House Clears The Way For Prosecution Of Contractors


Thursday, October 4th 2007, 11:13 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) The House passed a bill on Wednesday that would make all private contractors working in Iraq and other combat zones subject to prosecution by U.S. courts. It was the first major legislation of its kind to pass since a deadly shootout last month involving Blackwater employees.

Democrats called the 389-30 vote an indictment in connection with a shooting incident there that left 11 Iraqis dead. Senate Democratic leaders said they planned to follow suit with similar legislation and send a bill to President Bush as soon as possible.

``There is simply no excuse for the de facto legal immunity for tens of thousands of individuals working in countries'' on behalf of the United States, said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas.

The FBI is currently leading an investigation into the September 16 shootout, although administration officials acknowledge they are unsure whether U.S. courts would have jurisdiction in the case or others like it.

In a separate incident, a drunken Blackwater employee left a Christmas Eve party in Baghdad and fatally shot the guard of one of Iraq's vice presidents. That contractor was fired, fined and returned home to the United States, but no charges have been filed.

The current law, called the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, covers personnel supporting the mission of Defense Department operations overseas. But because Blackwater's primary mission is to protect State Department officials, defense lawyers would likely argue that the law doesn't apply.

At the same time, all U.S. contractors are immune from prosecution by Iraqi courts.

The bill's passage came on the same day that a government minister told The Associated Press that the official Iraqi investigation said Blackwater security guards involved in the September incident face trial in Iraqi courts and the company should pay compensation to the victims.

The White House and congressional Republicans said they support the intent of the bill, but thought it was drafted poorly and could have unintended consequences.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the White House said the bill would have ``unintended and intolerable consequences for crucial and necessary national security activities and operations.'' The statement did not explain further or give examples on how the bill would affect national security.

The White House referred questions to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.