WASHINGTON — A recently unsealed lawsuit has accused two U.S. military contractors of treating American citizens working as military translators in the Middle East like “slaves.” The two contractors — DynCorp and its subcontractor, Global Linguist Solutions (GLS) — are alleged to have housed American translators in Kuwait within a poorly maintained tent city and to have threatened the workers with prison time if they tried to escape. The suit is the second lawsuit to be made public this year that accuses a prominent military contractor of treating its employees as slaves.
The 2016 federal lawsuit, first reported on by the Daily Beast after it was unsealed earlier this month, revolves around a contract signed between DynCorp and the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) to provide the U.S. military with English-Arabic translators. DynCorp then subcontracted GLS to recruit the translators and bring them to Kuwait where, upon arrival, GLS staff confiscated their passports, originally claiming that the seizure was essential to securing work visas for the translators. However, GLS secured only tourist visas for the translators, making their work technically illegal and placing them at risk of arrest. Yet, this was only the beginning of their troubles.
Translators were subsequently housed in dangerous conditions once in Kuwait, with many of them living in tent cities, such as Camp Ali al-Salem, that had originally been designed to shield American soldiers from the desert sun for a few hours before travel. While the tents may have been bearable for a few hours, they were never intended for long-term living and translators routinely found themselves battered by the elements, particularly dust storms, and scorched by the desert heat owing to a lack of infrastructure, including air conditioning.
Other tent cities, such as Camp Arifjan and Camp Buehring, became infested with rodents, lice and bedbugs as a result of the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, while others still were regularly flooded with raw sewage. Meanwhile, GLS staff managers “lived in luxury seaside apartments just outside of Kuwait City,” according to the lawsuit.
Given that their passports had been seized, preventing them from leaving Kuwait legally – and because they couldn’t go to the Kuwaiti authorities for assistance owing to the lack of a work visa — translators were essentially held against their will. When one translator tried to complain about the living situation to a GLS manager, the manager told him that “linguists are slaves.” Even the president of GLS, Ken Tolleson, told translators who had complained of their treatment that they “would all be fired and returned to the U.S. to ‘deliver pizzas.’”
After translators had complained, the suit alleges that GLS intentionally placed a number of plaintiffs in situations “where GLS knew that they were likely to be arrested.” The plaintiffs’ then alleged that “GLS did this to make a public example of linguists who strayed off the base and as a means of frightening other linguists to not attempt to leave their bases.”
Eventually, many of the translators did leave despite the risks. However, they soon learned that the Kuwaiti government had issued arrest warrants for working illegally, forcing them to confess to crimes they had never intended to commit. These translators were banned from entering Kuwait and other Gulf nations, greatly impairing their ability to work as translators in the region in the future.
Notably, the plaintiffs have claimed that their treatment by GLS and DynCorp was worse than anything they experienced serving alongside the U.S. military on the battlefield. According to the suit, the translators “experienced deprivation on the battlefield of Iraq; however, nothing compared to the decrepit, overcrowded, open-bay housing of Arifjan.”
While GLS has not publicly commented on the allegations, DynCorp has fiercely denied them, calling them “wholly without merit” and “baseless.” DynCorp spokeswoman Mary Lawrence also told the Daily Beast that DynCorp “will vigorously defend against these baseless allegations brought by plaintiffs seeking a payday.”
DynCorp: A sordid track record of crime and impunity
This troubling lawsuit is hardly the first controversy for the U.S. military contractor. Indeed, DynCorp is one of the most controversial military contractors, given its past scandals, many of which involved the company facilitating human trafficking and child prostitution. For instance, in the late 1990s, DynCorp employees were accused of raping children in Bosnia as well as buying and selling girls as young as 12 for use as sex slaves. They also assisted the illegal transport of women into Bosnia for human trafficking purposes.
In the years since, DynCorp has continued to find itself accused of enslaving minors as well as its contracted employees, just as the recently unsealed lawsuit alleged. For instance, evidence came out in 2004 showing DynCorp employees sexually assaulting underage girls in Colombia, followed by a separate incident in 2009 where company employees provided Afghan police with drugs and child prostitutes in Afghanistan.
Despite those years of scandals, DynCorp nonetheless continues to receive lucrative U.S. military contracts. Yet, as the newly public lawsuit shows, DynCorp’s old habits of treating human beings as commodities remain as ingrained as ever, largely thanks to the fact that the company has never been held accountable for its crimes against its workers as well as countless children.
Top Photo | In this Dec. 16, 2011 photo, abandoned vehicles stand in a lot behind a barbed wire fence inside Camp Adder on the Iraq, Kuwait border. Lucas Jackson | AP