Out of the dozens upon dozens of reports of abuses
by private contractors as part of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only
one prosecution of a contractor has taken place.
This, says a new
report from Human Rights First [.pdf], epitomizes the woefully insufficient
response by the U.S. government to hold private contactors accountable for abuses
against local nationals.
"Holding contractors responsible for criminal abuses has not been a high
priority of the U.S. government," said the report, "Private Security
Contractors at War: Ending the Culture of Impunity," which is based on
interviews, court records, government reports, declassified documents, and other
documentary sources. "At times the government has appeared to view this
issue with shocking indifference."
"There was little in the way of standards for hiring and training security
contractors. There was no oversight of their activities. And most glaring of
all, there was absolutely no legal accountability for misconduct," said
Congressman David Price of North Carolina at a press conference to launch the
report last week.
The report said that while the legal framework to deal with abuses by private
security contractors is already in place, the U.S. Justice Department and in
some cases the Defense Department have done little to respond to such charges,
often forgoing investigations, let alone prosecutions.
"The Justice Department bears primary responsibility for this inaction,"
said the report. "Today most private security contractors operate in an
environment where systems of criminal accountability are rarely used. This has
created a culture of impunity." The now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority
that ruled Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein issued
CPA Order No. 17 which gave contractors immunity from the Iraqi justice system,
but the report says that this does not affect the ability of the U.S. government
to go after its own citizens.
Speakers at the press conference and the report itself both said that the military
does take some steps to curb criminal activity in Iraq. More than 60 U.S. military
personnel have been court marshaled for deaths of Iraqi nationals through the
preexisting internal military criminal justice system.
However, just one contractor has been tried for violence or abuse toward local
nationals, says the report, which examined over 600 classified Serious Incident
Reports (SIRs) on incidents involving the use of force by or attacks upon private
security contractors in Iraq over a nine-month period in 2004-2005.
Contractors have emerged in recent years as a critical part of the war effort.
In previous wars, contractors played a much smaller role, but now they make
up a major part of the U.S. force in Iraq.
Even following President George W. Bush's troop surge, private contractors
working for the U.S. still outnumber military personnel in Iraq, with roughly
160,000 soldiers and 180,000 contractors.
The shift was part of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's doctrine of
fighting wars with fewer troops but has its origins in the "peace dividend"
of the early 1990s that saw the end of the Cold War allowing for less defense
The vast numbers of contractors in the forefront of wars, however, has not
been accompanied by a bureaucratic system to deal with accountability. The U.S.
Code of Military Justice, a Pentagon Criminal Investigations Unit, and the military
chain of command do not exist for contractors.
When the incidents of alleged contractor abuse began to publicly surface
largely focused on the role of contractors carrying out interrogations at Abu
Ghraib prison Rumsfeld said that the contractors were largely responsible
for policing themselves.
"Contractors should not be responsible for law enforcement," said
Columbia University law professor Scott Horton, noting that this is the primary
function of the Justice Department. "The bottom line is that the Justice
Department has gone AWOL."
With the executive branch taking few steps to deal with the issue, public outrage
at news coverage of some of the incidents has prompted Congress to take some
steps to strengthen oversight of contractors.
A bill passed in the House of Representatives solidifies Justice Department
jurisdiction over contractors working as part of U.S. efforts in Iraq, and a
nearly identical bill is due for action in the Senate. But the report warns
that jurisdiction has not been a major obstacle. Rather, the problem has been
insufficient "political will and resources."
The report suggests mandating congressional oversight with regard to private
security contractors and creating and funding a specific office within the Justice
Department's Criminal Division.
"This is an issue of resource deployment," said Horton, noting that
of the 200 or so Justice Department personnel in Iraq, none of them work in
The report came at the end of a turbulent week for contractors. Human Rights
Watch called last week for the Iraqi government to pass a law rescinding CPA
Order No. 17 an effort that passed the Iraqi cabinet but has thus far languished
Blackwater Worldwide, one of the best known security contractors because of
its large number of contracts and alleged involvement in abuses, has retained
the services of a third Washington lobbying firm to deal with the fallout from
several violent incidents. Last September, in a case that garnered widespread
attention, Blackwater employees protecting a State Department convoy reportedly
fired without provocation into a crowd of Iraqis, killing at least 17 people.
The shooting led to some discussions about how to deal with contractor accountability,
but the Human Rights First report says the new agreement between the State and
Defense Departments "falls far short of mandating accountability."
The continuing abuses, said the panelists at the press briefing, negatively
impact the war on terror, creating problems both for the regular military as
well as U.S. foreign policy in general.
Horton said that military personnel in Iraq had called private security contractors
"jackasses with guns." He told IPS that with insurgent fighters sometimes
unable to distinguish between the two, contractor abuses could bring negative
attention to the military.
Retired naval Rear Admiral John Hutson, who served as the Navy's judge advocate
general from 1997 to 2000, warned that if abuses continue unchecked, the U.S.
will "suffer consequences to our reputation overseas and our effectiveness
as a fighting force."
(Inter Press Service)