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Civilian interrogator defends work at Abu Ghraib, tells jury he was promoted

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A civilian interrogator who worked 20 years ago at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq denied abusing detainees Thursday, and told jurors he was actually promoted for doing a good job.

Steven Stefanowicz, who worked for military contractor CACI when he was assigned to Abu Ghraib in 2003 and 2004, has long been a key figure in the abuse scandal that emerged when photos became public showing U.S. soldiers smiling as detainees were forced into shocking poses of physical and sexual humiliation.

While multiple soldiers were convicted and sentenced to prison in courts-martial for their roles at Abu Ghraib, neither Stefanowicz nor any other civilian contractor who worked at the prison has ever been charged with a crime.

Stefanowicz's testimony Wednesday and Thursday in front of a federal jury in Alexandria comes as his former employer defends itself in a civil suit brought by three Abu Ghraib survivors who allege that CACI's interrogators share responsibility for the abuse they endured.

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The lawsuit, delayed by more than 15 years of legal wrangling, is the first time that Abu Ghraib detainees have been able to bring their abuse claims in front of a U.S. jury.

Jurors previously heard testimony from two retired Army generals who investigated Abu Ghraib, and both concluded that Stefanowicz had a role in the abuse of detainees, either by directing military police to “soften up” inmates for interrogation, by using dogs to intimidate them, and by other means of mistreatment.

The reports also concluded that Stefanowicz lied to Army investigators in 2004 when he was questioned as part of those investigations.

At trial Thursday, Stefanowicz acknowledged that he implemented a “sleep management plan” for a detainee he was interrogating, meaning that military police played loud music at night to prevent him from sleeping.

But Stefanowicz said the sleep deprivation plan was approved by Army officers who oversaw his work.

He said he hewed to the Army's rules for interrogations and that while he requested the ability to use dogs during interrogations, he never did because he never received approval.

During testimony that came in through a recorded deposition he gave last month, Stefanowicz said he never sought to abuse or humiliate detainees and said his duties were to “extrapolate information to thwart the war on terror.”

Stefanowicz said he left Abu Ghraib in 2004, after photos of detainee abuse came to light, but only because his parents were receiving death threats after his work at the prison became public.

In fact, he said he was promoted by CACI to become their site lead at Abu Ghraib.

Jurors saw emails indicating that Stefanowicz was being promoted in April 2004 from his job as interrogator and receiving a 48% pay raise, to $140,000 annually. The pay raise and promotion came three months after the Army had begun its investigation of detainee abuse and two months after Stefanowicz had been questioned by then-Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba about his conduct.

While CACI may have been pleased with Stefanowicz's work at Abu Ghraib, evidence introduced Thursday showed that CACI officials initially had serious doubts about his ability to work as an interrogator.

An email sent by CACI official Tom Howard before the company sent interrogators to Iraq described Stefanowicz as a “NO-GO for filling an interrogator position.”

“Though he has a crafty resume he is neither trained nor qualified for the interrogator position,” Howard wrote.

Stefanowicz had spent time in the Navy reserves and at the U.S. Embassy in Oman, but he acknowledged that he'd never had training as an interrogator.

When he first went to Abu Ghraib, he was initially classified as a screener who took information down about incoming inmates to decide how they should be classified.

He testified that within a day, Army personnel decided to promote him to interrogator.

Mark Billings, a contracting officer with CACI, testified Thursday that the company struggled to find qualified interrogators to fulfill its contract with the Army, which needed to rapidly increase its intelligence capabilities after the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Billings said the Army bore the responsibility for supervising the work of Stefanowicz and other contractors. On cross-examination, though, he was shown language in the CACI's contract with the Army requiring CACI to take responsibility for supervising its own personnel.

CACI continued to present evidence in its defense Thursday, though it was thwarted to some extent by the U.S. government, which invoked the state secrets privilege over evidence CACI sought to introduce.

Multiple witnesses who served as civilian and military interrogators at Abu Ghraib were allowed to testify only by audio that distorted their voices. They were identified only as “interrogator C” or “interrogator G” and were not allowed to testify about their identity or their interrogations of certain detainees.

CACI is seeking to show that any of the abuse suffered by the three specific plaintiffs in the case came at the hands of personnel other than CACI interrogators.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema has expressed frustration throughout the case about the government's invocation of state secrets. Earlier in the trial, government lawyers jumped up to object to an exhibit listing a series of names identified in one of the generals' Abu Ghraib investigations, even though the names have been a public part of that report for 20 years.

On Thursday, outside the jury's presence, she said the government's assertions over seemingly petty issues like a witness' educational background or whether a witness had been trained about protections accorded in the Geneva Convention “makes the U.S. government look very foolish.”

Matthew Barakat, The Associated Press