Following the conviction of a few low-ranking soldiers for their roles in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, Lt. Col. Steven Jordan was reprimanded Wednesday by a 10-member jury after his conviction on only a single charge failing to obey an order. As a result, he will spend no time in jail, after being cleared of all allegations that he abused prisoners or failed to do his duty as a senior officer at the notorious prison. The case is supposed to be the last of the criminal proceedings concerning this dark chapter of the Iraq war, but sources close to the Abu Ghraib legal drama tell TIME that two key civilians who worked as private contractors in the notorious facility's cell blocks could still face prosecution.
Jordan, the only U.S. military officer to face a court martial in the controversy, was charged with ordering dogs to be used for interrogations; cruelty and maltreatment of prisoners who were allegedly subjected to forced nudity and intimidation by dogs; dereliction of a duty to properly train and supervise soldiers in interrogation rules; and disobeying an order not to discuss the case with other witnesses. He could have faced five years in prison on his single conviction for failing to obey that order.
The verdict represents a major victory for the defense, which, amid prosecution missteps, managed to get dismissed before trial a series of charges that Jordan had lied to Army investigators. Legal experts and human rights activisists reacted quickly to the outcome, saying the Army had bungled the case and shown itself incapable of maintaining accountability among senior officers in the Iraq war’s single most prominent abuse scandal.
But sources close to the Abu Ghraib legal drama tell TIME that during a recent appearance before a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia he answered questions about the role at Abu Ghraib of Steven A. Stefanowicz, a former employee of the U.S. defense contractor, CACI, that supplied interrogators to the prison, as well as of another civilian contractor. A variety of new materials obtained by TIME also offers evidence of Stefanowicz's role at the prison, in addition to whatever testimony the grand jury in eastern Virginia has heard.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District of Virginia, to which the military referred allegations of civilian wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib, would not comment on the grand jury matter, or whether Stefanowicz might be a target. A similar grand jury was convened in the eastern district some two years ago, but apparently returned no indictments. A lawyer for Stefanowicz told TIME that he had received no recent communication from federal authorities and had "no basis that they are taking up this matter" more than three years after the scandal erupted. CACI itself said in 2004 that its own internal investigation had produced no evidence that any of its employees had been involved in abuse at the prison. Contacted by TIME regarding new investigations into their former employee Stefanowicz, a spokesperson said: "CACI does not condone or tolerate illegal acts or behavior on the part of its employees. It is the company's clear and unambiguous policy that all its activities shall comply with all applicable laws at all times."
Critics have long asked why the U.S. government has charged only low-ranking soldiers with serious crimes at Abu Ghraib, and why it did not pursue charges against civilian contractors, over whom it has jurisdiction, despite apparently abundant evidence against some of them, notably Stefanowicz. In fact, two U.S. military reports, one prepared by Maj. Gen. Anthony Taguba and the other by Maj. Gen. George Fay, assert that Stefanowicz was likely responsible for abuses at Abu Ghraib, something that his lawyer has firmly denied. Witnesses at the trials of Abu Ghraib defendants also described Stefanowicz as an active participant in abuse.
In a recording of a conversation between Lt. Col. Jordan, 51, and two Army investigators in Iraq on Sept. 18, 2004, Jordan is heard informally discussing what happened at Abu Ghraib and referring repeatedly to the contracting firm CACI, the supervisors it employed, and specifically to Steven Stefanowicz, who was known as "Big Steve" around Abu Ghraib, as well as another civilian employee. The investigators were working at the time on behalf of soldiers who later became criminal defendants in the Abu Ghraib proceedings. One of the investigators told TIME that the conversation took place at Jordan's initiative, and was not part of any official inquiry. Jordan was under investigation at the time, but had not been formally charged.
At one point in the exchange, Jordan offers to give the investigators the prisoner identification numbers of detainees who had been released from Abu Ghraib, including "a female" and others who "could probably highlight negative stuff" about Stefanowicz and his civilian associate.
Separately, Jordan also lists the names of various individuals who, he asserts, would have more information about what happened involving interrogators at Abu Ghraib and military police company members who worked at the facility. At one point, he refers specifically to an "illegal interrogation" and recommends the investigators speak to an individual to find out about that. A lawyer for Jordan declined to comment on the recording.
Still more evidence about "Big Steve" emerges in the record of another recording obtained by TIME. This record, made by an Army investigator during an interview with Col. Thomas Pappas, the former head of military intelligence at the prison, shows Pappas repeatedly trying to disassociate himself from "Big Steve" who, Pappas says, was "out of control" and committing abuses which the Colonel claims he spoke to colleagues or superiors about more than once. Col. Pappas who was Jordan's superior and in charge of the entire Abu Ghraib facility for several months in 2003 and 2004 and its top ranking military intelligence officer for even longer, was reprimanded by the Army for having approved the use of dogs in interrogations and forced to pay a fine of several thousand dollars.
In closing arguments at Jordan's court martial, one prosecutor was quoted by The Washington Post as saying, "This case is not about what the accused did at Abu Ghraib, it's about what he divorced himself from doing." He added that Jordan failed to discharge his duties as a commander. "He didn't train, he didn't supervise, he didn't ensure compliance." Jordan's defense lawyers argued that he had no direct responsibility in the chain of command for what happened at Abu Ghraib and never personally participated in any of the abuse.
Jordan was sent to Abu Ghraib three days after he arrived in Iraq and, by many accounts, spent most of his time trying to improve the lives of his soldiers, who were living in squalid conditions and under almost daily mortar attack. Three days after arriving at the prison, Jordan was also hit by shrapnel during an attack that killed two other men. But some subordinates have suggested that he was at the very least aware of the abuses and did nothing to stop them.
So far, a total of 11 soldiers have been convicted of crimes at Abu Ghraib, most prominently Pvt. Lynndie England and Spc. Charles Graner Jr., who were both featured in the photos leaked to the media, and were sentenced to three and 10 years in prison, respectively. The prison commander in Iraq at the time, Janis Karpinski, faced administrative action and was demoted from the rank of general but faced no criminal charges.
As for other senior officers, the Pentagon has maintained that none did anything wrong. But Stjepan Mestrovic, a Texas sociologist who has testified as an expert witness at several Abu Ghraib trials, calls the Pentagon's attempt to blame the scandal on a few low-ranking "bad apples" little more than "magical thinking."
"It doesn't make any sense," he says. "There is no way that a handful of low-ranking soldiers could have invented techniques all by themselves that curiously enough were used at [the U.S. Naval detention facility at] Guantanamo and at other places in Iraq and Afghanistan."