Iraq killing tracked to contractor could test laws
Virginian Pilot (2007-01-11) Bill Sizemore
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By Bill Sizemore
, The Virginian Pilot
© January 11, 2007
As pressure grows in Congress to hold private military companies such as Blackwater USA more accountable for their conduct, reports have surfaced of a Dec. 24 shooting in Baghdad that could serve as a textbook case.
According to the State Department, a civilian U.S. contractor shot and killed an Iraqi security officer. Lou Fintor, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, would not say which company the shooter worked for. Two independent sources have told The Virginian-Pilot that he worked for Blackwater, based in Moyock, N.C.
When asked about the reports, Anne Tyrrell, a Blackwater spokeswoman, said Wednesday: "No comment."
Blackwater provides security for U.S. diplomatic staff in Iraq under a multimillion-dollar State Department contract.
Details of the shooting are sketchy. Fintor said there are conflicting reports. "We continue looking into the incident in an effort to try to determine the facts," he said.
He declined to provide any further details about the American contractor, citing the U.S. Privacy Act. However, a former Blackwater contractor and an executive of another private military company, citing sources inside Iraq, independently said that the shooter was a Blackwater contractor.
So far, there is no word of any criminal charges being brought in the case.
Nearly four years after the U.S. invasion, tens of thousands of civilian contractors are working in Iraq. So far, none has been charged with any criminal wrongdoing. One reason: Contractors operate in a legal gray area, in which it's uncertain whether they're subject to civilian law, military law or neither.
The latest effort to clear that up came Wednesday when U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., introduced legislation he says will bring about transparency, accountability and coordination for private contractors operating in a war zone.
"The lack of a legal framework for battlefield contracting has allowed certain rogue contractor employees to perpetrate heinous criminal acts without the threat of prosecution," Price said.
Among other things, Price's legislation would extend the reach of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act to allow prosecution in civilian courts of any contractor involved in a military operation. The law has been on the books since 2000 but has not been applied against contractors in Iraq.
Price's attempt to subject contractors to civilian courts comes on the heels of legislation enacted last fall that seeks to put them under military law.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an Air Force Reserve lawyer, inserted language in a military spending bill that extends the Uniform Code of Military Justice to cover contractors in a "contingency operation" such as Iraq - not just in a declared war.
Whichever approach prevails, the congressional scrutiny is long overdue, in the view of Peter W. Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who has written a book about the booming private military industry.
It was Singer who first called public attention to Graham's move. He wrote last week in Defensetech, an online military discussion group, that thanks to Graham's phrasing in the Pentagon budget bill, "contractors' 'get out of jail free' cards may have been torn to shreds."
"It's probably the most important legal change for the private military industry in its history," Singer said in an interview. "For the first time, this vacuum in the law is being plugged. It shows that Congress has woken up from its slumber on this issue."
Not everyone agrees with Singer's interpretation.
Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group representing Blackwater and other military contractors, said that in his view, military law would not apply to Blackwater contractors working for the State Department.
"It might be doable for Defense Department contractors, but it's not a panacea," Brooks said. "It's a square peg in a round hole."
Price's bill seeks to cast a wider net, applying to contractors "employed under a contract (or subcontract at any tier) awarded by any department or agency of the United States Government, where the work under such contract is carried out in a region outside the United States in which the Armed Forces are conducting a contingency operation."
A spokesman for Price said that he had not heard of the Dec. 24 slaying but that it is the kind of case the legislation is intended to address.
Singer, the Brookings scholar, said the incident provides further fuel for a vigorous discussion about the unprecedented privatization of warfighting - a discussion that's sure to happen in the new Democrat-controlled Congress.
According to a recent Pentagon estimate, more than 100,000 private contractors are carrying out military roles in Iraq - a figure almost as large as the uniformed military force there.
"This is going to be part of a much, much bigger debate: Have we outsourced too much?" Singer said. " It was never debated. The consequences of it were never weighed. Now we're trying to clean up all the mess that's been created."
Staff writer Joanne Kimberlin contributed to this report.
# Reach Bill Sizemore at (757) 446-2276 or email@example.com