Out of the dozens upon dozens of reports of abuses by private contractors as part of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only one prosecution of a contractor has taken place.
This, says a new report from Human Rights First [.pdf], epitomizes the woefully insufficient response by the U.S. government to hold private contactors accountable for abuses against local nationals.
"Holding contractors responsible for criminal abuses has not been a high priority of the U.S. government," said the report, "Private Security Contractors at War: Ending the Culture of Impunity," which is based on interviews, court records, government reports, declassified documents, and other documentary sources. "At times the government has appeared to view this issue with shocking indifference."
"There was little in the way of standards for hiring and training security contractors. There was no oversight of their activities. And most glaring of all, there was absolutely no legal accountability for misconduct," said Congressman David Price of North Carolina at a press conference to launch the report last week.
The report said that while the legal framework to deal with abuses by private security contractors is already in place, the U.S. Justice Department and in some cases the Defense Department have done little to respond to such charges, often forgoing investigations, let alone prosecutions.
"The Justice Department bears primary responsibility for this inaction," said the report. "Today most private security contractors operate in an environment where systems of criminal accountability are rarely used. This has created a culture of impunity." The now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority that ruled Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein issued CPA Order No. 17 which gave contractors immunity from the Iraqi justice system, but the report says that this does not affect the ability of the U.S. government to go after its own citizens.
Speakers at the press conference and the report itself both said that the military does take some steps to curb criminal activity in Iraq. More than 60 U.S. military personnel have been court marshaled for deaths of Iraqi nationals through the preexisting internal military criminal justice system.
However, just one contractor has been tried for violence or abuse toward local nationals, says the report, which examined over 600 classified Serious Incident Reports (SIRs) on incidents involving the use of force by or attacks upon private security contractors in Iraq over a nine-month period in 2004-2005.
Contractors have emerged in recent years as a critical part of the war effort. In previous wars, contractors played a much smaller role, but now they make up a major part of the U.S. force in Iraq.
Even following President George W. Bush’s troop surge, private contractors working for the U.S. still outnumber military personnel in Iraq, with roughly 160,000 soldiers and 180,000 contractors.
The shift was part of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s doctrine of fighting wars with fewer troops but has its origins in the "peace dividend" of the early 1990s that saw the end of the Cold War allowing for less defense spending.
The vast numbers of contractors in the forefront of wars, however, has not been accompanied by a bureaucratic system to deal with accountability. The U.S. Code of Military Justice, a Pentagon Criminal Investigations Unit, and the military chain of command do not exist for contractors.
When the incidents of alleged contractor abuse began to publicly surface largely focused on the role of contractors carrying out interrogations at Abu Ghraib prison Rumsfeld said that the contractors were largely responsible for policing themselves.
"Contractors should not be responsible for law enforcement," said Columbia University law professor Scott Horton, noting that this is the primary function of the Justice Department. "The bottom line is that the Justice Department has gone AWOL."
With the executive branch taking few steps to deal with the issue, public outrage at news coverage of some of the incidents has prompted Congress to take some steps to strengthen oversight of contractors.
A bill passed in the House of Representatives solidifies Justice Department jurisdiction over contractors working as part of U.S. efforts in Iraq, and a nearly identical bill is due for action in the Senate. But the report warns that jurisdiction has not been a major obstacle. Rather, the problem has been insufficient "political will and resources."
The report suggests mandating congressional oversight with regard to private security contractors and creating and funding a specific office within the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
"This is an issue of resource deployment," said Horton, noting that of the 200 or so Justice Department personnel in Iraq, none of them work in law enforcement.
The report came at the end of a turbulent week for contractors. Human Rights Watch called last week for the Iraqi government to pass a law rescinding CPA Order No. 17 an effort that passed the Iraqi cabinet but has thus far languished in parliament.
Blackwater Worldwide, one of the best known security contractors because of its large number of contracts and alleged involvement in abuses, has retained the services of a third Washington lobbying firm to deal with the fallout from several violent incidents. Last September, in a case that garnered widespread attention, Blackwater employees protecting a State Department convoy reportedly fired without provocation into a crowd of Iraqis, killing at least 17 people. The shooting led to some discussions about how to deal with contractor accountability, but the Human Rights First report says the new agreement between the State and Defense Departments "falls far short of mandating accountability."
The continuing abuses, said the panelists at the press briefing, negatively impact the war on terror, creating problems both for the regular military as well as U.S. foreign policy in general.
Horton said that military personnel in Iraq had called private security contractors "jackasses with guns." He told IPS that with insurgent fighters sometimes unable to distinguish between the two, contractor abuses could bring negative attention to the military.
Retired naval Rear Admiral John Hutson, who served as the Navy’s judge advocate general from 1997 to 2000, warned that if abuses continue unchecked, the U.S. will "suffer consequences to our reputation overseas and our effectiveness as a fighting force."