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Administration Bridles at Bar on Contractors

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Obama administration has objected to a provision in the 2010 defense funding bill currently before the Senate that would bar the military's use of contractors to interrogate detainees.

The provision, strongly backed by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), describes interrogations as an "inherently governmental function" that "cannot be transferred to contractor personnel." It would give the Defense Department one year from the bill's enactment to ensure that the military had the resources to comply with it.

A White House policy statement yesterday signaled "many areas of agreement" with the bill that emerged from Levin's committee late last month but said the administration has "serious concerns" about some provisions. The statement repeated Obama's threat to veto the $680 billion bill unless $1.75 billion to fund an additional seven F-22 fighter aircraft is removed.

Obama and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates "are as serious as a heart attack on this," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

Levin and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee's ranking minority member, have agreed that the current ceiling of 187 F-22s is sufficient, but action on an amendment to that effect brought to the floor yesterday was postponed when the Senate took up a controversial hate crimes amendment.

The contractor interrogation issue is the latest challenge to the White House as it tries to fashion a policy on current and future detainees. It comes as the administration is struggling to address demands by human rights organizations, members of Congress and even some within its own ranks to fully investigate and make public actions taken by the Bush administration.

In executive orders issued during his first week in office, Obama ordered the CIA to end all use of what have been called enhanced interrogation techniques and to follow more restrictive regulations in the Army Field Manual that the administration has said comply with domestic and international law.

The Justice Department is investigating the development and approval of now-prohibited interrogation methods, including simulated drowning, in which contractors participated. In April, CIA Director Leon Panetta banned the use of contract employees to interrogate prisoners.

Last year, the Senate dropped a provision prohibiting the military from using contractors for interrogations after President George W. Bush threatened a veto unless it was removed.

The provision in this year's bill says that "the interrogation of enemy prisoners of war, civilian internees, retained persons, other detainees, terrorists, and criminals when captured, transferred, confined, or detained during or in the aftermath of hostilities is an inherently governmental function and cannot be transferred to contractor personnel."

"We ought to have enough trained interrogators in the military to do the job," a senior Senate aide said. "If we don't have enough, then train more or hire civilians, but they ought to be our employees." The measure provides exceptions for contractors used as interpreters and technicians.

The White House statement said that in "some limited cases," contractor skills might be necessary "to obtain critical information" and that the provision "could prevent U.S. Forces from conducting lawful interrogations in the most effective manner.

"You can't make an artificial distinction between an interrogator and a linguist who is actually going to be the one asking the questions," an administration official said. "You don't want to inhibit the ability to extract valuable intelligence that could save lives by not being able to use subject matter experts, linguists or other contract personnel.

"We all think of interrogations as somebody taken back to the facility and questioned. The reality is that people are out on patrol," and the best person to urgently question a captive during an operation may be a contractor. "You don't want to limit yourself," the official said.

Morrell offered a somewhat different explanation, saying that for the Pentagon, "it is first and foremost an issue of resources. We don't have enough interrogators to do the work we have."

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