Contractors may fall under military law

Pentagon officials suggested yesterday that U.S. civilian security contractors in Iraq fall under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice and could be prosecuted in military courts for offenses against Iraqis.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters that while U.S. civilians working in Iraq under Department of Defense contracts were not subject to Iraqi law, they could be held accountable under U.S. law.

Iraqi officials have complained of their inability to prosecute civilian contractors, some of whom have been accused of shooting indiscriminately into crowds and killing innocent civilians. Questions have been raised whether the contractors are subject to any law at all.

But Mr. Morrell said yesterday that the United States has the means through the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act and the Uniform Code of Military Justice “to hold contractors accountable.”

“We have the means to go after them through the Department of Justice and we have the means to go after them through the military courts,” he said.

Gary Myers, an Austin, Texas, lawyer who has defended both contractors and U.S. military personnel — including Sgt. Evan Vela, the soldier accused in a recent sniper-baiting case — disagreed. “Attempting to impose the military justice system on civilians is foolhardy, he said. “It raises more questions than it answers, and is probably constitutionally deficient with respect to civilians.”

Such prosecution would subject civilians to trial before a jury of uniformed personnel, not their peers, for actions not usually considered crimes, such as disobedience of an order.

“These men and women [would] now become recognized as a stealth army, and that is an admission that this nation does not need,” he said.

Contractors working in Iraq were a lot more blunt. “I think it is pure [expletive],” said one contractor, a former soldier now working on security contract. “Contractors are not military.”

“The whole thing is absurd. What is the starting point and end point? I think they would be hard-pressed to make it stand, and it’s going to open a big bag of worms.”

While industry representatives support the clarification of accountability and oversight proposed by the Pentagon, they reject putting civilians under military law.

“We don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association based in Washington. He said the Pentagon could consider using the military justice system as a temporary solution while it completes revisions to regulations which applies to civilians working on U.S. military bases abroad.

“The Department of Defense has an army of [judge advocates general] working out doctrine for it,” said Mr. Brooks.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Sunday sent a five-person team to Iraq to speak with “key players” about the U.S. military’s relationship with and oversight of private security contractors.

The directive follows an incident in which security contractors employed by Blackwater USA were involved in a shootout while protecting a State Department convoy in Baghdad. Eleven Iraqis were killed.

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