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Security firms in Iraq could lose immunity

Congress mulls allowing criminal prosecution

WASHINGTON — Congress is moving to update a law that has kept Blackwater USA and other private security contractors in Iraq immune to criminal prosecution. The White House contends the change could cause new problems.

The House was expected to pass legislation on today by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., that would extend the criminal jurisdiction of U.S. courts to any federal contractor working alongside military operations. Senate Democratic leaders said they planned to follow suit as soon as possible and send the measure to President Bush.

The legislation comes amid a string of allegations involving Blackwater employees hired by the State Department to protect diplomatic personnel in Iraq.

In one case, a drunken Blackwater employee left a Christmas Eve party in Baghdad and fatally shot the guard of one of Iraq's vice presidents. The contractor was fired, fined and returned home to the United States; no charges have been filed.

More recently, Blackwater guards were involved in a Sept. 16 shootout that left 11 Iraqis dead. The FBI is investigating.

It is unclear whether charges can be brought against any of the contractors. Federal officials cite murky laws governing the conduct of U.S. personnel abroad not hired directly by the military. The current law, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, covers personnel supporting the mission of Defense Department operations overseas.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters traveling with him in South America that a Pentagon review team has recommended the military have more control over contractors and private security guards fall under the military code of justice in some cases.

He said new guidelines for military commanders in Iraq probably will increase the number of private security contractors who will face prosecution or discipline for violence.

Because Blackwater's primary mission is to protect State Department officials, defense lawyers probably would argue successfully that the current law does not apply.

At the same time, U.S. contractors are immune from prosecution by Iraqi courts.

White House officials say they support increasing accountability of contractors abroad but worry that the House bill is too vague and may go too far. An administration statement Wednesday said the bill would have "unintended and intolerable consequences for crucial and necessary national security activities and operations."

But the statement did not explain further or give examples on how the bill would affect national security. The White House referred questions to the Justice Department, which declined comment.

The White House also cited concerns with stretching FBI resources by mandating that the agency conduct investigations overseas. Also, officials said they feared the military could be overtaxed if required to support criminal investigations led by the Justice Department.

In a statement, Price said the White House's objections were unfounded and "should infuriate anyone who believes in the rule of law.

"The fact is the administration has an embarrassing track record for investigating and prosecuting misconduct by contractors working in our name," Price said.

Blackwater founder Erik Prince told a House panel Tuesday that he supports expanding the law.

"Beyond firing him for breaking the rules, withholding any funds we can, we can't flog him," Prince said of the intoxicated Blackwater guard. "We can't incarcerate him. We can't do anything beyond that."

Blackwater has provided security for the FBI in Iraq. But spokesman Richard Kolko said that to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, the team investigating the Sept. 16 shooting would use U.S. government personnel for any security needs.

Contributing: Matt Apuzzo