Today’s L.A. Times has a piece on the Blackwater investigation and the implications it holds for the Bush administration: America’s own unlawful combatants?
As the Bush administration deals with the fallout from the recent killings of civilians by private security firms in Iraq, some officials are asking whether the contractors could be considered unlawful combatants under international agreements.
The question is an outgrowth of federal reviews of the shootings, in part because the U.S. officials want to determine whether the administration could be accused of treaty violations that could fuel an international outcry.
But the issue also holds practical and political implications for the administration’s war effort and the image of the U.S. abroad.
If U.S. officials conclude that the use of guards is a potential violation, they may have to limit guards’ tasks in war zones, which could leave more work for the already overstretched military.
Unresolved questions are likely to touch off new criticism of Bush’s conduct of the unpopular Iraq war, especially given the broad definition of unlawful combatants the president has used in justifying his detention policies at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The issues surrounding the private security contractors are being examined by lawyers at the departments of State, Defense and Justice. Disagreements about the contractors’ status exist between agencies and within the Pentagon itself.
“I think it is an unresolved issue that needs to be addressed,” said a senior Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject. “But if that is in fact the case, what the heck are we doing?”
Blackwater guards “operate under immunity from Iraqi law — immunity was granted in 2004 by U.S. officials — and in a murky status with respect to American laws.”
The designation of lawful and unlawful combatants is set out in the Geneva Convention.Lawful combatants are nonmilitary personnel who operate under their military’s chain of command. Others may carry weapons in a war zone but may not use offensive force. Under the international agreements, they may only defend themselves.
The amount of force being used in Iraq by security firms like Blackwater has raised questions.
The United States already has faced international criticism about its interrogation techniques and detention procedures, and charges that such practices do not adhere to international treaties. It was the government lawyers involved in those matters who first raised questions about the legal status of the private security contractors under Geneva Convention provisions.
But there is debate among those studying the question. Lawyers at the Justice Department are skeptical that the contractors could be considered unlawful combatants, but some in the State and Defense departments think the contractors in Iraq could be vulnerable to claims that their actions make them unlawful combatants.
If so, some experts say, the U.S. would have to pull them out of the war zone.
For now, it’s doubtful that BushCo will pull Blackwater, but there are questions being raised by Blackwater’s role in Iraq and “some of the private guards in Iraq and Afghanistan also could be seen as unlawful combatants, particularly if they have taken offensive action against unarmed civilians, experts said.”
“If we hire people and direct them to perform activities that are direct participation in hostilities, then at least by the Guantanamo standard, that is a war crime,” Schmitt said.
The 2004 immunity measure prevents Iraq from prosecuting private guards under Iraqi law. But some international law experts think Iraq could use international treaties to try contractors for killing civilians.
For now, such trials are considered unlikely, especially because the Iraqi government does not have the contractors in custody.
Many of the current and former federal officials think the administration has an obligation under the Geneva Convention to clarify the contractors’ status. Some are perplexed that the Bush administration did not resolve these issues — or at least discuss them more thoroughly — before putting contractors on such a complex battlefield.
“It’s confusing,” Silliman said. “And a lot of us are wondering why the Department of Defense pushed them into core military roles.”
There’s nothing really all that perplexing about BushCo’s refusal to resolve the issues with Blackwater — it’s called denial. Plain and simple. To clarify is to be complicit. Bush will till the end of his reign remain the King of Denial.