WASHINGTON — Violent acts by private security contractors in Iraq have sparked a major new confrontation between Congress and the White House, with lawmakers on Wednesday moving to ensure that the armed guards be held accountable under U.S. law if they harm Iraqi civilians without justification.
With bipartisan support, the House is expected today to take up legislation that would make it clear that U.S. laws apply to all armed private contractors hired for overseas missions.
The measure was intended by supporters to clarify a federal statute that many contend allows private security guards protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq and elsewhere to avoid prosecution for shooting without cause.
However, the White House, backed by some of its allies in Congress, expressed "grave concerns" and said in a statement that the measure would place "inappropriate and unwarranted burdens" on the U.S. military in war zones.
Backers expected the bill, sponsored by Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), to pass with bipartisan support in a House vote today. Senate supporters were preparing to offer a corresponding measure. Administration officials did not say whether a veto would be considered if the measure passes.
Whatever the outcome, the fight has further inflamed debate over an increasingly controversial aspect of the U.S. mission in Iraq: the use of tens of thousands of heavily armed private security contractors. It also appeared to widen the gap between congressional war critics and the White House over the war and U.S. efforts to combat terrorism.
The question of contractor accountability has sparked several government reviews and has become an issue in the national presidential campaign.
In one review by the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that military experts urged a series of steps to provide improved accountability.
Gates said the recommendations for tightened oversight of Pentagon contractors "look very reasonable to me and I anticipate that we will move forward toward trying to implement them."
In debate on the House floor, Democrats called for greater accountability for the U.S. private security presence in foreign countries. Some Republicans defended the status quo as necessary to advance the U.S. war effort -- even though lax oversight of the contractors has drawn sharp criticism from the Iraqis and their fledgling government.
Other Republicans said they supported the intent of the Price legislation but criticized the bill as sloppy and vaguely worded.
"We think we could do much better," said Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.).
The House bill would attempt to clarify long-standing confusion over whether U.S. laws apply to government contractors working in other countries.
While existing statutes subject Pentagon contractors to U.S. law, the status of contractors hired by the State Department and other U.S. agencies is less clear.
In particular, legal experts are undecided whether the other contractors are covered by the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which applies U.S. laws to contractors working abroad.
The question has grown more important with revelations of violent incidents involving private security contractors. At least 11 Iraqis were killed Sept. 16 in a shooting involving employees of Blackwater USA, a private company hired to protect U.S. diplomats.
On other occasions, guards have shot and killed Iraqis and then left the country without facing legal consequences. In one incident, a Blackwater employee was quickly flown out of the country after killing an Iraqi vice president's security guard after a December holiday party.
Currently, the extraterritorial jurisdiction act applies to contractors "supporting the mission of the Department of Defense overseas." Some legal experts have interpreted that wording as pertaining only to contractors paid by the Pentagon.
Others say that while the wording is unclear, the law easily could be used to hold all private contractors accountable as it is -- even though the law has rarely, if ever, been used for that purpose.
"If the Justice Department wanted to, they could prosecute these cases under MEJA, but they are not doing that," said Kevin Lanigan, director of the law and security program at Human Rights First, a legal organization that has studied the issue of accountability for contractors. "But I do think it is useful and important to clarify this and end the discussion over whether it applies."
Beside clarifying the law, Price's legislation also would create an FBI unit to investigate accusations of wrongdoing by contractors in war zones.
"If we do not hold contract personnel accountable for misconduct, as we do for our military," Price said, "we are undermining our nation's credibility as a country that upholds the rule of law."