WASHINGTON — An international human-rights organization said Wednesday that a lack of political will — not a fuzzy legal framework — was primarily to blame for the dearth of prosecutions of private security contractors accused of abuses in Iraq.
Human Rights First said the Justice Department had failed to hold such contractors accountable, amounting to what the organization calls a "culture of impunity."
"The biggest obstacle is not the law, but political will," said Maureen Byrnes, the executive director of the group, which is based in New York and Washington.
A Justice Department spokesman disputed the report's findings. The spokesman, Paul Bresson, said there was no lack of political will in the department to investigating the cases involving contractors but that the complications of investigating overseas could slow the process. "Obviously we strongly disagree with the report's conclusions," Bresson said.
The group acknowledges that clarifying the law — such a bill has passed the House of Representatives and is pending in the Senate — would ensure that prosecutors have a path for investigating allegations of criminal activities by guards.
An estimated 35,000 private security contractors work in Iraq for 181 companies, providing security for military bases, private businesses, foreign dignitaries and the U.S. State Department. They're part of a larger force of some 180,000 private contractors, more people than the American military has in the country.
There have been several allegations of abuses, the most recent by a group of Blackwater USA guards escorting a convoy through Baghdad on Sept. 16. Iraqi officials say the guards killed 17 civilians and wounded 24 without provocation in Nisoor Square. An investigation into the incident is under way.
But Justice Department investigators warned congressional staff in a private meeting in December that they might have little legal justification for prosecuting the case.
At that meeting — first reported Wednesday by The New York Times and confirmed by McClatchy — officials said it would be difficult, though not impossible, to hold the guards accountable for the deaths under current law.
The State Department also offered the guards some immunity if they gave accounts of what happened in Nisoor Square, complicating the prosecution.
Scott Horton, who wrote the Human Rights First report, said the group wasn't trying to end all work for private security contractors.
Rather, he said, the agency wants contractors held accountable. The report points out that while 60 members of the U.S. military have faced courts-martial for suspected crimes during the war, only one private security contractors has faced prosecution.
"That shows a collapse of accountability," Horton said. "This problem didn't drop from the sky. It results from policy decisions. . . . The situation here is the Justice Department has gone AWOL."
Rep. David Price, D-N.C., authored a House bill that would place all private security contractors under the U.S. criminal code. The bill also tries to force the administration to act on prosecutions. It would require, for example, that the Justice Department dispatch FBI agents to Iraq to investigate allegations of abuses.
"It's maddening to see contractors act as if they're above the law," Price said Wednesday.
The White House opposes Price's bill, saying it contains vague language, wrongly extends U.S. criminal jurisdiction overseas and could strain FBI resources.
Despite the opposition, Price's bill passed in October — shortly after the Blackwater incident in Baghdad — by a veto-proof margin. A Senate version, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
There, Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been working with Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to craft bipartisan support for the bill. But White House opposition remains strong, and there's no timeline for when the bill might get through the committee.
The Human Rights First report makes several recommendations. They include asking the Justice Department to take the lead in prosecuting abuses in federal courts, coordinating investigations with the Defense Department and holding companies accountable through their written federal contracts.
It also says that private security contractors should mark their vehicles prominently with identifying symbols to aid in investigations, and that contractors who wrongly kill or injure civilians should be responsible for compensation.