Who is John Israel?

by , May 13, 2004

The blithering, the blathering, the pontification, and the grandstanding – that about describes the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on the Abu Ghraib filth-fest. The Democrats were so hot to link Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld directly to the scandal, and the Republicans were so busy defending their man (and the war) that neither bothered much to mention the key culprits, as identified in the Taguba report:

“I find that there is sufficient credible information to warrant an Inquiry UP Procedure 15, AR 381-10, U.S. Army Intelligence Activities, be conducted to determine the extent of culpability of M[ilitary] I[intelligence] personnel, assigned to the 205th MI Brigade and the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center (JIDC) at Abu Ghraib (BCCF). Specifically, I suspect that COL Thomas M. Pappas, LTC Steve L. Jordan, Mr. Steven Stephanowicz [sic], and Mr. John Israel were either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib (BCCF) and strongly recommend immediate disciplinary action as described in the preceding paragraphs as well as the initiation of a Procedure 15 Inquiry to determine the full extent of their culpability.”

Even when General Taguba went up to Capitol Hill and testified, along with the shifty-eyed undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Stephen A. Cambone, the senators spent so much time listening to the sound of their own voices, and scoring brownie points off one another, that the subject of the “private” contractors and the intelligence community’s involvement in all this only came up briefly, like lightning illuminating a cloud-clogged sky.

It came up at the start of the hearing, but Senator John Warner, who even looks like a hawk – the beakish nose, the hooded eyes, the predatory glint in his eye – approached the subject gingerly:

SEN. WARNER: “I ask the same question to you. In simple laymen’s language, so it can be understood, what do you think went wrong, in terms of the failure of discipline and the failure of this interrogation process to be consistent with known regulations, national and international? And also, to what extent do you have knowledge of any participation by other than U.S. military, namely Central Intelligence Agency and/or contractors, in the performance of the interrogations?”

GEN. TAGUBA: “Sir, as far as your last question, I’ll answer that first. The comments about participation of other government agencies or contractors were related to us through interviews that we conducted. It was related to our examination of written statements and, of course, some other records. With regards to your first question, sir, there was a failure of leadership…”

The media has focused on this last phrase, probably because it not only seems to indict Rumsfeld but also because it’s a made-to-order headline. But the first part of Taguba’s answer is the most pertinent. Warner, obviously not eager to have the general go into detail in public, then answered his own question, referring to the over 1,000 pages of documentation submitted to the committee. In short, the answer to the senator’s question was clearly yes, and the details were to be found in the classified documents that only members of the committee and other privileged characters would read.

So they blithered, and they blathered, and struck poses, and not until it came Senator Daniel K. Akaka‘s turn was any further light shed on the dark corners of this investigation. The Hawaii Democrat looked affable enough, and he was smiling, but his questions, when they came, cut straight to the heart of the matter:

SENATOR AKAKA: “General Taguba, in your report you reference the lack of supervision over U.S. civilian contractor personnel, third country nationals and local contractors within the detention facility at Abu Ghraib. During your investigation, did you determine how many civilian contract personnel were working there? Who supervised these individuals? And can you describe what you observed in terms of type of access these individuals had to the detainee areas?”

GEN. TAGUBA: “Sir, we did not make a determination of how many civilian contractors were assigned to the 205th MI Brigade and operating at Abu Ghraib. I personally interviewed a translator and I also personally interviewed an interrogator, both civilians, contractors. There was also a statement, and substantiated by the witnesses that we interviewed, of another translator, a third-country national in fact, that was involved. And there was another third- country national who was acting as a translator for the interrogators that was involved in one of the interrogation incidents where dogs were used. Their supervision, sir, from the best that we could determine or discern from the information that we gathered, was they were under the supervision of the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center, the JIDC, who is then under the supervision of one, a lieutenant colonel, who was also supervised by the brigade commander, the MI brigade commander. That was the chain, sir.”

Third country nationals, eh? So what third country are we talking about? Britain? Canada, perhaps? I guess we can probably rule out Monaco.

The only translator identified in the Taguba report is John Israel, supposedly a “contract translator” employed by the Titan Corp. Mr. Israel is furthermore described as not having a security clearance, an unusual condition for someone in his position – unless, of course, he’s not an American, in which case it would be perfectly understandable.

So far, very interesting. But then it got even more interesting:

SEN. AKAKA: “General Taguba, your report finds that two contractors were either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Were either of these contracted personnel supervising soldiers or in a position to direct soldiers to take specific actions?”

GEN. TAGUBA: “Sir, they were not in any way supervising any soldiers, MP or otherwise. However, the guards, those who were involved, looked at them as competent authority as in the manner by which they described them, as the MI or by name or by function.”

A reasonable interpretation of Taguba’s somewhat garbled answer is that, yes, the MPs and soldiers who committed sadistic outrages against detainees acted under the influence and at the instigation of those they believed to be intelligence officers, some of whom were “third country nationals.”

Senator Akaka follows up with a question for Secretary Cambone: “What kind of training,” he wanted to know, “did the U.S. civilian contractors have prior to going to Iraq?”

The look on Cambone’s face made the whole dreary procedure worth it, I thought his eyebrows were going to fly right off.

It is no secret that the Israelis have been “advising” the Americans on how to run the occupation: after all, they have so much experience in the matter, and are more than eager to impart their hard-won expertise. The methods employed by Israeli security forces are quite different from those utilized by the U.S. military: the use of “limited” torture is okay by them, and the Palestinians are no strangers to the sort of treatment meted out to the inmates at Abu Ghraib. So when Senator Akaka asked Cambone what kind of training the contractors had received, my first thought was: The very best!

The Mossad is rightly feared throughout the Middle East, and the world, as the most ruthless (and daring) intelligence agency of them all. Only the KGB ever rivaled its reputation. That they would not hesitate to employ the sort of interrogation methods used to “soften up” the prisoners of Abu Ghraib is beyond dispute: just ask the Palestinians – and Human Rights Watch. That we have imported them, along with their methods, into Iraq seems altogether likely.

But, hey, wait a minute, how is it that American soldiers were taking orders from civilian contractors, never mind “third country nationals”? Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) cleared that up when he put the question to Taguba pointblank:

SEN. GRAHAM: “Part of the defense that we’re going to be hearing about in these court martials is that the people that we’re charging are going to say this system that we see photographic evidence of, was at least encouraged if not directed by others. Do you think that’s an accurate statement?”

GEN. TAGUBA: “Sir, I would say that they were probably influenced by others –”

SEN. GRAHAM: “Okay –”

GEN. TAGUBA: ” – if not necessarily directed specifically by others.”

As U.S. and, in all likelihood, Israeli intelligence officers looked on approvingly, Trailer-Park Lynndie and her ex-prison guard boyfriend, with the active collaboration of the other MPs, systematically abused and degraded the inmates. So much of this nightmare scenario – the hooded prisoners forced to engage in behavior looked on with utter horror in Muslim society – seems like such a gift to Osama bin Laden that the revelation of Israeli involvement gives the whole affair a surreal quality.

For the role of CIA overseer, I nominate Steven Stefanowicz, the 34-year-old ex-Navy reservist, now a civilian interrogator supposedly employed by CACI International, who emigrated to Australia, before 9/11, and worked in “information technology” in the city of Adelaide, where – he says – he became engaged to be married. As detailed in my last column, Stefanowicz alleges he underwent a transformation after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and returned to the U.S. determined to get in on the fight, though in what capacity was never quite clear. Now it turns out he had bragged to his friends that he had joined the CIA, according to a piece in the Philadelphia Daily News:

“The Philadelphia-area native at the center of the Iraq torture scandal has reportedly told friends he wants to get out of there right away and return to Australia, where he claimed three years ago he was joining the CIA. ‘It’s safe to say I’ve seen enough for a lifetime here in Iraq, and it’s definitely time to come home,’ Steve Stefanowicz reportedly said in an e-mail to a friend in the southern Australian city of Adelaide. He apparently meant Adelaide and not Telford, the Montgomery County, Pa., suburb where he was reared.

“Meanwhile, another Australian friend told the Daily News in an e-mail that in fall 2001 ‘Steve announced to all of his friends that he was leaving Adelaide to return to America to work for the Central Intelligence Agency.'”

Alas, the Australians don’t seem all that eager to have him. Justice Minister Chris Ellison said Stefanowicz “would not be welcome in Australia,” according to the Herald Sun newspaper:

“‘We do not hold Australia out as a haven for anyone who has broken the law and is trying to evade it,’ Senator Ellison said. He said he was not aware of the details of the case but Australia would be prepared to help the U.S. in any investigation into Mr. Stefanowicz. ‘We would receive any request for assistance sympathetically,’ he said.”

Yeah, well if I were Senator Ellison I wouldn’t hold my breath. This is one refugee from the law that many in Washington would just as soon see the back of. The same goes for the mysterious John Israel, about whom next to nothing is known – except that, according to the London Telegraph,

“Mr. Israel has left Iraq while Mr. Stefanowicz is ‘on leave’ pending inquiries that could lead to criminal charges being brought against them.”

Mr. Israel has skipped town for parts unknown, and Stefanowicz is trying to get to Australia, where he supposedly is going to marry a woman he describes as his fiancée. Except that she isn’t. This news story describes Joanna Buttfield as a “former girlfriend” coming to Stefanowicz’s defense. Another Australian account also refers to their relationship in the past tense, and cites this very interesting tidbit from Ms. Buttfield:

“Mr. Stefanowicz had refused to discuss details of his life as a U.S. Army reservist, she said. ‘We both made a conscious decision not to talk about it because there was so much he couldn’t talk about,’ she said. ‘It was the source of some frustration. He’d say, ‘I can’t talk about that’.”

For a CIA guy, however, he sure sounds like a bit of a loser, and not exactly low-profile. His Australian friends are coming out of the woodwork, and talking to the newspapers:

“‘The events of 9/11 had nothing to do with his motivation to return to the U.S. ,’ South Philadelphia native Sam Krupsky, now an executive with the Australian Rail Track Corp., wrote [to the Philadelphia Daily News]. “He was out of work and out of luck, and left because he had no prospects here.’

“…Krupsky, the Australian rail-track worker who was born in Philadelphia and who moved to Adelaide in the mid-1970s to play semi-pro basketball, cast doubt on Stefanowicz’s skills. ‘Steve tried hard for a couple of months to find a job here, but was always unsuccessful because he kept freaking out all of his potential employers,’ Krupsky wrote. He said Stefanowicz had boasted to friends on his arrival in Australia that he’d turned down a job offer from the CIA.”

After 9/11, did he take them up on their offer – and proceed to “freak out” his new employers to a degree that not even the catty Krupsky could have imagined?

If Stefanowicz is employed by the CIA, then he certainly didn’t try to keep it very secret. He was very visible, even prior to his notoriety, due to the efforts of his mother who founded a chapter of the Blue Star Mothers in their home town, and was featured on the DoD’s “Defend America” website, invoking her son as a kind of patriotic model. In the wake of the scandal, a number of accounts have been published of his early history and the course of his career, both here and in Australia. We know he graduated from Souderton Area High School in 1988, and that, in 1998, he joined a Naval Reserve program. We also know that, for whatever reason, after 9/11 he quit his job in Australia as an “information technology recruiter” and went back to the U.S., where he volunteered for active duty. The Washington Post reports that “he served in Muscat, Oman, for most of 2002, and his rank is listed as intelligence specialist 3rd class. Stefanowicz, who received a number of military awards, including a medal for meritorious service, left his last post, at Willow Grove, Pa., last September.” Friends of the family say he became a civilian to take a job with CACI. Of the key role Stefanowicz played in the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib, the Taguba report is unequivocal. According to General Taguba, Stefanowicz:

“Allowed and/or instructed MPs, who were not trained in interrogation techniques, to facilitate interrogations by ‘setting conditions’ which were neither authorized and in accordance with applicable regulations/policy. He clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse.”

However, the General gets a bit murky when it comes to detailing the specifics against John Israel, who, in addition to not having a security clearance, is found to have

“Denied ever having seen interrogation processes in violation of the IROE, which is contrary to several witness statements.”

And that is it.

While we know plenty about Stefanowicz, what’s extremely odd is that nothing comparable has come out about the other civilian contractor named by General Taguba as having “direct or indirect” responsibility for the Abu Ghraib house of horrors. We don’t know how old “John Israel” is, where he lives, where he was born, or what he looks like – nothing.

We don’t even know where he is. All we know is that, according to the Telegraph, he’s flown the coop. Gee, I’ll bet Army Specialist Jeremy Sivits, who faces court martial, a stiff jail sentence, and worldwide calumny as the “torturer of Abu Ghraib,” wishes he could do the same.

If the Israelis are involved in this maelstrom of evil to some extent, then the U.S. is taking the fall for them. Just as Sivits and the others are taking the fall for the intelligence officers who directed the Abu Ghraib horror show – and are so far getting away with reprimands, and relative anonymity.

Read more by Justin Raimondo