In April 2003, the Defense Department hired Military Professional Resources Inc., an Alexandria government contractor, to supply Arabic translators in Iraq. The two parties agreed on a $1.9 million price and the deal was done.

The translators were hired under a federal contract category designed for the employment of education and training analysts, not linguists, according to a report by the Defense Department's inspector general. The military contracting officer who approved the deal told investigators he did not check the General Services Administration schedule to make sure that translation services were within the scope of MPRI's contract with the government. "Noncompliance of a GSA schedule is an issue between the GSA and the contractor," the report says.

MPRI, a subsidiary of L-3 Communications Corp., was never disciplined by the GSA, according to company and government officials.

Stretching the boundaries of large federal contracts is commonplace, and one the government has often overlooked, many contracting experts say.

That attitude may be shifting. Last week, CACI International Inc. said the GSA, the federal agency that administers large interagency contracts, had begun an investigation into the procedures the company used to place civilian interrogators at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq under an information technology contract. The Arlington defense contractor said the GSA is trying to determine whether CACI should be allowed to continue doing business with the government.

Companies are obliged to inform the government when the work they are being asked to do falls "outside the scope of their contract" a GSA spokeswoman said last week. But some experts say that policy is not widely known or generally enforced.

The Defense Department inspector general's report on contracting procedures in Iraq, issued in March, said "supplies and services were acquired quickly and contracting rules were either circumvented or liberally interpreted."

CACI was not mentioned in the report.

None of the companies that are named in the report -- MZM Inc. of the District, Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, Unisys Corp. of Blue Bell, Pa., or MPRI -- are being investigated by the GSA's suspension and debarment office, Eleni Martin, an agency spokeswoman, said Friday.

Martin said she did not know whether the GSA had ever taken disciplinary action against a company for agreeing to do work beyond the specifications in a contract.

Contractors usually don't turn down government requests for their services, even if those requests are for work that falls slightly outside an agreement, said Claude P. Goddard, a government contracts attorney at Wickwire Gavin PC in McLean. Until the CACI case, there has not been a negative reaction to such practices, he said.

"What I have seen is kind of a wink and a nod by GSA, sort of turning a blind eye," Goddard said. "So you'll see all sorts of things being ordered that you wouldn't think would fall within the scope of the products or services of the actual schedule that the company holds."

Jacob B. Pankowski, a government contracting lawyer with Nixon Peabody LLP, said: "I don't know of any cases where a contractor has rejected an order on the basis that it's not within the scope of their government-wide order -- nor would one expect them to. The gist of this threatened action [against CACI] is to require government contractors to become the policemen of government contracting officials' conduct."

Pankowski defended the practice of allowing an agency to use an existing contract to order goods and services. He said it streamlines a process that would otherwise take months or years. "They find one of these vehicles, but it doesn't quite fit, they'll say 'I'm gonna order it anyway. It's close enough,' " Pankowski said.

Danielle Brian, executive director for the Project on Government Oversight, a District watchdog group, said government agencies should not be allowed to ask companies to take work outside the scope of their contracts. She said being forced to rewrite a contract or issue a new one, is "more work for the contracting officer. But I think it should be."

But Brian and other critics said that for the system to work, contractors also must be told they will be held accountable if the work they are doing is not covered by a contract.

"You're telling the contractor: 'It's very simple, don't do things that are pretty clearly outside the scope of your contract authority without making it clear to the government that the contract has to be changed,' " said Daniel J. Guttman, a fellow at the Center for the Study of American Government at Johns Hopkins University. "The assumption is that the government is capable of knowing what's going on, where in fact those in the contracting business know that that is too often is not the case."

The Defense Department report says that contracting officers in Iraq sometimes relied on the companies they hired determine whether they "could or could not comply with the requirements under the GSA schedule."