Covered up by a military contractor

October 26, 2009

The nightmare endured by an employee of a military contractor is finally getting scrutiny, says Rachel Cohen--despite the efforts of the company and Republican lawmakers.

IN JULY 2005, 20-year-old Jamie Leigh Jones--an employee of the Halliburton subsidiary KBR stationed at Camp Hope inside the Green Zone in Baghdad--was invited out by some coworkers. During the evening, she accepted a drink from a man who assured her, "Don't worry, I saved all my Ruffies for Dubai."

The following morning, Jones awoke with one of her coworkers asleep beside her in bed, and found that she was covered in bruises and lacerations, with blood running down her leg. Attempting to walk to the bathroom, she collapsed and passed out.

That's how her nightmare began.

Now, Jones' case is gaining national scrutiny after Sen. Al Franken focused on it in proposing new legislation targeting KBR. But the contractors are resisting every effort by Jones to gain justice--and in this, they've had the support of dozens of Republican lawmakers.

After escaping, Jones managed to get seen by a U.S. army physician. She watched as Dr. Jodi Schulz turned over her rape kit to KBR security personnel--the kit would later disappear.

Jamie Leigh Jones testifies in front of Congress in 2007
Jamie Leigh Jones testifies in front of Congress in 2007

Then, she alleges, KBR officials locked her in a shipping container with two armed guards posted outside. Though she was provided food and water, she repeatedly pled for a phone call home, and was denied by both the guards and a KBR supervisor. Eventually, one guard did allow her to use his phone, and she reached her parents in Texas. Her father contacted their congressman, Ted Poe, who alerted agents of the U.S. embassy in Iraq, who were able to get her released from the container.

In her 2007 testimony before the House Committee on Education and Labor, Jones explained, "I was later interviewed by Halliburton/KBR supervisors, and it was made clear to me that I had essentially two choices: (1) 'stay and get over it,' or (2) go home with 'no guarantee of a job,' either in Iraq or back in Houston. Because of the severity of my injuries, I elected to go home, despite the obvious threat of firing."

IN ADDITION to threatening to fire Jones, Halliburton and KBR have made every effort to avoid being sued.

Buried within a five-page addendum to her 13-page employment contract was a mandatory arbitration clause. The clause requires employees to submit to binding private arbitration to settle any disputes, and bars access to civil courts. As Jones testified, "At this point in my life, I had no idea what an arbitration was...I learned that I had signed away my right to a trial by jury."

According to 2007 reports, private arbitrators sided in Halliburton's favor in 80 percent of cases. And of course, private arbitration has also allowed Halliburton and KBR to avoid the publicity of employee complaints.

Jones decided not to settle for arbitration. Instead, she hired a lawyer to press for a civil suit and took her story to the press.

Jones' lawyer, Todd Kerry, recently commented to the Guardian, "I've received upwards of 40 calls to my office [about assault cases] in the past two years. A good number had been disposed of under arbitration...Had there been public scrutiny to prevent such things happening and these cases were taken to court, they might not have been repeated."

No criminal charges against any of Jones' assailants or her employer have yet been filed. U.S. contractors in Iraq enjoy immunity from Iraqi law--granted by the Coalition Provisional Government shortly after the invasion of Iraq--until November of last year.

And the Department of Defense has pointed to the mandatory arbitration clause in Jones' contract as an excuse for not pursuing criminal prosecutions--although the clause only relates to civil cases and in no way would obstruct the Pentagon or the Department of Justice from filing criminal charges.

Jones recently won a four-year legal effort to secure the right to sue Halliburton and KBR for covering up the assault. KBR has defended itself by claiming that witnesses saw Jones drinking and having fun with her coworkers, and that she was seen leaving voluntarily with one man who claims to have had consensual sex with her.

Halliburton, for its part, insists it was "improperly named" in the suit because it has since divested from KBR. In other words, while it sought to hold Jones to the letter of her contract, Halliburton now denies any obligation to answer for actions of a company it legally owned at the time of the incident.

Jones says any money she wins in the case would be donated to the Jamie Leigh Foundation, which she established several years ago as a non-profit advocate for U.S. citizens or legal residents who are victims of criminal offenses perpetrated by contractors employed by the U.S. overseas.

One of the foundation's goals has been to get legislation passed to bar government contracts with businesses that mandate private arbitration. That's exactly what Sen. Franken did in introducing an amendment to the 2010 Defense Appropriation Act to bar such contracts in the future. It passed over the opposition of 30 Republican senators.

"The constitution gives everybody the right to due process of law," Franken said. "And today, defense contractors are using fine print in their contracts do deny women like Jamie Leigh Jones their day in court...The victims of rape and discrimination deserve their day in court, [and] Congress plainly has the constitutional power to make that happen."

Media commentators treated Republican senators like Jeff Sessions to a richly deserved helping of condemnation over their opposition to the amendment. Sessions' justification--that government has no business dictating the terms of employment contracts--stinks for several reasons, but above all because it is so callous in the light of Jones' story. Fundamentally, the logic of the Republican opposition put the right of employers to keep favorable contracts above the civil and human rights of employees.

WHILE THE amendment is obviously a step in the right direction, the congressional debate still rings hollow. From the impunity for contractors in Iraq, on whom Washington depends more and more; to the well-documented cases of rape and sexual harassment among U.S. military personnel; to evidence of rape and sexual assault of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison, sexual violence has been a central feature of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

To say that efforts to reign in rape and assault among the occupiers have been inadequate is an understatement.

Jones' civil suit against Halliburton and KBR rightly accuses the companies of encouraging a chauvinistic culture and the potential for abuse by mandating arbitration, and thus implying legal impunity for actions overseas.

But the Departments of Justice and Defense have not given any credible justifications for their failure to pursue prosecutions of contractors like Jones' attackers. On October 16, another former KBR employee, Charles Breda Jr., pled guilty to charges of sexually assaulting a coworker in Iraq--his prosecution may be the very first of its kind since the start of the "war on terror."

And while two of the four members of the 101st Airborne Division implicated in the horrifying gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl have now been convicted and sentenced to prison, the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division didn't begin investigating the crime until more than three months after it was committed.

Meanwhile, Brigadier Gen. Janis Karpinski, commander of Abu Ghraib prison while documented instances of rape took place, blames pressure from CIA and military intelligence officials for the use of sexual assault there, suggesting an acceptance of rape as a method of control and interrogation.

The project of imperial conquest promotes violence and acts of physical domination in every form. Thus, the Franken amendment comes as cold comfort alongside the appropriation bill's allocation of another $636.3 billion spent on the military and its wars and occupations.

The federal government hasn't made a serious commitment to protecting the lives and safety of women--whether Iraqi women, women in uniform, and women who work for U.S. contractors--has yet to be won. True justice won't be served until every soldier and contractor is withdrawn from the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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