Starting in the 1990s, the drug war in Colombia pioneered the use of private contractors to do hazardous quasi-military jobs like spraying coca fields, running radar sites, gathering aerial intelligence, and much else. Since then, the U.S. government has gone on to hire dozens of companies like DynCorp, MPRI, and Blackwater to provide manpower and services in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Unbelievably, U.S. law had been unclear about what happens when employees of these countries commit crimes – including human-rights abuse – in the countries where they have been hired to work. The Brookings Institution’s P.W. Singer explained this in an excellent Wednesday evening post to DefenseTech.org.
Previously, contractors would only fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, better known as the court martial system, if Congress declared war. This is something that has not happened in over 65 years and out of sorts with the most likely operations in the 21st century. The result is that whenever our military officers came across episodes of suspected contractor crimes in missions like Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, or Afghanistan, they had no tools to resolve them. As long as Congress had not formally declared war, civilians — even those working for the US armed forces, carrying out military missions in a conflict zone — fell outside their jurisdiction. The military’s relationship with the contractor was, well, merely contractual. …
The situation perhaps hit its low-point this fall, when the Under Secretary of the Army testified to Congress that the Army had never authorized Halliburton or any of its subcontractors (essentially the entire industry) to carry weapons or guard convoys.
This gaping loophole, Singer explains, may finally have been closed.
Those carefree days of military contractors romping across the hills and dales of the Iraqi countryside, without legal status or accountability, may be over. The Congress has struck back.
Amidst all the add-ins, pork spending, and excitement of the budget process, it has now come out that a tiny clause was slipped into the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2007 budget legislation. The one sentence section (number 552 of a total 3510 sections) states that "Paragraph (10) of section 802(a) of title 10, United States Code (article 2(a) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice), is amended by striking `war’ and inserting `declared war or a contingency operation’." The measure passed without much notice or any debate. …
The addition of five little words to a massive US legal code that fills entire shelves at law libraries wouldn’t normally matter for much. But with this change, contractors’ ‘get out of jail free’ card may have been torn to shreds. … With the addition of just five words in the law, contractors now can fall under the purview of the military justice system. This means that if contractors violate the rules of engagement in a warzone or commit crimes during a contingency operation like Iraq, they can now be court-martialed.
This, if it can be made to work, is terrific news for accountability and citizen control over foreign policymaking. But don’t pop the champagne corks yet, because the news isn’t all good.
In part of a great late-December series on mega-contractor DynCorp, Tod Robberson of the Dallas Morning News reports that the Virginia-based company has just won a huge contract to do in Afghanistan what it has been doing in Colombia since the mid-1990s.
After nearly a decade of experience eradicating illicit-drug crops in Colombia for the State Department, DynCorp has won a new contract that could earn the company more than $2.1 billion over the next 10 years and will include operations in Afghanistan, the world’s biggest producer of opium.
Dyncorp saw its business in Colombia expand enormously with the passage of Plan Colombia back in 2000. One of Plan Colombia’s biggest salesmen in the Clinton administration was Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug czar at the time. Today, McCaffrey is a member of DynCorp’s board.
So is Marc Grossman, who for much of George Bush’s first term was the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs (at the time, the department’s number-three official after Colin Powell and Richard Armitage). During his tenure, Grossman traveled a few times to Colombia, where he consistently heaped praise on Plan Colombia.
Robberson asked Grossman why DynCorp should be hired to keep doing the same thing, since aerial herbicide spraying hasn’t reduced coca cultivation in Colombia. Grossman’s response is such a creative piece of spin that it must be shared.
The fact that cultivation is back on the rise and drug smuggling into the United States is close to the same levels as 2000 is “not great because you’d like it to go down. But … the fact that there hasn’t been any doubling or tripling of this crop seems to me at least a worthwhile point to make.”