Congress Looks to Tighten Military Contractor Accountability

| Wed Dec. 19, 2007 4:05 PM EST

Since her appearance last week on ABC's 20/20, former KBR contractor Jamie Leigh Jones has received a lot of attention, and understandably so. The 23-year-old Houston native alleges that in late July 2005, just four days after arriving in Baghdad's Green Zone, several of her KBR colleagues slipped drugs into her drink and, after she'd passed out, took turns raping her. The following morning, KBR security officers escorted Jones to a U.S. Army hospital, where a military physician confirmed she'd been sexually assaulted. A rape kit was assembled, including doctors' notes, photographs, and tissue swabs—the kind of evidence Jones would need to pursue criminal charges against her assailants. Then, without explanation, the physician handed the evidence over to the KBR security officer. Jones says that for the next 24 hours she was locked in a shipping container against her will and kept under armed guard, and was only rescued after the Gurkha guarding the door allowed her to use his cell phone to call her family in Texas, who, with the help of Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), arranged for her return to Houston.

Such was the story recounted today as Jones, Poe, and expert witness Scott Horton, a Columbia University law professor who specializes in contractor accountability issues, testified before the House subcommittee on crime, terrorism, and homeland security. As the three witnesses explained, no criminal charges have been brought in the case, in part, because much of the rape kit evidence—presumably while in the custody of KBR officials—has been lost. (Another contributing factor is that Jones' employment contract included a binding arbitration agreement, preventing her from filing suit against the company. More on this subject is forthcoming from our own Stephanie Mencimer.)

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As KBR employees working on contract for the U.S. Army, Jones' attackers are almost certainly covered under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, more simply known as MEJA, which subjects all civilians working abroad with U.S. armed forces to a defined legal code. But in today's hearing, several members of Congress drew attention to loopholes in the law, which may have enabled certain contractors to escape punishment for serious crimes. One obvious example involves the Blackwater contractors involved in the September 16 shooting in Baghdad's Nisoor Square, which left 17 Iraqi civilians dead and another 24 wounded; the shooters were in Iraq under a State Department contract and therefore may not be prosecuted under current MEJA regulations.

In Jones' case, MEJA seems to have fallen short for a different reason: a lack of investigative muscle in the Green Zone. According to Poe, the Department of Justice lacks investigators in Baghdad with responsibility for looking into crimes committed by private contractors against their own. Horton agreed, saying that the Justice Department "is effectively not present on the scene, does not have personnel deployed charged with conducting investigations, collecting evidence, and making preliminary decisions as to whether incidents are suitable for prosecution. This would require a team of FBI agents with appropriate training, including access to forensic labs and personnel."

Shortcomings in the current law stand to be closed by an amendment to MEJA, sponsored by Rep. David Price (D-N.C.). The bill, approved by the House and now awaiting consideration by the Senate, would bring all civilians, no matter their contracting agency, under MEJA's umbrella. More relevant to the Jones case, it would require the FBI to create "Theater Investigative Units" to look into civilian crimes and would mandate an annual FBI report to Congress, detailing the number of contractor-related complaints received, the number of cases referred to the attorney general for prosecution, and any recommended changes to the law that would better enable investigators to do their jobs.

For its part, the Justice Department refused to send a witness to today's hearing despite being invited to do so, claiming that Jones' case remains under investigation. Subcommittee members questioned the pace of the department's efforts, suggesting that official inattention has allowed KBR to sweep things under the rug. Near the end of the hearing, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) seemed to speak for both sides of the aisle when he said, "There's something rotten in Denmark, and we better take care of it."

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