Justice Department declines to attend hearing on KBR gang-rape case

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing today into the allegations of Jamie Leigh Jones, a young Texas woman who claims she was drugged and gang-raped by her fellow KBR/Halliburton employees in Iraq -- and then imprisoned and threatened with the loss of her job after reporting the incident to her bosses. KBR has denied the allegations.

While Jones courageously testified before the committee, no one from the Justice Department bothered to show up. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski sent a letter [PDF] yesterday to Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) explaining that the Department was unable to testify because of its "pending investigation" into the incident, which occurred more than two years ago.

But Conyers wasn't buying it. As he said in his prepared statement:

Simply put, it is unacceptable for our own Department of Justice to refuse to testify today. The letter they sent me last night does not begin to respond to the tragedy and injustice that we are looking at now. The department claims to be committed to law enforcement in Iraq, but 1) they will tell us nothing about what is being done in Ms. Jones' case; 2) they cannot give us even one example of a prosecution where the victim was a civilian contractor employee in Iraq; and 3) they cannot describe any steps they have taken to ensure that such Americans in Iraq can report crimes by contractor employees there to federal law enforcement and that prompt investigation and prosecution will occur. The American people and this committee have the right to demand justice and accountability, and I intend to see that that is exactly what we get.

Also testifying before the committee was U.S. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), who played a key role in Jones' release after she was allegedly locked up by KBR. In his testimony, Poe reported that his office has heard from three other women who say they have suffered similar experiences. They include Tracy Barker, the wife of an Army Airborne sergeant who was recruited at Fort Bragg, N.C., to work for KBR/Halliburton in Iraq. She claims she was sexually assaulted there by a State Department employee who still works at the State Department today; the Justice Department has declined to prosecute that case. Barker also submitted testimony [PDF] to the committee in which she stated:

In short, when I initially arrived in Iraq I was exposed to a sexually hostile, physically threatening and verbally abusive environment. Although I reported the violations properly ... I was retaliated against and lost my job. I was eventually transferred to a dangerous and extremely hostile camp where I endured extreme sexually hostile conditions by my immediate supervisor and was attacked by a State Department employee. Due to the lawlessness that exists in Iraq I have not had a proper opportunity to seek justice in the criminal or civil arena.

Likening Iraq to the Wild West where no one seems to be in charge, Poe called for the law to intervene and restore order.