Congress weighs rules for private security firms in Iraq

WASHINGTON — The deaths of 11 Iraqis during a shooting involving Blackwater security guards pose the kind of quandary that congressional investigators have been worrying about for years: how to oversee and prosecute contractors accused of crimes in a war-torn country.

The shooting also renews focus on congressional efforts to bring more oversight to security contractors, including legislation sponsored by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., one of Congress' most vocal critics of the lack of oversight of private security companies.

Price has sponsored two bills that would bring all U.S. security contractors under federal criminal codes and require that the U.S. government provide more information about the cost and duties of private contractors.

Iraqi officials said Monday that they would revoke Blackwater's license to operate in Iraq and would insist that its employees responsible for the deaths, which Iraqi officials say resulted from an unprovoked shooting spree by the guards, face Iraqi courts. On Wednesday, Iraqi officials also accused Blackwater of involvement in a number of questionable actions, including engineering the jailbreak of an official accused of corruption.

Blackwater, based in Moyock, N.C., provides bodyguards for U.S. diplomats in Iraq, including Ambassador Ryan Crocker. On Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy banned civilian travel outside the fortified Green Zone because of Sunday's shooting.

"This is the first time the Iraq government has taken such strong actions against U.S. contract personnel," Price said. "The question of what we're going to do ... is a very crucial question in establishing credibility for dealing with this."

Should Iraq follow through, its crackdown could have implications for tens of thousands of armed employees working in Iraq in various jobs.

Price and others say it's unclear exactly what rules private security contractors fall under when operating in war zones.

Price's proposed legislation would clarify that private security contractors working for a U.S. government agency are subject to U.S. law. It would set up FBI units in Iraq to investigate suspected misconduct.

The Department of State has begun an investigation into Sunday's shooting, but Price said it's unclear what authority the agency has to prosecute any suspects. He has asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for her interpretation.

Bringing the contractors formally under U.S. laws would help the U.S. argument that suspected crimes need not be prosecuted in Iraqi courts.

Blackwater is among the most prominent of the private security companies operating in Iraq, in part because of its State Department contract and in part because its employees have been involved in several high-profile incidents.

But the exact number of contractors in Iraq and what their jobs are aren't well known. Price and House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., have asked the Government Accountability Office to issue a report on the subject, and GAO investigators have visited Iraq. The report, however, isn't expected for several months.

"There seems to be a potential conflict brewing about the applicability of Iraqi law," Price said in an interview. "So assuming that there is something here that deserves ... prosecution, then how willing and able the United States is to deal with it is a very important issue and will have a lot to do with the credibility of any case we make against Iraqi prosecution."

Price also has inserted rules in the defense authorization bill, now being debated in the Senate, to set standards for the rules of engagement and hiring of private security contractors, along with improved communication between contractors and the military.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has included many of the same provisions in an amendment he filed in the Senate to the defense authorization bill.

Republicans in Congress also have made efforts to bring security contractors under U.S. law. Last year, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, inserted a clause in the defense authorization bill that made contractors working with the U.S. military subject to courts-martial.

But the Pentagon hasn't yet drawn up specific guidelines on the clause, according to Peter Singer, a security expert with the Brookings Institution in Washington.