By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007
Prompted by last month's deadly shootings in Baghdad by armed guards working for Blackwater USA, the House voted overwhelmingly yesterday to place all private contractors working in Iraq and other combat zones under the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.
The 389 to 30 vote expanding the scope of the existing Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act came over the strong opposition of the Bush administration, which objected to its broad application to a wide range of contractors working for U.S. agencies overseas.
The bill requires that contractor offenses that would be punishable by at least a one-year prison sentence if perpetrated in the United States be pursued under U.S. law. The Justice Department's inspector general would have to report to Congress on the status of Justice Department investigations of alleged contactor abuses. And the FBI would have to establish investigative units for each U.S. war zone where contractors are operating.
Defense Department contractors already fall under U.S. and military law, but contractors working for other agencies often do not. Blackwater and two other private firms provide protective services to U.S. diplomats and other civilian officials in Iraq under a State Department contract.
"This bill will improve the law, and it will improve enforcement," said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), the legislation's author. "It will give our country the ability to hold contractors accountable, which will enhance our national security and the safety of our troops. And it will ensure that our country remains a model of law and integrity to the rest of the world."
But the White House complained that the bill's scope of U.S. jurisdiction depended on "vague notions of 'proximity' " to conflict that could complicate prosecutions. The Office of Management and Budget said it could have unspecified but "intolerable consequences for crucial and necessary national security activities" and would pose an undue burden on the military.
While the administration stopped short of a veto threat, the White House claimed the bill could spawn a rash of litigation, extend federal court jurisdiction overseas far too broadly and burden both the military and the FBI with mandatory overseas activities.
Such arguments held little sway after last month's Blackwater incident, which left at least 11 Iraqi civilians dead. Indeed, the administration is looking increasingly alone on the issue. Hearings this week by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee highlighted additional Blackwater incidents, such as a drunk Blackwater employee's fatal shooting of a security guard of one of Iraq's vice presidents.
During those hearings, Blackwater founder Erik Prince suggested he supports a clarification of existing laws governing the behavior of contractors overseas. Of the intoxicated Blackwater shooter, Prince said: "Beyond firing him for breaking the rules, withholding any funds we can, we can't flog him. We can't incarcerate him. We can't do anything beyond that."
The bill was endorsed by the International Peace Operations Association -- a trade group for security contractors, including Blackwater -- which said after its passage that "effective legal structures are necessary to ensure ethical operations in the field."
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said the Senate is likely to take up the measure after next week's Columbus Day recess.
Some Republicans complained that Democrats were ramming through the bill without proper vetting, simply for maximum political effect. But only 30 Republicans voted against it.
Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), a conservative Republican running for his party's White House nomination, wrote a letter yesterday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, asking for a broad investigation of the impact of contractor behavior on U.S. diplomatic efforts.
"The respect for and promotion of human rights are central to U.S. diplomacy in all parts of the world. The negative effects of a Blackwater security guard using excessive force are not limited to the victims of a particular incident. Such violence undermines the efforts of our diplomats to affirm the importance of human rights and advance our national interests," Brownback wrote.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.