WASHINGTON — The U.S. House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to bring all private security contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan under a federal code of conduct -- despite strong opposition from the White House and some Republican members of Congress.
The bill, by U.S. Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill, attracted attention this week in the wake of a September shooting in Baghdad in which Blackwater guards killed at least 11 Iraqis.
Witnesses said the shootings were unprovoked, but Blackwater defended its actions. The U.S. Department of State, which employs the Blackwater guards, and the FBI are investigating.
Price, a Democrat opposed to the war, has been working at least three years on the issue of private contracting in Iraq. The legislation is among the most significant of his congressional tenure.
The bill passed 389-30. Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, is expected to offer a companion bill in the Senate.
Price argued strongly that his bill would bring needed accountability to contractors often working without strict legal rules of conduct, and he said individual employees might change their behavior as a result.
"It will make a huge difference," Price said Thursday. "It would have made a huge difference in the situation two weeks ago. You couldn't have a better example."
The bill was supported by contractors and human rights organizations. But some observers predict that little will change in the way contractors operate in Iraq.
"Hopefully it won't. All this does is clarify some of these things," said Doug Brooks, executive director of International Peace Operations Association, the trade group for security contractors, which supports the legislation.
Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank, said the legislation would have little real impact unless the U.S. Department of Justice actually investigates suspected misdeeds. He called the bill a "positive step" but little more.
"It's like we've woken up to the fact the emperor has no clothes, but now we're just putting a scarf on it," said Singer, an expert in military contracting.
He said some reports have shown that the Justice agency has had as many as 20 suspected crimes referred to it, but only one prosecuted.
"They just disappear into the black hole of DOJ," Singer said. "The bill does its best to sort of force the hand of the executive branch to do something about contractors, but at end of the day, the ball will be in the executive branch's hands to act or not."
Jim Schmitt, senior vice president of ArmorGroup of North America, agreed.
"The actual application ... is only effective if there's a mechanism to create the oversight," Schmitt said. "If we create the law on books and don't have resources, it's very difficult for the law to be enforced."
He said most contractors already operate under the assumption that any crimes committed could send their workers before a U.S. jury.
Price said he was happy to have support from contractors, but he said reports show reckless behavior at some companies.
"There seem to be strong indications that some of these contractors regard themselves as above any law," Price said. "Part of the purpose is to rein in bad behavior."
Congress decided two years ago that private security contractors working with the Defense Department should come under the code of law.
Price's bill expands that law to include all security contractors, a significant move given the extensive bodyguard work done for the Department of State and the nation's rebuilding agency. (Blackwater, based in Moyock, is a major State contractor and protects top-level diplomats.)
Price's bill also would require the Bush administration to set up specialized FBI shops inside Iraq and Afghanistan to investigate reports of misdeeds.
The White House said Wednesday that it supports accountability but "strongly opposes" the bill, calling the jurisdiction vague and saying the FBI offices would leave the agency stretched too thin.
Earlier this week, Republican Rep. Randy Forbes of Virginia accused Price of writing a poorly drafted bill and said Price shut out Republican concerns.
"We endorse the intent of this bill, but it doesn't justify a poor bill," Forbes said. He outlined concerns similar to those the White House raised.
Price was incensed about the Bush administration's opposition statement, which came just a few hours before debate began on the bill.
"We've had a frustrating situation with the Bush administration," Price said. "This was dumped on us just at the last minute. For years, really, we've been working on this."
In the end, though, he was encouraged that Bush did not directly threaten a veto.
"We're talking here about a situation where there are some bad apples, and we need to make sure bad behavior is investigated and prosecuted," he said. "I'm hopeful that'll make a healthier situation for contractors."
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