The Honorable David Price
United States House of Representatives
2162 Rayburn Building
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Representative Price:

We write to express our strong support for your proposed legislation, H.R. 2740, the MEJA Expansion and Enforcement Act of 2007. This bill would address a serious gap in accountability and oversight of criminal misconduct by private security contractors, which in practice now is virtually uncontrolled. We believe this legislation is necessary to begin to bring order to the situation of private contractors employed by the United States, and we hope that it quickly becomes law.

There are an estimated 180,000 contractors operating in Iraq, including 20,000 to 30,000 well-armed contractors hired to provide “security”, according to a Congressional Research Service report released in July 2007. The reported inability of the Defense Department or State Department to confirm the actual number of these contractors operating within U.S. military theatres of operation itself is a telling indicator of the lack of control and oversight. And while there have been several thousand “serious incident” reports involving security contractors in Iraq (most of which undoubtedly raise no question of criminal culpability), there has not been a single completed criminal prosecution. Under an arrangement originally imposed in 2004 by the U.S. government, Iraqi courts lack jurisdiction under Iraqi law to prosecute contractors. Yet the U.S. government has failed completely to hold private security contractors accountable under U.S. law for criminal abuses.

The press has reported on some incidents of alleged private security contractor misconduct, but few such incidents have been officially investigated and almost none have resulted in criminal prosecutions. For example, in October 2005 an employee of Aegis Defense Services posted a video featuring clips of private U.S. security guards repeatedly firing at seemingly unarmed civilian cars outside of Baghdad. The U.S. military reportedly conducted an investigation – the results of which were never made public – but no prosecutions were pursued. In another incident reported in civil litigation, four Triple Canopy security contractors were involved in two wrongful shootings of Iraqi civilians in July 2006. On the morning of these shootings one of the contractors involved stated “I want to kill somebody today.” But the only investigation of this incident was conducted by the company, which fired three of the contractors involved; no criminal prosecution or even investigation was pursued. And earlier this month, Blackwater USA came under scrutiny for a shooting incident involving Blackwater employees that reportedly left 11 civilians dead, including an Iraqi couple and their infant child. The Iraq Ministry of the Interior tried to pull the company’s license to operate in Iraq – only to discover that Blackwater has no license to pull. Since that time the Washington Post has reported that one of the Blackwater guards drew a weapon on his colleagues and screamed for them to "stop shooting," suggesting at least one Blackwater guard believed the shooting had spiraled out of control. Both the Defense Department and the State Department have promised inquiries into this most recent incident and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is reportedly sending a team to Iraq to investigate.

Impunity of private security contractors for criminal conduct means that future abuses are more likely, because of a lack of deterrence. Moreover, it makes the job of the U.S. armed forces much harder – and endangers U.S. military personnel – by fostering animosity among the communities in which the U.S military is deployed and by disrupting the military chain of command.

By clarifying that the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) apply to all U.S. government contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by requiring the Federal Bureau of Investigations to establish units to investigate criminal misconduct under MEJA, H.R. 2740 will help bring order to this chaotic situation and ensure that the United States holds its contractors accountable for criminal conduct.

We appreciate your leadership in addressing this important issue, and we urge Congress to act promptly to pass this legislation.

Sincerely,

Kevin Lanigan
Director of the Law and Security Program
Human Right First

Jennifer Daskal
Senior Counterterrorism Counsel
Human Rights Watch