U.S. policy a paper tiger against sex trade in war zones

By Nick Schwellenbach and Carol Leonnig
Sunday, July 18, 2010; A04

An eight-year-old policy that forbids government contractors and employees to engage in sex trafficking in war zones has proved almost impossible to enforce amid indications that such activities are occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The policy, instituted eight years ago by President George W. Bush and still in effect today, calls for the prosecution of government employees and contractors who engage in trafficking and the suspension or disqualification of companies whose workers do. Bush's get-tough language also threatened criminal prosecutions for solicitation of prostitutes because many of the women are forced into the work.

Agencies say the cases are difficult to pursue because of limited investigative resources and jurisdictional questions. But some experts and lawmakers believe that authorities are turning a blind eye to evidence of such crimes.

"Zero prosecutions," said Martina Vandenberg, a lawyer and former Human Rights Watch investigator, "suggests zero effort to enforce the law."

The State Department reported recently that allegations of contractors' employees procuring commercial sex acts were "well publicized" but that no contractors have been prosecuted and no contracts terminated.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), author of a 2000 U.S. anti-trafficking law, questions whether agencies vigorously pursue allegations. He suggested that if authorities really cared about the women being exploited, they would not look away "when those we are paying to do jobs for us are exploiting them."

Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar said the agency "investigates all credible allegations of human trafficking."

An Army report

Nearly a decade after Dyncorp International employees were accused of buying and selling women from throughout Eastern Europe -- and were not prosecuted -- the State Department alerted the U.S. Army to allegations made by a freelance journalist. The journalist said she had interviewed women held in Iraq as involuntary servants in debt slavery.

The February report, posted online as part of an Army PowerPoint presentation, alleged that supervisors of an Army subcontractor in Iraq had sexually assaulted some of the women.

"The women were recruited from their home nations with promises of well-paying beautician jobs in Dubai," said an Army summary, "but were instead forced to surrender their passports, transported against their will to Iraq, and told they could only leave by paying a termination fee of $1,100."

The subcontractors work for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which runs restaurants and other commercial operations on military bases.

An Army Criminal Investigation Command spokesman, who declined to discuss specifics, said the allegations "were investigated and not substantiated."

In another allegation, a former guard with the Blackwater security firm said he saw colleagues and U.S. soldiers paying Iraqi girls for sex acts. The allegations surfaced in a federal lawsuit filed last summer in the Eastern District of Virginia that alleged wrongful death and abuse on behalf of families of Iraqi victims. But the anonymous statement detailing the allegations was withdrawn by the Iraqi families, who agreed to a settlement in January.

The former guard, who asked that his name not be used out of concern for his safety, said that in 2005, he watched older boys collect dollar bills while Iraqi girls, some as young as 12 or 13, performed sex acts. The former guard said that he reported what he saw to his Blackwater superiors but that no action was taken. "It sickens me to talk about it even now," he said.

The former Blackwater guard also said he provided the information to a grand jury, but the Justice Department would not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

Stacy DeLuke, a spokeswoman for Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, said the firm "vehemently denies these anonymous and baseless allegations." She said Xe policies forbid human trafficking.

Brothels in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, evidence of trafficking came to light when 90 Chinese women were freed after brothel raids in 2006 and 2007. The women told the International Organization on Migration that they had been taken to Afghanistan for sexual exploitation, according to a 2008 report.

Nigina Mamadjonova, head of IOM's counter-human trafficking unit in Afghanistan, said the women alleged in interviews that their clients were mostly Western men.

In late 2007, officials at ArmorGroup, which provides U.S. Embassy security in Kabul, learned that some employees frequented brothels that were disguised as Chinese restaurants and that the employees might be engaged in sex trafficking. A company whistleblower has alleged in an ongoing lawsuit that the firm withheld the information from the U.S. government.

James Gordon, then an ArmorGroup supervisor, alleged that a manager "boasted openly about owning prostitutes in Kabul" and that a company trainee boasted that he hoped to make some "real money" in brothels and planned to buy a woman for $20,000.

Gordon said he warned his bosses and also alerted Heidi McMichael, a State Department contracting officer.

Months later, Gordon said, he asked McMichael why no action had been taken, and she told him that the matter had been referred to the FBI. She declined to comment, as did the bureau. Gordon said that the trainee was fired but that no other action was taken.

Susan Pitcher, a spokesman for ArmorGroup's parent company, Wackenhut Services, said in an e-mail that the company would not respond to Gordon's allegations. She stressed that ArmorGroup policies prohibit trafficking.

An internal corporate investigation in November 2007 found that a Kabul program manager knew that some workers had violated company policies by "seeking out prostitutes."

The report disputed allegations that the manager frequented brothels but concluded that he knew about activities "that could bring discredit upon both the company and the client." A letter of reprimand was placed in his file.

A difficult mandate

Justice Department prosecutors privately complain that the zero-tolerance policy is nearly unenforceable -- partly because it makes little distinction between organized sexual slavery and voluntary prostitution.

"Are we interested in chasing every contractor that gets a hooker or using our resources to go after the guys who force people into modern-day slavery?" asks one former trafficking investigator, who requested anonymity.

Laura Dickinson, an Arizona State University law professor, said law enforcement authorities face two main challenges in pursuing such crimes: gathering evidence and legal jurisdiction.

The FBI has 35 to 40 agents in war zones, but they are focused on investigating fraud and corruption. The military's law enforcement agencies have about 150 agents in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait handling all types of felony-level crimes.

Some experts say investigators and prosecutors will probably decline a trafficking case if it proves time-consuming and manpower-intensive.

Gordon, the former ArmorGroup manager, questioned whether agencies take the allegations seriously.

"If it's so serious," he said, "if you have a zero-tolerance policy, why aren't you doing anything?"

This report is a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity and The Washington Post.

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