House passes military contractor accountability bill as Iraq demands Blackwater guards be tried there

The U.S. House of Representatives today overwhelmingly approved legislation that would end the ability of U.S. military security contractors to operate with impunity in war zones. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) introduced the measure in June, but it gained traction after an incident last month in which guards with North Carolina-based contractor Blackwater USA killed more than a dozen Iraqi civilians.

The final vote on H.R. 2740 was 389 to 30 -- a strong show of bipartisan unity against the White House. In a statement (pdf) released yesterday, the White House Office of Management and Budget said the administration "strongly opposes" the bill on the grounds that it would "give rise to extensive litigation on jurisdictional issues," impede "necessary national security activities and operations," divert "scarce law enforcement resources," and "burden" the Department of Defense with supporting criminal investigations.

The administration's opposition comes even though Price's measure is not as tough as rival legislation sponsored by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) -- and even though it has the support of the private security industry lobby.

Of the 30 lawmakers who voted against the measure, all were Republicans and half were from Southern states: Rodney Alexander (La.), Richard Baker (La.), Joe Barton (Texas), Charles Boustany (La.), Paul Broun (Ga.), Michael Burgess (Texas), Nathan Deal (Ga.), Sam Johnson (Texas), John Linder (Ga.), Jim McCrery (La.), Jeff Miller (Fla.), Tom Price (Ga.), Mike Rogers (Ala.), Pete Sessions (Texas) and Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.).

During House debate, Price noted that -- unlike members of the regular armed forces -- thousands of armed U.S. civilians in Iraq are not held responsible for actions that could damage the U.S. mission and national security interests:

"Our military is the best fighting force in the world today, in large part because it is structured in a way that demands accountability, discipline, and unity of action," Price said. "But there is no clear chain of command for contractors, little in the way of standards for training and vetting personnel, and no legal accountability for misconduct."

The measure now goes to the Senate, where the Democratic leadership has pledged prompt passage.

Meanwhile, there was another development today in the growing Blackwater scandal that highlights what security contractors could face if they are not held accountable under U.S. law. According to the Associated Press, the official Iraqi investigation into last month's mass shooting of civilians by Blackwater forces has been submitted to the government -- and it recommends that the guards face trial in Iraqi courts. Reports the AP:

The investigation maintained, as Iraqi authorities have throughout, that the Blackwater guards had not been fired on when they unleashed the fusillade. It said no shots were fired at Blackwater personnel throughout the incident.

The report also concludes that a total of 13 civilians were killed in the Sept. 16 incident, and it says that Blackwater should be required to compensate the victims' families.

In other Blackwater news, the FBI has taken over the official U.S. investigation into the Sept. 16 incident from the State Department in the wake of revelations that the person who wrote its initial report on the incident was actually a Blackwater contractor. Fortunately, though, Blackwater employees won't be the ones guarding the FBI investigators, as was originally supposed to be the case, raising concerns of a potentially life-threatening conflict of interest. Instead, federal guards will be protecting the agents.