Contractors and accountability

U.S. contractors in Iraq should face the same law as our servicemen and women.

For all the attention Congress has given to our nation’s activities in Iraq, the behavior of U.S. contractors still has not been adequately addressed by the law. A patchwork approach to regulating those who are supposed to be rebuilding the broken nation has left the door open for widespread abuse.

Congress understood the importance of such regulation, and it attempted to fix the problem last November when it expanded the Uniform Code of Military Justice to include contractors. However, the revision didn’t do much because the UCMJ only has limited application in conflicts that lack a formal declaration of war, like the current conflict in Iraq. Without formal guidance on how the law should be implemented, the same problem with a lack of accountability persists.

The gray area surrounding the UCMJ places legal responsibility into the hands of a mess of laws, all of which were passed before the invasion of Iraq – a time when contractors weren’t given such a prominent role in military conflicts. Under the status quo, if a contractor commits a crime in Iraq, it could go unpunished if other federal laws don’t explicitly cover the offense.

It’s irresponsible for our government to ignore this discrepancy. It creates an environment rife with legal uncertainty and also opens the door to abuses by contractors abroad. Actions that would be illegal for our men and women in uniform might not be punishable if they there were carried out by contractors.

This is problematic for several reasons. Contractors are not trained professionals, and we can’t count on them to exercise the same judgment as our soldiers do. Moreover, they don’t have to answer to the public. Instead, they answer to shareholders and corporate officials. We can imagine what kind of situation might arise if they don’t even have to answer to U.S. law.

The solution is clear. Congress needs to fix the problems that inhibit the UCMJ from being applied to contractors. The government won’t win the hearts and minds of Iraqis if U.S. contractors are allowed to roam free in Iraq without fear of penalty under the law.