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Unaccountable Contractors

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Hollywood gives us James Bond as the man with a license to kill. However, the Bush Administration has fashioned a pretty broad exemption for security contractors in Iraq. As the Associated Press notes in a report today, contractors are routinely involved in shooting incidents resulting in fatalities and casualties, but there never seem to be any criminal investigations or prosecutions as a consequence. In large measure that’s because of CPA Order No. 17, which gives the contractors immunity from punishment under Iraqi law.

As a backup to the order there’s Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department, whose law-and-order credo apparently includes the view that there’s hardly ever been a case involving a contractor homicide, assault, rape, or torture incident in Iraq that was worth acting upon–or to be more precise, there’s been exactly one such incident that was worth acting upon, out of many hundreds reported.

— There are now nearly as many private contractors in Iraq as there are U.S. soldiers _ and a large percentage of them are private security guards equipped with automatic weapons, body armor, helicopters and bullet-proof trucks. They operate with little or no supervision, accountable only to the firms employing them. And as the country has plummeted toward anarchy and civil war, this private army has been accused of indiscriminately firing at American and Iraqi troops, and of shooting to death an unknown number of Iraqi citizens who got too close to their heavily armed convoys.

Not one has faced charges or prosecution. There is great confusion among legal experts and military officials about what laws if any apply to Americans in this force of at least 48,000. They operate in a decidedly gray legal area. Unlike soldiers, they are not bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Under a special provision secured by American-occupying forces, they are exempt from prosecution by Iraqis for crimes committed there.

The security firms insist their employees are governed by internal conduct rules and by use-of-force protocols established by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. occupation government that ruled Iraq for 14 months following the invasion. But many soldiers on the ground _ who earn in a year what private guards can earn in just one month _ say their private counterparts should answer to a higher authority, just as they do. More than 60 U.S. soldiers in Iraq have been court-martialed on murder-related charges involving Iraqi citizens.

The AP account’s claim that the contractors are “not bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice” is wrong. They may be court-martialed under a provision that was introduced by Senator Lindsey Graham in the last Congress, and was enacted. However, no court-martial has yet been undertaken.

Still, this is a question of allocation of Department of Justice resources. Why should valuable resources be dedicated to the investigation and prosecution of cases involving murder, assault, rape, and torture when there are far more pressing uses for the funds? Prosecuting grandmothers who registered in the wrong district and are under strong suspicion of voting for Democrats, for instance. Or prosecuting Democratic officeholders in a way designed to help the G.O.P. take their offices and consolidate its political control. For the Gonzales Justice Department, nothing quite trumps these two objectives, and certainly not something so pedestrian as murder, assault, rape and torture.

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