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“Contract Meals Disaster" for Iraqi Prisoners

by David PhinneySpecial to CorpWatch
December 9th, 2004

Rotten food crawling with bugs, traces of rats and dirt. Rancid meats and spoiled food resulting in diarrhea and food poisoning.

This is what detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad were regularly given to eat by a private contractor in late 2003 and early 2004, causing anger to swell to a furious boil between the U.S. military guards and the prisoners.

Foul as the food was, there never was enough. The private contractor, run by an American civilian who was subsequently shot dead in his Baghdad driveway, routinely fell short by hundreds of meals for Abu Ghraib's surging prison population. When the food did arrive, it was often late and frequently contaminated.

So went another sad chapter in the story of the Abu Ghraib prison, where U.S. military personnel and private contractors would make headlines and ignite international outrage over allegations of torture and psychological abuse in May of this year.

Captured in now infamous photographs portraying naked, hooded prisoners and smiling guards, the behavior is believed to be one of the most damning acts toward Iraqi civilians by coalition forces. Other acts of violence toward the prisoners include physical abuse and still unproven allegations of rape and murder.

The inmates were a mix of petty and hardened Iraqi criminals, suspected members of the resistance, and thousands of innocent bystanders hauled out of their homes in midnight raids or off the streets of Baghdad. Many say that they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but were held without charges by coalition forces for months before being released.

Prison by Contract

Unable to run the prison themselves, the U.S. military hired two large and well-known military contractors: California-based Titan supplied translators and Virginia-based CACI provided private interrogators.

In addition, the Army hired a small, virtually unknown contractor from Qatar, to provide food to the inmates, a service that never met its expectations.

A shocked Army Major, David Dinenna of the 320 Military Police Battalion, was one of the first to recognize the food problem. In a string of frantic e-mails to commanders during October and November of 2003, he called for assistance from his chain of command while working at the prison.

"Contract meals Disaster," he called it in an October 27 e-mail last year. "That is the best way to describe this issue … As each day goes by, the tension within the prisoner populations increases," he continued. "For the past two days prisoners have been vomiting after they eat."

The food was largely to blame for a November 24, 2003 prison riots in which Army guards shot four detainees after the prisoners failed to comply with commands to stop and disburse. A subsequent Pentagon investigation found that prisoners were not attempting a "mass" escape as first thought.

"All evidence indicates that the detainees were simply protesting the deplorable food and living conditions," the report concludes, which attributes the same reasons to a second prison riot on December 24, 2003.

Dinenna's messages and the riot investigations are buried in a collection of documents from a classified report by Army Major General Anthony Taguba that was leaked to the news media last spring together with the now-famous photos of naked prisoners.

Torin Nelson worked at the prison from November 2003 until February 2004 as a contract interrogator and aided in the Taguba investigation as a witness. He arrived at Abu Ghraib just days after the November riot.

He recalls being told by witnesses that none of the guards had been informed about the ongoing problems of bad food given to the prisoners. "Because the guards didn't understand Arabic, they didn't know the prisoners were complaining about the food," Nelson said. "They thought there was an uprising."

Panic Among the Guards

Frustration erupted into screaming and the protest ignited panic among the guards. Guns were pointed as more and more prisoners gathered in the outburst. The situation spun out of control. "The guards began firing non-lethal rounds at the prisoners, but ran out," Nelson said.  "Then, what I was told, they got permission to use lethal rounds."

While the U.S. Justice Department is now investigating six private contractors working as interrogators and translators for Titan and CACI for their roles at the prison, the food contractor remains forgotten and unnamed in the numerous Pentagon investigations that have been made public.

The contractor's name, American Service Center (ASC), based in Qatar, surfaced only after dozens of inquiries by CorpWatch over the past month to the Pentagon and military officials in Iraq.

The little known firm boasts on a simple company Web site that it offers services in the line of housing, furniture, vehicle rentals, telephone and internet services. Closely affiliated to a sister company, Advanced Internet Center, ASC claims to work with the U.S. Amy in Qatar and military contractors such as ITT and Dyncorp.

No mention is made of food services or Abu Ghraib. ASC's owner and chief executive, Ali Hadi, hesitates to talk about the contract or his company's performance at the prison and declined to respond to numerous e-mails with questions about his company.

"I have no information about the project," Hadi said during a phone call as he traveled to a Qatar airport en route to Dubai. "I am the owner of the company, not the operator," he said, adding that ASC subcontracted the food contract to a local Baghdad caterer.

Despite the finding of abysmal performance in providing food to prisoners, Hadi said ASC holds about "10 to 16" other contracts with the U.S. military, but he is unsure if they are "active."

American Contractor Ambushed and Murdered

Any knowledge about the Abu Ghraib contract died with ASC's contract manager, Ray Parks, Hadi claimed. A 56-year-old West Virginia native and former Vietnam veteran, Parks was ambushed and murdered in his Baghdad driveway by three gunmen wearing black robes on the morning of February 16. At the time, Parks was preparing to resign from his job as director of ASC.

Family members of Parks immediately demanded a thorough investigation of events surrounding his murder. Millie Mercer, sister to Parks, said that an Army investigator called the Parks family, but then disappeared. Very little came of the investigation, Mercer said. The investigator "was transferred" and ASC never helped her find the hundreds of thousands of dollars her brother may have had in savings. 

Parks had been a government contractor for many years outside the United States and went to Iraq because he "wanted to help people." He took a job with ASC in June 2003 to work in computers, she added. Mercer wants to hear nothing more about her brother's death. She prefers holding on to the good memories. "So many contractors are seeing much bigger horrors," she said.

But Major Dinenna appeared to believe that Parks was contributing to the horror of Abu Ghraib in his e-mails. "Parks is full of shit and not the least bit trustworthy," Dinenna wrote in a second Oct. 27, 2003, e-mail complaining about food for prisoners marked "URGENT URGENT URGENT."

Dinenna was responding to an earlier e-mail from an Army Major Green, who discounted Dinenna's complaints about the food service and other services ASC was relied upon to provide. "Who is making the charges that there is dirt, bugs or what ever in the food?" Green asked in his e-mails. "If it is the prisoners, I would take it with a grain of salt."

Dinenna fired back: "Our MPs (military police), Medics and field surgeon can easily identify bugs, rats, and dirt, and they did."

In addition to providing food services, ASC was also retained under an $8.2 million agreement to provide "life support" services to the U.S. military at the prison, Hadi said.

Poor Performance, Bad Planning

But there appears to have been confusion about that support contract among prison commanders. In his string of e-mails, Dinenna faults Parks for constant delays in providing proper lighting for the prison to help in security and prevent escapes.

Then after months of pushing Parks to provide the lighting, Dinenna discovered from a commanding officer that ASC was not responsible for the job.

The ASC contracts are only another example of poor contracting performance in Iraq and bad planning on the part of the Pentagon, said Peter Singer, an expert on the contracting for military services at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

"It just shows how the Pentagon has operated on an ad hoc basis," Singer said. "They were lacking in the needed planning, services and doctrine to manage large scale prisons. Everything was done at the last minute."

Nelson believes that the end result of last minute planning resulted in long term problems for the United States and its role in Iraq. "All the sickness and rotten food not only produced a safety and security concern for the guards and the prisoners," he said. "It was also a morale factor. Here were all these rich Americans coming to Iraq to fix things and they couldn't even afford to feed the prisoners."

A group of interrogators also complained to Colonel Thomas Pappas, the Army officer in charge of the prison, in November 2003, about the poor quality of the food served to the inmates by the food contractors. Nelson says that the sickness made it hard for the interrogators to extract information from detainees. "Anything that affects the morale of the locals affect our mission," he added.

In May 2004, the contract for food service at Abu Ghraib was taken away from ASC, according to Army spokesman Jeff Magruder in Baghdad who said the company apparently was responsible for most aspects of the prison, ranging from power generation to food services.

ASC "did a good job on the other stuff but obviously not so good a job on the food services side for both detainees and soldiers," Magruder said. "Their main problem was that the food would sometimes be rotten and the calorie content was not up to their standards."

Today the food for detainees and soldiers is "much better," Magruder says. Meals for detainees "now far exceed all international standards for calorie content and provide food that is more culturally sensitive. Also, during Ramadan they worked an alternate chow schedule to assist those who were fasting."

You can contact the author, David Phinney, at phinneydavid@yahoo.com.