By Griff Witte and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 25, 2006
Military investigators said yesterday that they will not file any charges after completing their investigation into an incident in Iraq last May in which a group of Marines alleged they had been fired on by U.S. security contractors.
The contractors, in turn, had said they were detained by the Marines for three days in a holding facility normally reserved for suspected insurgents, and subjected to rough treatment. The incident highlighted tension in the field between active-duty military personnel and the burgeoning ranks of private contractors the Defense Department has hired to support the war effort.
But the Naval Criminal Investigative Service said there was not sufficient evidence to warrant prosecution of Marines or employees of North Carolina-based Zapata Engineering.
"There was evidence that shots had been fired by Zapata, but there was no way to connect the dots together in a way that we could go forward with the case," said NCIS spokesman Ed Buice.
The 16 American contractors have never denied that they fired shots on May 28, 2005, as they traveled through Fallujah. But they say their shots -- three in total -- went straight into the ground as they tried to get the attention of a truck driver who was moving precariously close to their convoy.
The Marines told a different story, accusing the contractors of firing indiscriminately at civilians and at a Marine checkpoint. Buice said yesterday that investigators had not been able to verify that conclusion.
"It's a world of relief," said Pete Ginter, one of the contractors who were detained. "We knew from the beginning that we didn't do anything wrong. But we were being penalized for something we didn't do."
Ginter said he and the other contractors involved have been effectively blacklisted since the incident, with many of them having trouble finding work and unable to return to Iraq, where demand for contractors is high.
Mark Schopper, an attorney for four of the detained contractors, said that while he welcomed the NCIS's decision, questions remain. "We're still incensed at what happened to them," Schopper said.
Marine officials at the Pentagon yesterday referred questions on the matter to military spokesmen in Baghdad, who were unable to comment immediately.
The contractors claim they were changing a tire at a Marine checkpoint last May when they were suddenly ordered to report to a nearby base. From there they were taken to a detention facility where they each were handed an orange jumpsuit, a bottle in which to urinate, a Koran and a prayer mat. The contractors, many of whom were ex-Marines, said they received rough treatment, with guards shoving them to the ground and, in Ginter's case, squeezing his testicles.
The men were held for three days in the same facility where the military held suspected insurgents. During that time, they have said, they were refused all requests to contact the Red Cross, their employer or their families. Once released, they were barred from operating in a large area of Iraq. They also lost their jobs with Zapata, which had a contract with the Army Corps of Engineers to dispose of ordnance.
Buice, the NCIS spokesman, said investigators never formally looked into the allegations of abuse because the contractors did not go through the proper channels of filing a complaint. He also said the treatment they received appeared to be standard for incoming prisoners. "The fact that you're asked to take off all your clothes and put on an orange jumpsuit, that's not mistreatment," he said.
But Gary Myers, a lawyer representing several of the contractors, said the way the military handled the case was unjust.
"These men did nothing wrong. They were forced out of the country by the Marines who in fact had engaged in conduct that was abusive to our own citizens," Myers said. "I'm pleased that whatever cloud that was hanging over those men is now removed, even if the Marine Corps will not admit it made a mistake."
An estimated 20,000 private security contractors are operating in Iraq. Tension between contractors and active-duty personnel has run high in some cases because the contractors fall outside the normal military chain of command and make considerably higher salaries than their counterparts in the armed forces. In this case, Schopper said the Marines taunted the contractors while they were in custody by asking, "How does it feel to be a rich contractor now?"
Gary Simpler, a 20-year Army veteran who was among the contractors detained, said in an e-mailed response to questions that the Marine Corps was "heavy-handed, abusive to fellow American citizens and should apologize."