In indicting five Blackwater personnel, and accepting a guilty plea of a sixth, for the 2007 Nisour Square shootings resulting in the death of 17 Iraqis, the Justice Department relied on a much discussed law, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) to get jurisdiction over the contractors. (U.S. criminal law is generally restricted to the confines of U.S. territories and thus inapplicable to crimes committed elsewhere.)
A debate about whether MEJA would apply to these contractors centered on one question: whether State Department security contractors, including Blackwater, could be said to be supporting a Defense Department mission in Iraq, and thus be considered “employed by the Armed Forces” as it is defined in the law.
Yet, whether the court ultimately decides that MEJA, as it stands, is applicable to DOS contractors in this instance or not does not mean there isn’t room for improvement in the law.
Now is the time to pick up the ball again and continue moving forward. We shouldn’t wait for the next Nisour Square to contemplate whether U.S. law has kept pace with U.S. companies that regularly operate internationally, often in high-risk environments like conflict zones. It’s not hard to imagine that the next case won’t involve a DOD mission at all, and we’ll be scrambling for law and order, again.
On September 16, 2007, the fury that must have existed in Nisour Square set off another nucleus of confusion and activity – once the killings were known, the issue was what could be done about them. Representative David Price (NC) was already on top of the issue, introducing a bill and leading an effort in the House to expand and clarify MEJA and better regulate the military and security industry. Senator Barack Obama led the cause in the Senate.
With Senator Obama now President-elect Obama, let’s hope that the move to the White House will bring not only fulfillment of promises to be a better neighbor in our foreign affairs but also that our new President will continue to support the efforts of his tireless colleagues in Congress to set the stage for a more humane way for the United States to do business.