Scotland’s census criticised for links to firm accused of torture

The organisers of Scotland’s next population census in 2021 have come under fire for hiring a firm whose US parent company is accused of helping torture prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The UK information technology company, CACI, has won two contracts from National Records of Scotland to collect online data and manage the 2021 census. Its US owner, CACI International, was employed by the US government to provide interrogation services at Abu Ghraib in 2003-04.

Iraqi prisoners at the jail west of Baghdad city were subject to sexual abuse, violence and severe physical deprivations. Graphic photographs were published in 2004 and US soldiers were court-martialled for mistreating prisoners.

CACI international, however, has denied any wrongdoing, and is fighting a prolonged legal action brought by the US Centre for Constitutional Rights on behalf of four former prisoners alleging complicity in torture. In February 2018, a judge rejected a move by the company to dismiss the case, saying it should be heard.

Alistair Duff, professor of information policy at Edinburgh Napier University, thought it was “very disappointing” that CACI had been given the contracts. He accused its parent company of being “implicated” in “one of the vilest outrages since Auschwitz” at Abu Ghraib.

He argued that the previous use of the company in the 2011 census had caused many Scottish citizens “an acute crisis of conscience”. He called on National Records of Scotland to bring the work in house, and not to use private companies.

“This is an ethical issue that is much bigger than petty rules,” Duff said. Recent research at Edinburgh Napier University had suggested that most people were uncomfortable with outsourcing of census operations to private firms.

Important data will once again be haunted by the screams of the tortured Richard Haley, Scotland Against Criminalising Communities

Richard Haley, chair of the civil liberties campaign group, Scotland Against Criminalising Communities, described the award of census contracts to CACI as “jaw-dropping”.

He alleged: “Important data will once again be haunted by the screams of the tortured and skewed by people’s reluctance to give their personal information to an abuser.”

Haley argued that efforts by CACI International to “shrug off responsibility” for torture at Abu Ghraib “won’t wash, even in Trump’s America”. He added: “It remains for the court to decide whether CACI aided and abetted these violations.”

Kate Nevens, Amnesty International’s director in Scotland, said: “Any company that is proven to have links to human rights violations in Abu Ghraib has very serious questions to answer, particularly because complicity in torture is an international crime.”

The managing director of CACI Limited in the UK, Jeet Khaira, stressed that the company was “an entirely separate entity from its owner, CACI International”. CACI Limited was relied on by UK government departments to process data securely and was an expert in delivering census projects, he said.

“CACI Ltd does not currently, and has not previously, worked with the US military,” he told The Ferret. “CACI Ltd has the highest level of government digital services and is independently audited for compliance by the British Standards Institute.”

Not one current or former CACI employee has been charged with or found culpable of any wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib CACI International

CACI International in the US did not respond to a request to comment. But it has previously strongly denied involvement in torture at Abu Ghraib, insisting there were no proven incidents of abuse.

Allegations made by former Iraqi prisoners were disputed, the company said in response to a story in the New York Times in 2010. “Not one current or former CACI employee has been charged with or found culpable of any wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib,” the firm said.

In a letter to Duff on 15 March 2018, the registrar general at National Records of Scotland (NRS), Tim Ellis, defended choosing CACI. “NRS and Scottish Government carried out a range of checks on the potential bidders and the bidders themselves were asked to self-declare that they met the selection and exclusion criteria as outlined in the invitation to tender,” he said.

“By law, the winning bidder has then to submit all of the required certificates and documentation, before they are awarded the contract. Having gone through this extensive process, I am therefore satisfied that CACI UK Ltd fully comply with all of our legal selection criteria and we have no grounds for exclusion.”

The Scottish Government referred a request to comment to NRS, which pointed out that CACI were experienced census experts. “Following a fair and open procurement process in line with government rules and best practice, NRS appointed CACI as one of a number of contractors to help deliver the census in 2021,” an NRS spokesperson said.

The letter from National Records of Scotland in full

Photo thanks to United States Armed Forces via Wikimedia Commons.

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