US responds to Iraqi contractor legislation

It seems there is a genuine power-struggle developing over security contractors in Iraq in the wake of the Blackwater shootings:

A draft law that would place American private security companies under
government supervision and make their personnel accountable for their
actions has been submitted to a state legal committee for review, an
Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman said Tuesday. (New York Times)

This proposal was the main subject of a very interesting briefing yesterday by Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell:

  Q     What’s the Pentagon’s position on the draft Iraqi law that would strip security contractors of their immunity?
            MR. MORRELL: You
know, I don’t know. I read that today, but I’m not so sure the Pentagon
has a position on it. You know, obviously this is a sovereign
government, and they have — if this is one of the laws that they wish
to pass, it would be sort of ironic in the sense that it would
certainly show their ability to work together and pass laws. But I’m
not so sure it would be something that we necessarily want to weigh-in
on. (Defenselink News)
The Pentagon may be more concerned than this jibe would suggest, given the actions Mr Morell went on to outline:

think I mentioned to you last week, that the secretary had some
questions about — in the wake of the Blackwater incident with regards
to the Department of State, he had some questions that he wanted
answered about our exposure, our reliance on contractors in Iraq. And
those questions have — they’ve provided some answers to those
questions which have led to still more questions.

And the secretary
in light of that has dispatched a small team from his office, from
Policy, from AT and L, to go over to Iraq. They left on Sunday, they’re
due back by the end of the week. I mean — this is not a task
force. It’s not a committee. These are some people that are going over
to sort of delve deeper into some of the questions he had. But at this
point, I really want to reiterate from our perspective, he is satisfied
with what he’s heard from them and others that we have the right
policies, procedures and legal authorities in place to sort of deal
with the contractors who are working for us.   


That said, he does
have some concern about accountability and oversight. And to that end,
yesterday evening the deputy secretary of Defense, Gordon England, has
sent out a memorandum to the Joint Chiefs, to the combatant commanders,
sort of articulating for them what exactly their authorities are,
providing a little more guidance from this building as to that they
have the means through MEJA or the UCMJ to hold contractors
accountable. So, we’re just trying to make it clear to them that there
are the existing authorities to sort of do this job that people are
concerned about.
The existing system hasn’t always been particularly transparent as David Isenberg points out:

It is too soon to know for sure what happened last weekend, and Blackwater personnel involved are innocent until proven guilty.

will have to wait until the investigations are finished. But this time,
unlike certain past incidents — such as the probe of the 2005 Aegis
Defense trophy video, showing contractors supposedly firing
indiscriminately at Iraqi civilians — the results must be made public,
and not kept secret. (United Press International)

It may be that there will be some action this time, if only to avert the threat of Iraqi legislation, and preserve a system of extraterritoriality that reeks of colonial precedents.

As a postscript, some of the exchanges at the press conference make it very clear how the status quo has operated up to now (my italics):

Q     Geoff, has there ever been a contractor prosecuted under any of those means?
            MR. MORRELL: Has there been a DOD contractor prosecuted? One of our security contractors?   
            Q     Yes.
            MR. MORRELL: We
certainly have had contractors prosecuted by this government — by this
— for bribery and fraud. To our knowledge, as we’ve mentioned before,
we do not believe a security contractor has been brought up on
I think that’s accurate.

Q     I wanted to follow up with Courtney’s question. If the — General
Petraeus says that he needs contractors to do the job, and if no one
has been prosecuted under U.S. law or any of the courts and systems in
place in this country, and they’re not susceptible to Iraqi law, what
is the leverage that the Pentagon has over these contractors to make
sure that they comply? And what happens if they don’t? Because so far,
in my time there, they didn’t comply to a lot of these things that you
spell out, and there doesn’t seem to be any leverage to sort of — to
stop them, and they don’t.
Nancy, the things I’ve spelled out, I find it hard to believe that you
would know whether they were complying or not, based upon whether they
had authorized weapons or whether or not they had shared their SOPs.
But listen, this
notion that there’s not — that there are not authorities in place to
deal with rogue contractors or contractors who are breaking the law is
nonsense. We have the means to go after them through the Department of
Justice, we have the means to go after them through military
courts. Just because there has not been a prosecution brought does not
mean that the authority does exist to deal with people who misbehave,
who break the law.
Q     I’m not
questioning the means. I’m asking if nobody has used those means, and
it is clear that there have been instances — I’ve seen them firsthand
there — where these rules weren’t complied to, and there hasn’t been
any justice.
What is the leverage? If there’s nothing to suggest in the
past that these means were used, what is the leverage to suggest that
they’ll be used in the future?
            What is the leverage if there’s no —
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah,
I — Nancy, I can’t speak to any past abuses you may or may not have
witnessed. I can tell you that the authorities exist to prosecute, and
I think that’s a lot of leverage over contractors. The authorities
exist to sort of void contracts, and that’s a lot of leverage over
contracts. These are — I think the contract — security contractors in
Iraq — the last thing I saw suggested there were over $900 billion in
contracts for security contractors. That’s a lot of money, and it’s a
lot of money that stands to be lost by contractors. So it’s in their
best interest to comply with the rules and regulations that we lay out.
            (Cross talk.)
            Q     Nine hundred billion (dollars), you said?
            Q     One follow-up. One follow-up. Have any of those contracts — have any contracts —
            MR. MORRELL: Sorry. Did I say billion? I apologize.   
            Q     You did.
            MR. MORRELL: It’s 900 million (dollars). Excuse me.   
            Q     Have any of
those contracts ever been voided, that you know of — any of those
security contracts ever been voided, or —   
            MR. MORRELL: Have
security contracts ever been voided? I don’t know that they have, but I
don’t know that they haven’t.
And that’s certainly something we could
probably check with you on. But I don’t know that they have or don’t
know that they haven’t.






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