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House Passes New Contractor Accountability In Wake of Blackwater Incidents

October 4, 2007

By a vote of 389-30, the House has just passed H.R. 2740, Holding Security Contractors in War Zones Overseas Accountable (MEJA Expansion and Enforcement Act). This bill is designed to ensure that all private security contractors in war zones overseas will be held accountable for any criminal behavior. Currently, there is only clear jurisdiction of the U.S. courts over those contractors who are on contract with the Department of Defense. Rep. Joe Sestak (PA-07), who entered Congress this year after a distinguished career in the Navy, closed debate on the bill yesterday:

Rep. Sestak: “From when I joined up during Vietnam until when I retired last year from our military, I always watched with respect how, when human nature can be at its worst, in a war in active combat, that there were still rules of law which set the boundaries beyond which individual actions would be held accountable. I also watched during those decades with interest as contractors became a more signficant and important part of our military and its operations. But I viewed with concern the men and the women, that we began to assign military security operations in this latest conflict. I say that because even though I served and know a number of them, and served with them, is that they were now outside these rules of law. And I think that this bill is an important step within a war zone to take them back within the same standards of accountability.”

Following are highlights of some of the bill's provisions.

This bill closes a loophole in order to ensure that all U.S. security contractors in war zones overseas are held accountable. This bill closes a loophole in current law in order to ensure that all U.S. private security contractors in war zones overseas are held accountable for criminal behavior. It gives U.S. federal courts jurisdiction over the actions by contractors working for any U.S. government agency in areas of foreign countries where U.S. military forces are conducting combat operations. Specifically, the measure subjects employees of all such contractors to the same jurisdiction established by the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), which currently only covers members of the armed forces, civilian federal employees, and contractors who are on contract with the Department of Defense.

The bill designates the Justice Department as the lead agency in investigating contractor behavior. The bill creates an FBI “theater investigative unit” for each military theater of operations with which contracted employees are involved, to investigate any allegations of criminal misconduct by contractors, including reports of fatalities from the use of force by a contractor. The unit would then refer cases that warrant further action to the Attorney General.

The bill requires a report by the DOJ Inspector General on contractor abuses overseas. The bill also requires the Inspector General of the Justice Department to submit a report to Congress regarding the identification and prosecution of alleged contractor abuses overseas. This requirement is intended to address the Justice Department's apparent failure to aggressively investigate and prosecute crimes committed by contractors over which the department already has jurisdiction (such as contractors working for the Department of Defense.)

There is no excuse for the de facto legal immunity that our government has permitted for security contractors. There is no excuse for the de facto legal immunity that our government has permitted for tens of thousands of armed private individuals working on our country's behalf in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. government has a responsibility to hold the individuals carrying out its work to the highest standards of conduct, and to ensure that these individuals protect human life and uphold the law. This responsibility does not disappear simply because such individuals are contractors instead of government employees.

The new report by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee documents numerous incidents of wrongdoing by Blackwater contractors in Iraq. On September 16, Blackwater security contractors in Baghdad were involved in a shooting incident in which 11 Iraqi civilians were killed and many others injured. This incident is now under investigation. In addition, on October 1, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee released a report on the behavior of Blackwater contractors in Iraq which disclosed damaging new information. As the Washington Post (10/2/07) reported, “Blackwater security contractors in Iraq have been involved in at least 195 'escalation of force' incidents since early 2005, including several previously unreported killings of Iraqi civilians… In one of the killings, according to a State Department document, Blackwater personnel tried to cover up what had occurred and provided a false report. In another case, the firm accused its own personnel of lying about the event. The State Department made little effort to hold Blackwater personnel accountable beyond pressing the company to pay financial compensation to the families of the dead.”