Leahy Introduces Bill To Hold American Contractors Overseas Accountable Under U.S. Law

WASHINGTON – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Tuesday introduced legislation to ensure accountability under U.S. law for American contractors and employees working abroad.  The Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (CEJA) will close a gap in current law to make certain that American government employees and contractors are not immune from prosecution for crimes committed overseas.

The legislation follows Leahy’s efforts in previous Congresses to provide for prosecution of violations of U.S. law by Americans working overseas for the U.S. government.  Recent examples, including the violent rape of Jamie Leigh Jones, a contractor with Halliburton, while stationed in Iraq, and the killing of unarmed civilians in Baghdad by private security contractors with Blackwater, have further highlighted the need for this legislation.  Jones testified before the Leahy-chaired Senate Judiciary Committee in October.

Leahy said, “To restore accountability, having a responsible administration will unfortunately not be enough.  Congress must change the law to make sure that our criminal laws reach serious misconduct by American government employees and contractors abroad.  The Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act will accomplish this important and common sense goal.  No one should be above the law, certainly not American employees and contractors representing this great nation throughout the world.  This bill would promote the rule of law throughout the world and make us stronger in the process.”

The proposed legislation creates no new substantive offenses, but rather allows the government to prosecute government contractors and employees for certain serious crimes.  The legislation expands on the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), which provides similar criminal jurisdiction over Department of Defense employees and contractors but does not clearly apply to U.S. contractors working overseas for other federal agencies, such as the Department of State.

The Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act will:

  • Direct the Justice Department to create new investigative units to investigate, arrest and prosecute contractors and employees who commit serious crimes.
  • Allow the Attorney General to authorize federal agents to arrest alleged offenders outside of the United States, if there is probable cause that an employee or contractor has committed a crime.
  • Require the Attorney General to report annually to Congress the number of offenses received, investigated and prosecuted under the statute; the number, location, and deployments of the newly created investigative units; and any changes needed in the law to make it more effective.

A companion bill was also introduced Tuesday in the House of Representatives by Congressman David Price (D-N.C.).  The Senate bill is cosponsored by Senator Ted Kaufman (D-Del.).

Leahy’s full statement on the introduction of the Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act follows.

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
Introduction Of The Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act Of 2010
February 2, 2010

Over the past year, President Obama has been working hard to restore America’s credibility in the world and our reputation for justice and our commitment to the rule of law.  A key component of that important mission is ensuring accountability for American contractors and employees overseas.  Accountability is crucial, not just for our image abroad and our diplomatic relations, but for ensuring our national security.

To restore accountability, Congress must make sure that our criminal laws reach serious misconduct by American government employees and contractors wherever they act.  Today, I join with Senator Kaufman to introduce the Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (CEJA) to accomplish this important and common sense goal.

Tragic events in Iraq in 2007 made clear the need to strengthen the laws providing for jurisdiction over American government employees and contractors working abroad.  In September 2007, Blackwater security contractors working for the State Department shot more than 20 unarmed civilians on the streets of Baghdad, killing at least 14 of them, and causing an international incident with the Iraqi government. 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) conducted a full-scale criminal investigation of the Blackwater shootings, and prosecutors brought indictments against five contractors.  Last month, a Federal district judge dismissed all the charges because of an order from the past administration immunizing Blackwater contractors under Iraqi law and immunity commitments by the prior administration to obtain the testimony of some.  Although the Justice Department is expected to appeal the dismissals, this could mean that those who perpetrated this act will not be held accountable.   I believe that, had jurisdiction for these offenses been clear, FBI agents would have been on the scene immediately, which could well have prevented the problems that have plagued the case. 

Other incidents have made all too clear that the Blackwater case was not an isolated incident of contractor misconduct, and accountability for U.S. government contractors and employees is essential.  Private security contractors have been involved in violent incidents in Iraq, including other shooting incidents in which civilians have been seriously injured or killed.  In these cases too, there have not been prosecutions.

Last fall, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Jamie Leigh Jones, a young woman from Texas who took a job with Halliburton in 2005 when she was 20 years old.  In her first week on the job, she was drugged and gang-raped by co-workers.  When she reported this assault, her employers moved her to a locked trailer, where she was kept by armed guards and denied even access to a phone.

Only after pleading with her captors was she eventually given use of a phone.  She called her father, who contacted her Congressman, who in turn contacted the State Department.  State Department officials were able to free her.  Ms. Jones testified about the arbitration clause in her contract that prevented her from suing Halliburton for this outrageous conduct, and Congress has moved to change the civil law to prevent that kind of injustice.  Today we seek to fix the outdated criminal laws that have also contributed to the failure to bring those who perpetrated this heinous crime to justice.

Unfortunately, many other women have encountered similar abuse and have similarly seen their attackers escape any accountability.  Also last year, we learned that contractors hired to secure the American Embassy in Afghanistan engaged in various forms of outrageous conduct but there, too, there have been no prosecutions.  It is time to correct this injustice. 

I worked with Senator Sessions and others in 2000 to pass the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), and then again to amend it in 2004, so that U.S. criminal laws would extend to all members of the U.S. military, to those who accompany the military, and to all contractors who support the Defense Department mission overseas.  We wanted to make sure that all contractors working alongside the U.S. military or protecting U.S. interests overseas were held to the same standard that they would be at home.  We pay these contractors with taxpayers’ money, they represent the United States overseas, and they should be held to the same standards as our military. 

In 2007, I worked with then-Senator Obama and with Senators Sessions and Specter on further legislation which would have amended MEJA to make sure that all security contractors, not just those supporting the Defense Department, are accountable under U.S. law.

Today, we introduce a bill that would finally address this issue in a comprehensive way, establishing clearly that all U.S. government employees and contractors who commit crimes while working abroad can be charged and tried in the United States under U.S. law.  The State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and numerous other Government agencies have employees, and in recent years, more and more private contractors, working abroad.  There must be accountability for all of these people who represent our Government overseas.  And in those instances where the local justice system may be less fair, this explicit jurisdiction will also protect Americans by providing the option of prosecuting them in the United States, rather than leaving them subject to hostile and unpredictable local courts.

Not only will this bill help to provide justice in cases where there has been none, it will improve our national security by allowing prosecution of those who undermine our efforts to create stability and improve foreign relations.  By ensuring accountability in cases of wrongdoing against citizens of the host country, as in the Blackwater case, we will increase international trust and cooperation, including from those countries most essential to our counter-terrorism and national security efforts.  The current lack of accountability reduces international confidence in our military and our Government, which undermines our national defense.  Moreover, the talented men and women we need to advance our national security efforts will be more likely to step forward and serve if we stamp out the lawless atmosphere in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The legislation we introduce today would further increase accountability by providing additional resources and creating new units to investigate wrongdoing by contractors and employees abroad and by calling on the Attorney General and the Justice Department’s Inspector General to report to Congress on investigations under this bill.

In the past, legislation in this area has been bipartisan.  I hope it will be again.  Senator Kaufman and I are willing to work to address any concerns with this legislation and to ensure that it promises justice in a way that strengthens, rather than weakens, our national security.   Congressman Price is introducing a companion bill in the House.  I hope that we will be able to rapidly pass this important reform into law.

As we seek to restore our Nation’s historic role as one of responsible leadership in the world, we must ensure that the values that brought us to that leadership are firmly in place.  One of those great American values is the rule of law.  No one should be above the law, certainly not American employees and contractors representing this great nation throughout the world.  This common sense bill would promote the rule of law throughout the world and make us stronger in the process.  I hope Senators on both sides of the aisle will join us.

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