Four years into the occupation, it's time to set some ground rules. Increased oversight of Pentagon contractors in Iraq is on the way, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told
the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday.
A fact-finding team Gates sent to Iraq over the weekend found that U.S. military commanders aren't clear about what their authority is over contractors suspected of wrongdoing, a Pentagon official told The Los Angeles Times
. As a result, orders issued by Gates' deputy, Gordon England, specify that military officials can "disarm, apprehend and detain DoD contractors suspected of having committed a felony offense."
Several in the private-security industry nevertheless bridled at the prospect of being on the business end of a U.S.-issued M4 rifle. Reports
Sharon Behn of The Washington Times
Gary Myers, an Austin, Texas, lawyer who has defended both contractors and U.S. military personnel â including Sgt. Evan Vela, the soldier accused in a recent sniper-baiting case â 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.
Gates' moves don't apply to State Department contractors like Blackwater, which is under pressure after the September 16 Nisour Square incident that left 11 Iraqi civilians dead. And the contrast between State and Defense's approach to security contractors is increasingly on display. In a statement yesterday, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte defended both Blackwater and his agency's oversight of the company, which Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) has questioned
He said the agency provided "close in-country supervision" of the firm.
"I personally was grateful for the presence of my Blackwater security detail, largely comprised of ex-Special Forces and other military, when I served as ambassador to Iraq," he said.