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U.S. criminal law could cover civilian contractors


 Plainclothes contractors working for Blackwater USA take part in a firefight with Iraqis loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr.
Gervasio Sanchez/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Date published: 2/1/2013

BY ERIC TUCKER

Associated Press

WASHINGTON

--With thousands of civilian contractors remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan, Justice Department officials want Congress to resolve a legal issue they say obstructs efforts to prosecute any such workers who rape, kill or commit other serious crimes abroad.

Scofflaw Pentagon employees and contractors supporting the American war mission overseas are subject to federal prosecution in the U.S., but a nonmilitary contractor who breaks the law may fall outside the Justice Department's jurisdiction. Lawmakers who have pushed in the past to extend the reach of U.S. criminal law plan to renew their efforts this session with bills to make civilian contractors and employees liable to federal prosecution for acts including murder, arson and bribery.

Federal prosecutors believe clearer and more uniform rules are needed to resolve a jurisdictional question made murkier by the end of the Iraq war and the ongoing reduction of troops in Afghanistan. The issue caused problems for authorities during the first prosecution of Blackwater contractors accused in 2007 shootings in Baghdad and could again be a stumbling block as prosecutors seek a new indictment in the case.

"There still is this great vulnerability if these contractors get into some kind of scrape, some kind of problem, and there's no clear legal path to deal with it. That can be a serious problem," said Rep. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat who plans to reintroduce legislation called the Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act. "We just need to give this the priority it deserves."

Previous attempts to close the gap have stalled amid debate over who should be shielded from prosecution and under what circumstances. The House bill didn't get out of committee last session, though similar legislation passed the chamber several years ago. The Senate bill cleared the Judiciary Committee but never reached the floor, tied up in part by uncertainty over how to protect certain contractors and employees, including intelligence agents and law enforcement officials, whose job responsibilities might require them to skirt the law.

"We should not require agents to pay for defense attorneys and risk jail time at the political whim of the Justice Department," Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the committee's top Republican, said at a 2011 hearing.