WASHINGTON - While working in Iraq as a "morale coordinator" for a U.S. government contractor, a Tampa woman says, she was raped by a drunken colleague who secured a key to her apartment from an unlocked storage box.
That was in December 2005, and her attorney said he's unaware of any criminal charges in the case.
The U.S. Justice Department has the authority to prosecute, but she and at least three other women who say they were assaulted complain of being trapped in legal limbo between a military system that doesn't oversee the private contractors and a justice system that appears unwilling to do so.
"American women are vulnerable not only to assault, but to achieving justice," said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who since December has been pressing the Bush administration for answers over the treatment of U.S. citizens sexually assaulted by contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He got a few Wednesday. Following tearful testimony at a Senate hearing from two other women who reported being raped while on the job in Iraq, the Defense and Justice departments acknowledged that though more than two dozen U.S. civilians working in the war zone have complained of sexual assaults, no one has yet been tried for a crime.
"We've got a problem that justice is breaking down here," said Nelson, whose wife Grace and daughter Nan Ellen watched grimly as the women testified about being raped -- and in one case, discouraged from reporting the attack.
"I'm in a war zone, and I have to worry about my co-workers," said Mary Beth Kineston, an Ohio woman who drove a truck in Iraq for Houston-based military contractor KBR and said she was raped by another driver.
A Texas woman, who attended but did not testify at Wednesday's hearing, drew national attention to the issue last year when she told a congressional panel that she was raped by co-workers while working for KBR in Iraq in 2005.
Nelson said he got involved after that hearing when his office was contacted by the Tampa woman, who had also worked for KBR.
The woman filed suit against the company in federal court in Miami, accusing it of negligence, and the case has been referred to arbitration.
A spokeswoman for Houston-based KBR said the company "in no way condones or tolerates sexual harassment." And she said that if violations occur, ``appropriate action is taken."
But the women said they are often uncertain about where to turn for help and are required to take their disputes with their employer to arbitration, rather than the U.S. courts.
Attorney Eugene Fidell, a military law expert who has been critical of the Bush administration's war policies, criticized the arrangement as creating a shield.
"There's a real problem with transparency and accountability," he said.
SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT
Never Miss a Beat.
Get our best delivered to your inbox.
The administration counts on private companies -- and an estimated 180,000 contract employees -- to carry out many details of waging war, from providing security to feeding the troops.
A shooting last September by guards for contractor Blackwater that left 11 Iraqis dead intensified calls to hold contract employees to the same legal standards as military personnel.
But Nelson said a 2000 law, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, could be used to charge contractors with assault.
He said the law gives federal prosecutors jurisdiction over contractors whose work is ``supporting the mission of the Department of Defense overseas."
An attorney for the Defense Department told Nelson the law wasn't applicable until 2005, when the agency finished writing the rules to carry out the legislation.
A Justice Department attorney said the agency now has about a half-dozen open investigations, including a complaint filed by an Illinois woman who told Nelson on Wednesday that she sleeps only every other day after being sodomized and forced to perform oral sex by a contractor and a soldier.
Sigal Mandelker, an attorney with the department's criminal division, said the agency takes the complaints seriously, but said they can be hard to investigate.
"It is an unfortunate fact that the crimes occur in a war zone and there are numerous difficulties of investigating a case when the conduct occurred in a war zone," she said.
Figures provided by the two agencies show 26 U.S. civilians have lodged sexual assault complaints; seven have been found to have insufficient evidence and 10 resulted in "administrative action," including deportation, reprimands or firings.
An attorney with the Defense Department told Nelson the Pentagon is ramping up efforts to stamp out sexual harassment among government contractors.
The agency is starting an "effort to increase awareness, enhance accountability and ultimately to deter this kind of behavior," said Robert Reed, an associate deputy general counsel.
Nelson, who questioned whether military contracts require companies to provide training on how to handle sexual assault complaints, called the program a ``step in the right direction."
But, he noted, "We're in the fifth year of a war. Why wouldn't we have made sure that every member of the total armed forces was aware already?"
© 2008 McClatchy Newspapers