For the past several years of occupation in Iraq, the largely lawless corps of private security contractors has emerged as the big, stinking elephant in the room that few in the mainstream media have been willing to come out and openly challenge.
This has been so for a couple of pretty good reasons, including the secrecy under which the contractors operate and the “above the law” way in which they do their jobs — which has been only intermittently documented over the years. In other words, beefy, secretive dudes with big guns who don’t operate under any codified set of rules aren’t the best group of guys to go chasing after.
This isn’t to say that the role of private security contractors has been totally ignored. The big papers and television news orgs have looked at their role in Iraq several times over the past couple years. In addition, PBS’ Frontline ran an excellent documentary, “Private Warriors,” about the contractors.
In this morning’s Washington Post, Griff Witte and Renae Merle reported on a new wrinkle in the contractor debate — FBI documents released on Tuesday that “include several new allegations of questionable treatment of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay” which “put private contractors at the center of interrogation operations, raising questions once again about where they fit in the military’s chain of command.”
In the penultimate paragraph of the piece, the two write that, since the contractors fall under shaky legal provenance, “It’s unclear how the law would apply to the contractors this time. Contractors have traditionally not been subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the body of laws that governs the behavior of soldiers. Other laws apply to contractors, but many remain untested.”
What was left out of this paragraph could fill a library. For a more fleshed-out look at the legal standing of private military contractors, one would be better served to take a look at a post from P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, at the DefenseTech.org blog, posted yesterday. Singer knows a thing or two about contractors, having written a book on the subject, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.
In his post, we find a little more information than the Post provided (odd, considering that Singer was quoted in the piece). Specifically, he notes that the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2007 budget legislation contains an as-yet-unreported section dealing with contract military workers, holding that “Paragraph (10) of section 802(a) of title 10, United States Code (article 2(a) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice), is amended by striking `war’ and inserting `declared war or a contingency operation’.”
What does this mean? According to Singer, it means that
“contractors’ ‘get out of jail free’ card may have been torn to shreds. Previously, contractors would only fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, better known as the court martial system, if Congress declared war….As long as Congress had not formally declared war, civilians — even those working for the US armed forces, carrying out military missions in a conflict zone — fell outside their jurisdiction.
So, these “other laws” that the Post hinted at are actually pretty darn significant, and contractors who were once partially protected by the lack of an official, Congressionally sanctioned declaration of war, are no longer (although that is far from a guarantee that charges will ever be brought against a contractor.) Still, a little more explanation on the part of the Post would have gone a long way in fleshing out the realities of the issue, and the stunning change brought about by this slight change in language. And as noted above, it makes even less sense that the Post would gloss over this fact given that the reporters interviewed Singer for the piece.
And, yes, there’s a media angle. (Isn’t there always?) Singer notes that “The lack of any legal precedent, combined with the new law, could mean that an overly aggressive interpretation might now also include journalists who have embedded.”