- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2007

The House yesterday extended a law covering Defense Department contractors to all civilians working for the U.S. government worldwide, in a bid to close legal loopholes that became evident after a deadly shooting last month in Iraq involving State Department security contractors.

Expanding the 2000 Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) would make it much less likely that civilian contractors will be prosecuted in military courts, as some Pentagon officials suggested last week.

“It will give our country the ability to hold contractors accountable, which will enhance our national security and the safety of our troops,” Rep. David E. Price, North Carolina Democrat, said after the bill passed yesterday in a 389-30 vote.

The legislation also authorizes the Department of Justice, through the FBI, to enforce the law by investigating and prosecuting contractors’ offenses.

The White House came out against the House bill in its current form this week, saying it would put “unwarranted burdens” on the Pentagon and obligate it to support FBI investigations in the middle of a war.

The FBI yesterday took control from the State Department of the investigation into the Sept. 16 incident in Iraq involving employees of Blackwater USA, a North Carolina-based security firm, who were protecting a U.S. Embassy convoy. At least 11 persons were killed in the incident.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, while not prejudging the outcome of the probe, said the change was made so the case could be referred to the Justice Department or the Iraqi authorities if investigators uncover wrongdoing.

“It is in a sense a hedge against the possibility that an investigation leads to the point where there may need to be a referral,” he told reporters.

The official Iraqi investigation into the shootings recommends that the Blackwater guards face trial in Iraqi courts and that the company pay compensation to the victims, an Iraqi government minister told the Associated Press yesterday.

The three-member panel, led by Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, also said that 13 Iraqi citizens — not 11 as originally reported — were killed, and that the Blackwater contractors had not come under fire, as the U.S. Embassy said a day after the incident.

U.S. officials have rejected calls that the guards be handed over to the Iraqi judicial system, citing a directive issued by L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. pro-consul after the 2003 invasion, exempting contractors from Iraqi law.

The House bill would make all private contractors accountable under U.S. law. The act now applies only to Pentagon contractors and to civilians working for other government agencies in support of Defense Department missions.

Until 2000, contractors were treated the same as military personnel under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said last week, “We have the means to go after them through the military courts.”

Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, said the extension of MEJA makes it unlikely that civilians will be tried in military courts, noting that there have not been any such cases since the law was enacted.

Democratic leaders in the Senate have indicated that they will follow the House’s lead. Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said this week that the law should be changed to close loopholes that apparently leave some U.S. contractors immune from prosecution.

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