforts."

"To qualify as a Titan Systems linguist you must be a U.S. citizen, pass a language test, and be subject to a U.S. government background investigation....Some work environments and conditions are harsh, but the rewards are great. If you or someone you know is interested in a meaningful job that offers great pay, benefits and the chance to make a positive impact in the war on terrorism, please contact us," reads the notice. The jobs require a willingness to travel on short notice and offer a salary of as much as $108,000 a year, most of that tax-free.

A couple of months before the invasion of Iraq, similar notices were faxed and mailed to Kurdish community organizations in Nashville, Dallas and San Diego -- the three cities in the United States with the largest Kurdish populations.

In December 2002, the Associated Press quoted two brothers in Nashville -- Diyar Mustafa, an apartment maintenance worker and his brother, Idris, a school district custodian -- who traveled to Washington for the weeklong job interview.

Another Iraqi-American man who got a job with Titan was Emad Mikha, a Chaldean from Basra. Until Mikha joined Titan in November 2003 to work as a civilian translator for the Army based in Baqubah, Iraq, he managed the meat department at a supermarket in Pontiac, Michigan. Mikha was killed in the first week of April, which saw the biggest anti-occupation uprisings across the country including Baqubah.

Like many other contractors in Iraq, Titan workers often carry weapons, technically illegal under United States military law, and travel with the troops, making them easy targets for the underground resistance who view them as traitors.

Ironically Titan's translators have also been accused of working for the other side. Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, a taxi driver from Boston, was one of the 70 Titan translators hired to aid interrogations in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He was arrested in September 2003 after returning from his native Egypt with what authorities claimed were classified information from the Cuban base.

Mehalba had previously failed Army interrogation school in Fort Huachuca, Arizona and received a medical discharge from the Army in May 2001. A girlfriend he met there was dishonorably discharged after allegedly being caught with a stolen laptop containing classified information.

Mehalba said he did not know how the information, some of it marked secret, got on the disc, according to the affidavit. He told the FBI interrogators that he got the CD from an uncle had worked in military intelligence in Egypt but had long since retired.

...Lost in Accounting

In March 2004 the Pentagon's Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) discovered "deficiencies in the labor accounting controls of Titan in Iraq prompting them to penalize the company. William Reed, DCAA director, said in an interview. "In layman's language it basically says 'You submit a bill to us and we are only going to pay 90% of it until you fix these labor accounting deficiencies.'"

DCAA said Titan had inadequate systems for documenting its billing of the Pentagon for labor costs and for tracking the work of non-American consultants. The agency will withhold as much as $4.9 million in payments until the company fixes accounting deficiencies uncovered by the audit.

"Titan has already taken the corrective actions to comply with the government's concerns. We are continuing to work with the government as they review our process related to this difficult operational environment in Iraq," Titan spokesman Wil Williams told reporters in an e-mailed statement.

DCAA is also monitoring Halliburton's subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root for alleged over-billing of the government for oil transportation and food services in Iraq.

Bribery Investigation

Titan is also currently being investigated for bribing officials in Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe, according to CorpWatch sources. The Wall Street Journal has also suggested that the company is being investigated in Bangladesh and the Philippines.

The criminal investigation was triggered when Lockheed Martin, a Bethesda, Maryland, based military contractor, made an offer to buy the company for $1.8 billion. Because Lockheed is the biggest contractor to the Pentagon, the government performed a routine anti-monopoly check which uncovered the bribery scandals.

This in turn led the Justice Department and the SEC to begin separate investigations into "allegations relating to certain payments and provisions of items of value to foreign officials, which, if true, raise questions as to whether Titan has violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act," Titan Chief Executive Officer Gene Ray wrote in a March 8 letter to customers.

"These are allegations; not evidence of wrongdoing," Williams told reporters. But Lockheed is no angel in these matters - in 1995 the company pleaded guilty and paid a $24.8 million fine for conspiring to bribe an Egyptian politician for help in securing a contract for three C-130H cargo jets.

Most of the contracts appear to be for military radio systems, according to Wall Street Journal sources. Sam Dailey, a marketing manager at Datron World Communications, the Titan unit that makes military-radio systems, has been interviewed about payments to such representatives as part of the internal inquiry and one of his associates was suspended without pay as a result of the investigation.

Military Hardware...

Titan sells similar communication hardware systems to the U.S. military. It is currently a part of a six company $3 billion contract to provide radios, signal repeaters and related communications equipment to agencies like the Secret Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to help them communicate with each other through a common standard called Project 25.

Titan also builds a modified Humvee called the Prophet that allows the military to locate and target people in the surrounding area that are using electronic communication ranging from unencrypted push-to-talk radios to cell phones. The vehicle has a collapsible seven meter antenna mast that can go up or down in 90 seconds, a special seat for a translator, and was first tested in Afghanistan. Newer versions allow multiple vehicles to act in a relay and attack targets.

In addition the company has a $54.8 million to provide support to the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) spy planes as well as an $18 million contract to design war games for the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet. Under the latter contract, Titan designs over 150 wargames each year to support a training curricula and pre-deployment work-up training for the ships, submarines, squadrons and Marines.

...and Mental Health?

Shane Harris, technology editor of Government Executive magazine in Washington DC, told CorpWatch that Titan has also been heavily criticized for a contract to provide mental health services to military service members, because of apparent conflicts of interest. In addition Titan has no prior experience in the field, Harris said.

In August 2003, the General Services Administration, on behalf of the Defense Department, chose Titan and a company called Ceridian to provide Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services for the military as part of the supplemental appropriations for ongoing operations in Iraq.

"A draft copy of the request for proposals for this work, detailing the specific requirements contractors must meet, appears to have been at least partially written by a Ceridian employee. The file properties of the Microsoft Word electronic document, obtained by Government Executive, list as the author a person whose name matches that of a senior official in Ceridian's public sector division," Harris wrote recently in the magazine.

"Other details in the electronic document indicate it was sent via e-mail to at least one other Ceridian employee with a subject line stating it was a draft request for proposals. But the document begins with a formal heading indicating it is being issued by GSA's Federal Technology Service (FTS), a fee-for-service unit that runs information technology procurements on behalf of other agencies. The document also features an order numbering system routinely used by GSA when putting work up for bid."

Pratap Chatterjee is Program Director/ Managing Editor of CorpWatch.