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House backs expansion of law governing wartime contractors

Measure would broaden the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, and create FBI unit to investigate criminal action by contractors in war zones.

The House on Thursday passed legislation aimed at ensuring that all security contractors working overseas in places like Iraq and Afghanistan can be held legally accountable for missteps.

The bill (H.R. 2740), introduced by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., in June, would expand the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act to cover contractors operating in a Defense Department-designated "contingency area," regardless of the agency that hired them. MEJA is designed to hold civilians accompanying the military to war zones accountable for criminal actions.

The legislation passed the House overwhelmingly, by a vote of 389-30. According to a statement from Price released after the vote, Senate leaders plan to "act swiftly on the measure."

The legislative action follows an Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing earlier this week that highlighted the legal gray area into which private security contractors fall. Committee members expressed concern that the current statute may apply only to Defense contractors, and not to private security guards hired by other agencies such as the State Department.

Price's legislation also establishes a means of enforcing the statute's expansion. It would require the Justice Department to compile a report for Congress detailing the number of complaints, investigations and criminal cases involving contractors that it has received and resolved.

In addition, the bill would require the creation of an FBI Theater Investigative Unit responsible for looking into allegations of criminal violations by contractors. The unit would investigate any reports that raise "reasonable suspicion" of criminal misconduct and any reports of fatalities resulting from contractor use of force. Cases would be referred to the attorney general for further action if the investigation confirmed criminal misconduct.

Finally, Price's bill directs all agencies operating in contingency areas to cooperate with and support the Theater Investigative Unit, and says that any investigations carried out by agency inspectors general must be coordinated with the FBI unit.

The International Peace Operations Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents a number of private security companies, including the high-profile contractor Blackwater USA, released a statement Tuesday endorsing the legislation.

"Our industry specializes at operating in areas of weak and failed states where effective legal structures are the exception rather than the rule," the group stated. "MEJA is a groundbreaking law, and Congressman Price's steadfast efforts to enhance and improve the act are welcomed by all who believe that peace and stability operations can and should be performed at the highest professional and ethical standards."

Doug Brooks, the organization's president, said he doesn't view the legislation as an expansion so much as a clarification. "We've always assumed we fell under MEJA," he said, adding that the legislation is still important to ensure there are no loopholes.

The Office of Management and Budget, however, released a statement of administration policy on the bill Wednesday supporting the general idea of greater oversight of in-theater contractors but strongly opposing the legislation in its current form.

The administration is concerned that the legislation would expand legal jurisdiction in an imprudent and unclear way. According to OMB, the scope of the legislation is too dependent on vague notions of what a contingency area is, and federal criminal jurisdiction would be expanded overseas into situations where it would be "impossible or unwise" to extend it.

Additionally, the administration is concerned that the legislation would put undue burdens both on the FBI and the Defense Department. The statement says forcing the FBI investigative unit to look into not only reports of fatalities but all reports of misconduct would hinder the agency's ability to prioritize law enforcement resources. Also, according to OMB, the bill would require Defense to take on significant responsibilities for handling and detaining non-Defense contractors.

Price said in a statement Wednesday that the administration's objections are unfounded and the scope of the bill follows existing legal precedent, simply putting all contractors under the same law currently applicable to Defense contractors.

"Furthermore, the bill simply requires the FBI to have investigators in place where there is a significant contractor presence, so they can investigate crimes," Price stated. "Right now, there is a virtual city of 180,000 contractors in Iraq without anyone enforcing the law -- without a single prosecutor."