Monday, January 08, 2007

Making Private Contractors in Iraq Accountable

In the last few years many incidents involving criminally negligent private contractors have made headlines, yet in each instance the guilty parties are rarely, if ever, prosecuted or punished. In fact not one contractor in the entire military industry in Iraq has been charged with a crime in the past three and a half years. According to Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, as of a few weeks ago, this has all changed.

It seems that amidst all the add-ins and pork spending attached to the Pentagon's 2007 budget, a rather important, almost revolutionary clause was slipped in. Section 552 states that "Paragraph (10) of section 802(a) of title 10, United States Code (article 2(a) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice), is amended by striking ` and inserting `declared war or a contingency operation'.

Dr. Singer explains:
"The addition of five little words to a massive US legal code that fills entire shelves at law libraries wouldn't normally matter for much. But with this change, contractors' 'get out of jail free' card may have been torn to shreds. Previously, contractors would only fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, better known as the court martial system, if Congress declared war. This is something that has not happened in over 65 years and out of sorts with the most likely operations in the 21st century. The result is that whenever our military officers came across episodes of suspected contractor crimes in missions like Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, or Afghanistan, they had no tools to resolve them. As long as Congress had not formally declared war, civilians — even those working for the US armed forces, carrying out military missions in a conflict zone — fell outside their jurisdiction. The military's relationship with the contractor was, well, merely contractual...When such incidents happen, the officers [in charge] have had no recourse other than to file reports that are supposed to be sent on either to the local government or the US Department of Justice, neither of which had traditionally done much. The local government is often failed or too weak to act."
While this is certainly a good sign, it is still unclear as to how effective this new law will be. Will it apply to all ongoing contracts? Do "contractors" include civilians, such as journalists, who are embedded with troops but not contracted? Either way, just the fact that this clause is in the books is a considerable leap forward and should make some contractors think twice about their activities in Iraq.

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