Commentary

No Justice on Contractor Rape

Since the very first conflicts, until it was made illegal under international law, rape was a part of warfare. But a series of recent allegations against Private Military Contractors suggests that it is not just a historical phenomenon.

Earlier this month the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on the issue. The title, “Closing legal Loopholes: Prosecuting Sexual Assaults and Other Violent Crimes Committed Overseas by American Civilians in a Combat Environment,” said it all.

Consider Dawn Leamon’s story, which is chronicled in detail in the April 3 issue of The Nation. She says that while working for the U.S. contractor Kellogg Brown Root she was raped in Iraq earlier this year by a U.S. soldier and a KBR colleague.

She says that following her rape, she spoke with a woman at the KBR Employee Assistance Program. “She discouraged me from reporting, saying, ‘You know what will happen if you do,’” Leamon said.

The Department of Justice testified at the Senate hearing, which was notable if only for its past reluctance to do so in other cases. Leamon, unfortunately, is hardly the first victim of a sex crime.

For example, last December the Justice Department declined to send someone to testify before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on law enforcement efforts to protect U.S. contractors in Iraq.

That hearing featured testimony by Jamie Leigh Jones, a young Texan woman who also says she was gang-raped in 2005 while working for KBR in Iraq.

As Salon magazine noted, since reporting the case, Leamon, like Jones, has found herself in a legal limbo. This is because Halliburton has an extralegal dispute-resolution program, implemented under Chief Executive Officer Dick Cheney in 1997. Once you get past the rhetoric about reducing lengthy and costly legislation, its actual impact means that employees like Leamon and Jones signed away their constitutional right to a jury trial — and agreed to have any disputes heard in a private arbitration hearing without hope of appeal.

Perhaps the Justice Department was reluctant to show up because of its less-than-sterling record in prosecuting perpetrators of such crimes.

According to written testimony at the Senate hearing, the Justice Department has not prosecuted any cases involving sexual assaults against civilians who work for contractors in Iraq or Afghanistan, despite a law giving it that authority.

The department has taken action in 12 cases under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, and five of those involved sex crimes. In those cases four were successful convictions, but they were, with one exception, for relatively minor offenses; sexual abuse of a minor by a Defense Department civilian employee in Japan, child pornography crimes by Defense Department contractors in Iraq and Qatar, and abusive sexual contact by a Pentagon contractor against a soldier in Iraq.

One of the witnesses, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Sigal Mandelker, testified that investigating and prosecuting serious crimes in a war zone is a very difficult and costly proposition, which is why investigations and prosecutions under MEJA may take significant time to complete.

Yet, some of the incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq occurred as much as three to five years ago, and not one such case has been prosecuted thus far.

Even by this administration’s standards that is an abysmal record.

Scott Horton, a New York lawyer who has followed private contractors closely, called these cases “astonishing,” saying the attitude of the Justice Department “is one of official indifference to crime involving American contractors — even when American contractors are the victims.

“When pressed to explain its inaction, Justice Department spokesmen typically respond with complete silence, or they mutter semi-coherent gibberish about ‘inadequate resources’ and ‘legal complexities.’”

So bad is the record of the Justice Department, it even makes the Pentagon look good. Defense officials at the Senate hearing noted that it has engaged in a concerted effort to combat sexual assaults within stateside and overseas military communities. Beginning in early 2005 more than a dozen policy memorandums were issued that addressed sexual assault issues and care for victims of sexual assault, and the department even established a special policy office on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.

Even more disturbing is the fact that these are not just a few isolated cases. According to The Nation, numerous new sexual assault and sexual harassment complaints are being lodged against overseas contractors — by their own employees. One Texas lawyer says his firm alone has 15 clients who have made complaints against Halliburton or KBR alleging sexual assault, sexual harassment or retaliation for reporting them.

Jamie Leigh Jones formed a non-profit to support the many other women with similar stories. Currently, she has 40 U.S. contractor employees in her database who have contacted her alleging a variety of sexual assault or sexual harassment incidents — and claim that Halliburton, KBR or other PMCs have either failed to help them or outright obstructed them.

Those with long memories will recall that Kathryn Bolkovac, a U.N. International Police Force monitor, filed a lawsuit in 2001 against DynCorp for firing her after she reported that the company’s police trainers in Bosnia were paying for prostitutes and participating in sex trafficking. Many of the DynCorp employees were forced to resign under suspicion of illegal activity. But none was prosecuted, since they enjoy immunity from prosecution in Bosnia.

Earlier that year Ben Johnston, a DynCorp aircraft mechanic for helicopters in Kosovo, also filed a lawsuit against his employer. The suit alleged that in the latter part of 1999 he “witnessed coworkers and supervisors literally buying and selling women for their own personal enjoyment, and employees would brag about the various ages and talents of the individual slaves they had purchased.”

Nearly 10 years later not nearly enough has changed.

David Isenberg, a U.S. Navy veteran, is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and a correspondent for Asia Times.