WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Thursday to bring all private security contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan under a federal code of conduct, despite strong opposition from the White House and some Republican members of Congress.
The bill, by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., gained attention this week after a September shooting in Baghdad in which Blackwater guards killed at least 11 Iraqis.
Witnesses said the shootings were unprovoked, though Blackwater defended its actions. The State Department, which employs the Blackwater guards, is investigating with the help of the FBI.
The bill passed 389-30. Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat and presidential candidate, is expected to offer a companion bill in the Senate.
Price argued that his bill would bring needed accountability to contractors, who often work without strict legal rules of conduct, and he said individual employees might change their behavior as a result.
"It will make a huge difference," Price said Thursday. "It would have made a huge difference in the situation two weeks ago. You couldn't have a better example."
Contractors and human rights organizations support the measure, but some observers predict that, practically, little will change in the way that contractors operate in Iraq.
"Hopefully it won't," said Doug Brooks, the executive director of the International Peace Operators Association, the trade group for security contractors, which supports the legislation.
"All this does is clarify some of these things," Brooks said.
Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy organization in Washington, said the legislation would have little impact unless the Justice Department investigated suspected misdeeds. He called the bill a "positive step," but little more.
"It's like we've woken up to the fact the emperor has no clothes, but now we're just putting a scarf on it," said Singer, an expert in military contracting.
He said some reports had shown that the Justice Department had had as many as 20 suspected crimes referred to it, but only one had been prosecuted.
"They just disappear into the black hole of DOJ," Singer said. "The bill does its best to sort of force the hand of the executive branch to do something about contractors, but at end of the day, the ball will be in the executive branch's hands to act or not."
Jim Schmitt, senior vice president of ArmorGroup of North America, a private security contractor, agreed.
"The actual application . . . is only effective if there's a mechanism to create the oversight," Schmitt said. "If we create the law on books and don't have resources, it's very difficult for the law to be enforced."
He said most contractors already operated under the assumption that any crimes committed could send their workers before American juries.
"For our company, it has very little impact," he said. "We've lost individuals in Iraq, but we've never had a breach of law."
Congress decided two years ago that all private security contractors working with the Defense Department should come under the U.S. criminal code.
The bill approved Thursday would expand that to all security contractors, a significant move given the extensive bodyguard work done for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The bill also would require the Bush administration to set up specialized FBI offices in Iraq and Afghanistan to investigate suspected misdeeds.
Amendments approved this week require the Justice Department to give Congress a report on all allegations of misdeeds reported to the agency and how it handled them.
The White House said Wednesday that it supports accountability but "strongly opposes" the bill, calling the jurisdiction vague and saying the FBI offices would stretch the agency too thin. It expressed concerns that the bill would hurt intelligence operations if contractors were exposed through investigations.
It also questioned whether Congress was infringing on the powers of the executive branch.