As news broke of the rape of yet another US military contractor employee in Iraq [see "Another KBR Rape Case" at thenation.com], the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened a hearing April 9 to demand that the Justice Department explain why it has failed to prosecute a single sexual assault case in the theater since the Iraq War began.
"American women working in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to be sexually assaulted while their assailants go free," said Senator Bill Nelson, who called the hearing. Because squabbles about who has jurisdiction in these cases have proliferated, Nelson arranged to have representatives from the Defense, State and Justice departments sit down together in front of him. They were forced to listen while the latest victims testified.
Dawn Leamon, who worked for a subsidiary of KBR and had told her story to The Nation a week before, described--with her back to the packed room and her voice (mostly) steady -- being sodomized and forced to have oral sex with a KBR colleague and a Special Forces soldier two months earlier. When she reported the incident to KBR supervisors, she met a series of obstacles, she said. "They would tell me to stay quiet about it or try to make it seem as if I brought it on myself or lied about it."
Another woman, Mary Beth Kineston, who worked as a commercial trucker for KBR in Iraq, testified that she had been raped in the cab of her truck by a KBR subcontractor employee at night while waiting in line to fill her water tanker truck. She immediately reported the incident to her supervisors; no one did a rape kit test, referred her for medical treatment or even offered to escort her back through the dark to her quarters that night.
Also at the hearing was Jamie Leigh Jones, whose story made the news in December, when she alleged that her 2005 gang rape by Halliburton/KBR co-workers in Iraq was being covered up by the company and the government. Jones, who has formed a nonprofit to support the many other women with similar experiences, says forty employees of US contractors have contacted her with stories of sexual assault or sexual harassment -- and accounts of how Halliburton, KBR and the Cayman Island-based Service Employees International Inc. (SEII), a KBR shell company, either failed to help them or outright obstructed them.
As the number of women coming forward rises, Congress has begun to question why these crimes are not being prosecuted. In fact, there are several laws on the books that would allow these cases to proceed: the problem is not a lack of legal tools but a lack of will. "There is no rational explanation for this," says Scott Horton, a lecturer at Columbia Law School who specializes in the law of armed conflict. Prosecutorial jurisdiction for crimes like the alleged rapes of Jones and Leamon is easily established under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act and the Patriot Act's special maritime and territorial jurisdiction provisions. But somebody has to want to prosecute the cases.
Senator Nelson noted that the Defense Department, which has reported 742 sexual assaults against soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, has claimed that it was unable to prosecute cases involving civilians -- like defense contractor employees -- until recently. (Even among those cases where it clearly had jurisdiction, a close look at the DoD's own stats reveals a far from stellar record: among the 684 sexual assault complaints lodged by US soldiers in the Middle East, only eighty-three cases have led to courts-martial. Meanwhile, last year alone, 2,688 sexual assaults were reported globally against women serving in the US Armed Forces; disposition of these cases is pending.)
Worse, those figures represent only the official count. Given that so many women are now coming forward complaining that they have been hushed by their private-military-contractor supervisors, it's clear that the real tally is likely far higher. Even in cases where the victims do report the incidents, most complaints never see the light of day, thanks to the fine print in employee contracts, which compels employees into private arbitration instead of allowing their charges to be heard in a public courtroom. Todd Kelly, a lawyer in Houston who is trying to fight the legality of private arbitration, says his firm alone has fifteen clients with sexual assault, sexual harassment or retaliation complaints (for reporting assault and/or harassment) against Halliburton and its former subsidiary KBR, as well as SEII.
Obviously, US military contractors have an interest in avoiding the bad publicity that would follow if these complaints were not kept secret. With huge sums hanging in the balance -- KBR has an estimated $16 billion in contracts -- the stakes are high.
But such a financial incentive cannot explain why the Justice Department has failed to act. Although it has the authority to pursue criminal cases involving US military contractor employees, it has hemmed and hawed over even the tiny fraction of cases that have made their way through the maze of obstacles to land in the Justice Department's offices. Grilling Justice about these twenty-four civilian sexual assault cases, Senator Nelson demanded to know exactly how many cases Justice was pursuing -- and whether there had been a single conviction. "I don't know of any convictions for sexual assault," admitted Sigal Mandelker, deputy assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division. But, she stammered, "we do have active investigations...somewhere about...somewhere upwards of...somewhere between four and six, I believe is the number." (Leamon's attorney just learned that the department is initiating an investigation into her case.)
At the hearing, Nelson dryly observed that there was a very quick way to make sure US contractors did not force employees into private arbitration, and an easy way to force contractors to follow established protocols for sexual assault and harassment: "This might be something you want to require and include in your contracts--before you award them," he said. To which, in quick succession, the Defense, State and Justice department representatives responded that, well, they couldn't respond because this was, er, beyond their area of expertise.
Karen Houppert, special correspondent for The Washington Post Magazine and frequent Nation contributor, is the author of Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military-for Better or Worse.
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