Last week the House of Representatives passed a bill to extend federal legal jurisdiction to crimes committed abroad by U.S. contractors in war zones such as Iraq, so that such crimes could be prosecuted in U.S. courts.
But before the bill (H.R. 2740) was passed, it triggered alarms by those who were concerned that its provisions could undermine U.S. intelligence activities.
“The bill would have unintended and intolerable consequences for crucial and necessary national security activities and operations,” the White House said without elaboration in an October 3 statement (pdf) outlining its opposition to the bill.
Congressman J. Randy Forbes (R-VA) spelled out those intelligence agency concerns in more detail on the House floor.
For example, he said, “If a clandestine asset was implicated in a crime, investigating and arresting that asset under traditional criminal procedures could expose other assets and compromise critical intelligence activities.”
More fundamentally, he complained, the new bill “applies the entire criminal code to the new category of potential offenders and could implicate the authorized business of the intelligence community employees and contractors.”
Rep. Forbes therefore introduced a motion stating that “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to affect intelligence activities that are otherwise permissible prior to the enactment of this Act.”
The motion was approved, but not without some critical commentary.
“The [Forbes] amendment raises serious questions about the activities its proponents may be seeking to protect,” said Rep. David Price (D-NC), who authored the new bill.
“Given that my bill only targets activities that are unlawful, why do my colleagues feel the need to clarify that it does not affect activities that are permissible?”
“What activities are contractors carrying out that are permissible but not lawful?” Rep. Price wondered aloud.
“If there are private, for-profit contractors tasked with duties that require them to commit felony offenses, Congress needs to know about it. Such a revelation would point to a need for a serious debate about whether we are using contractors appropriately,” he said.
See the October 4 House debate on the new bill, the “Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act Expansion and Enforcement Act of 2007,” which was passed by a large majority.
The awkward fact is that intelligence collection operations are routinely conducted in violation of established laws, including international legal norms to which the United States Government is formally committed.
“The CS [clandestine service] is the only part of the IC [intelligence community], indeed of the government, where hundreds of employees on a daily basis are directed to break extremely serious laws in counties around the world in the face of frequently sophisticated efforts by foreign governments to catch them,” according to a 1996 House Intelligence Committee staff report called IC21 (chapter 9, at page 205).
“A safe estimate is that several hundred times every day (easily 100,000 times a year) DO [Directorate of Operations] officers engage in highly illegal activities (according to foreign law) that not only risk political embarrassment to the US but also endanger the freedom if not lives of the participating foreign nationals and, more than occasionally, of the clandestine officer himself.”