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White House: Contractor bill would have 'intolerable' effects

  • Story Highlights
  • Bill would allow American courts to prosecute crimes in a war zone overseas
  • White House: Bill would cause "unintended and intolerable" consequences
  • Bill sponsor Rep. David Price blasts WH, calling concerns unfounded
  • House expected to debate bill Wednesday and vote on it Thursday
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration said Wednesday it opposes a bill that would bring private military contractors overseas under U.S. law, warning it would have "unintended and intolerable consequences" for national security.

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An Iraqi woman walks past a car damaged in the September 16 incident involving Blackwater.

Its sponsor, North Carolina Democratic Rep. David Price, said the bill would clear up questions such as those raised by last month's Baghdad shootings involving contractors from the U.S. security firm Blackwater USA.

Price introduced the measure in January, and the Judiciary Committee approved the bill in August.

The House of Representatives was expected to begin debate on the bill Wednesday afternoon, with a vote tentatively scheduled Thursday morning.

But the White House, in a formal statement of policy, said the measure would overburden the military, overstretch the FBI, intrude on prosecutorial decisions and extend federal jurisdiction overseas in ways that would be "impossible or unwise."

"The administration welcomes the opportunity to discuss these important issues further with Congress," the statement said.

The bill would state that contractors working for the U.S. government overseas are subject to the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which allows American courts to prosecute crimes committed in a war zone overseas.

The act covers contractors "supporting the mission of the Department of Defense."

But Blackwater is providing security to Department of State officials.

Wednesday, Price released a statement calling the Bush administration's objections unfounded.

The White House position "should infuriate anyone who believes in the rule of law," the statement read. "The fact is the administration has an embarrassing track record for investigating and prosecuting misconduct by contractors working in our name.

"This is precisely why we need to clarify the scope of the law and put FBI resources on the ground."

Foreign service analyst Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute -- who has studied the issue -- says the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act has been used once for an Iraq contractor and that was in a rape case.

Blackwater's founder and CEO Erik Prince told a House committee Tuesday the company supports Price's measure.

The White House said the bill would saddle the FBI with the responsibility of investigating deaths caused by private contractors overseas.

It would place "inappropriate and unwarranted burdens" on the Defense Department, which the administration said would be required to arrest contractors and support a specially created FBI unit that would investigate killings in a theater of war.

"The administration is concerned that this sweeping expansion of extraterritorial jurisdiction would create federal jurisdiction overseas in situations where it would be impossible or unwise to extend it," the White House said. "The bill would have unintended and intolerable consequences for crucial and necessary national security activities and operations."

Blackwater, the best-known security contracting firm working in Iraq, said its guards responded properly to an attack on a U.S. Embassy convoy September 16. But Iraqi authorities said Blackwater contractors fired indiscriminately at civilians, killing as many as 20 at two scenes in western Baghdad.

Another incident raised at Tuesday's session of the House Oversight and Governmental Affairs Committee involved a drunken Blackwater employee allegedly shooting and killing a bodyguard to Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. Prince said the man was fined, fired and flown home from Iraq, and the company later paid $20,000 in compensation to the victim's family.

The Justice Department is investigating the case, but no charges have been brought, U.S. officials have said.

Prince defended his company's conduct in Iraq. But the committee's chairman, California Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman, said the U.S. reliance on private security firms in Iraq "is backfiring" by creating resentment of the contractors among Iraqis.

Under an order laid down by the U.S. occupation government in Iraq, U.S. contractors can't be prosecuted under Iraqi law. Prince said he believed that rule should stand.

"I'm not sure any foreigner would get a fair trial in Iraq right now," he said. "I think they'd at least get a fair trial here in the United States." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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