Outside editorial: Set some rules for Blackwater, other contractors

Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Can a jury of workaday people cut through the conflicting details about the role of Blackwater Worldwide in war zones?

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We certainly hope so. To date, a neon sign would be suitable for pointing out the lack of accountability regarding the private security firm estimated to have earned more than $1 billion from federal contracts since 2001. But last week came word that federal prosecutors have issued grand jury subpoenas to Blackwater employees. The grand jury can look into the Sept. 16 shootings in central Baghdad that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead. Ideally, the citizens would probe even deeper, into the question of war privatization.

No one doubts that Blackwater employees undertake dangerous roles to protect U.S. officials in hot zones. The company prides itself on working for "a safer world" and on its track record: Its founder says no one protected by Blackwater has been killed or seriously injured. But it is the fate of Blackwater targets, not the fate of the protected, that demands scrutiny and presents an obvious case for legislative change.

Newsweek described the Sept. 16 shoot-out this way: "Hassan Jabir Al-Mayahi was in a hurry. The Iraqi lawyer had a date at appeals court. But it was midday in downtown Baghdad, and his 1995 Korean-made sedan ran into an all-too-familiar and aggravating problem. A convoy of sleek SUVs, armored vehicles and a couple of Iraqi security cars had blocked off Nasoor Square, snarling traffic. Al-Mayahi watched the time tick away for several minutes. Then he heard gunfire. Al-Mayahi saw foreign men screaming and shooting from the slits and turrets of the armored cars, and others firing from the ground. In the ensuing panic, al-Mayahi says, people tried to run from their cars and were cut down."

Last month, Blackwater's founder told Congress his team acted appropriately "in a very complex war zone." This month, the New York Times reported that an FBI investigation has found that at least 14 of the shootings were unjustified.

The subpoenas issued, however, don't mean anyone will face criminal charges. They mean that federal investigators are taking this case seriously.

So should Congress.

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., has a bill to make sure that contractors working in a war zone are covered under the rule of law. While contractors working for the Defense Department are covered under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, contractors working for the State Department and other agencies are not. Blackwater has been the State Department's largest security contractor.

Price wants to place all contractors under the same rules and make certain that the administration enforces the law by prosecuting those who deserve it. His bill, approved by the House, awaits Senate action but faces opposition from the administration.

"This is not just a matter of justice in individual cases," Price told National Public Radio. "This is a matter of the rule of law and what this country stands for and the effectiveness of our missions."

The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act is deficient and needs revising. For now, it is encouraging to see federal prosecutors using available tools to bring to light any wrongdoing in Baghdad that warrants accountability, at all levels.

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