Eight years ago, President George W. Bush issued a stern policy on sex trafficking in war zones — a policy that remains on the books to this day. With government contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes exceeding the number of U.S. troops, Bush vowed to prosecute employees and suspend or disqualify companies engaging in the trafficking of women.
But officials say these cases have proven difficult to pursue. The State Department reported recently that allegations of contractor employees procuring commercial sex acts were “well publicized,” but no contractors have been prosecuted and no contracts terminated.
Independent experts and some lawmakers believe law enforcement is not doing enough.
“Zero prosecutions,” said attorney Martina Vandenberg, a former Human Rights Watch investigator, “suggests zero effort to enforce the law.”
Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., who authored the U.S. anti-trafficking law passed in 2000, questions whether agencies are vigorously pursuing allegations. “If you care about the women who are being exploited, you don’t look askance when those that we’re paying to do jobs for us are exploiting them,” he said.
Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar said that the agency “investigates all credible allegations of human trafficking.” He declined to offer details.
An army memo
Nearly a decade after Dyncorp International LLC employees were implicated in Bosnia for buying and selling women from throughout Eastern Europe — and not prosecuted — the U.S. Army was told this February that supervisors of an Army subcontractor in Iraq had sexually assaulted women who were held in involuntary servitude.
“The women were recruited from their home nations with promises of well-paying beautician jobs in Dubai,” says an Army memo summarizing the allegations, “but were instead forced to surrender their passports, transported against their will to Iraq, and told they could only leave by paying a termination fee of $1,100.”
The accused subcontractors work for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which runs stores, hair salons, movie theaters and other operations on military bases. The allegations came from the State Department, which fielded questions from a freelance reporter who said she had interviewed some of the abused women.
The memo says the contractors moved the women to at least three locations in Iraq. They were “subjected to poor living and work conditions, and sexually assaulted by unknown individuals, to include civilian contractor supervisors.”
An Army Criminal Investigation Command spokesman said the allegations “were investigated and not substantiated,” but did not answer questions on whether victims had been interviewed or if any individuals or companies had been identified as suspects.
In another allegation, a former Blackwater guard said that he saw colleagues and American soldiers paying Iraqi girls for sex acts. The allegations were contained in an anonymous sworn statement submitted as evidence in a lawsuit filed last summer in the Eastern District of Virginia, alleging wrongful death and other abuses on behalf of families of Iraqi victims. The sworn statement was withdrawn by the Iraqi families, and the suit was subsequently settled in January.
The former guard, who asked that the Center and The Post not publish his name out of concern for his safety, said a cluster of children would occasionally gather around Americans near a hospital inside the Green Zone in 2005. The guard said he saw older boys collect the dollar bills while Iraqi girls, some as young as 12 and 13, stood behind pillars or storefront corners and performed oral sex for each customer.
Disgusted, the former guard said he reported what he saw to his Blackwater superiors, and that the information was shared with Blackwater founder Erik Prince. He said no action was taken.
“It sickens me to talk about it even now,” he said. “They just didn’t want to know about it.”
In a sworn statement, the former Blackwater guard said this information was provided “in grand jury proceedings convened by the United States Department of Justice.” The Justice Department would not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation or any grand jury matters.
Stacy DeLuke, a spokeswoman for Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, said the firm “vehemently denies these anonymous and baseless allegations, which were subsequently withdrawn by the plaintiffs in these lawsuits last November.”
She then cited Xe’s Trafficking in Humans Policy, which says the firm “will not tolerate the practice of trafficking in humans” and that personnel engaging in trafficking “will be immediately terminated” and their actions reported to authorities.
Some 200,000 to 250,000 contractor employees are working in Iraq and Afghanistan, sometimes outnumbering U.S. troops. These employees, experts say, are more likely than members of the military to frequent brothels or to be traffickers, because of more freedom of movement and less strict controls on their time.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presenting last year’s human trafficking report. “We have to ensure that our policies live up to our ideals,” she said at the unveiling of this year’s report.But when these employees commit crimes in war zones they have proven to be a law enforcement challenge because of strapped investigative resources and a legal loophole for some contractors.
Yet few other crimes have received the attention sex trafficking has from the highest levels of government.
“The victims of sex trade see little of life before they see the worst of life — an underground of brutality and lonely fear,” President George W. Bush said before the U.N. General Assembly in September 2003. “Those who patronize this industry debase themselves and deepen the misery of others. And governments that tolerate this trade are tolerating a form of slavery.”
Bush’s speech came after he issued a “zero tolerance” policy for trafficking by government employees and contractors in National Security Presidential Directive 22, which outlined an “abolitionist approach to trafficking in persons,” including opposition to prostitution. His directive emphasized prosecution and provisions to punish contractors for violations.
While the State Department in June rated the U.S.’s anti-trafficking efforts as among the world’s best, Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., the author of the U.S. anti-trafficking law passed in 2000, is troubled by the lack of contractor prosecutions.
Defense contractors in war zones “are ambassadors for this country,” Smith said. He said police, military forces and their contractors are the “Achilles’ heel” when it comes to tackling the problem of human trafficking in war torn countries.
Rep. Chris SmithAs she released the trafficking report, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged difficulties in combating trafficking. “We have to ensure that our policies live up to our ideals. And that is why we have for the first time included the United States,” she said.
But the message isn’t always getting through. A January 2010 Pentagon oversight report said nearly half the contracts it reviewed in Asia last year failed to included a mandatory anti-trafficking clause. The result: “Contractors remain unaware of the Government’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy and self-reporting requirements.”
Brothels in Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, 90 Chinese women were freed from brothels raided in 2006 and 2007 by Afghan police. The women told the International Organization on Migration that they had been trafficked into Afghanistan for sexual exploitation, according to a 2008 IOM report.
Nigina Mamadjonova, head of IOM’s counter-human trafficking unit in Afghanistan, said the women told IOM in interviews that their clients were mostly Western men.
In late 2007, officials at ArmorGroup, a company providing private security guards for the U.S. embassy in Kabul, learned some of their employees frequented brothels disguised as Chinese restaurants and might be engaged in sex trafficking. The company withheld the information from the U.S. government, despite requirements to report it to the State Department and a congressional request for such information, according to a lawsuit filed by a whistle-blower from the company. The matter is still being litigated.
A management official for ArmorGroup “boasted openly about owning prostitutes in Kabul,” according to the suit filed by James Gordon, who was at the time a senior ArmorGroup supervisor. Also, an ArmorGroup trainee had been caught bragging that he hoped to make some “real money” in the brothel business in Kabul when he got shipped there, and planned to buy a woman for $20,000, Gordon said.
“He said he had a friend on the contract — who had contacts in the brothel business,” Gordon said.
Gordon says he warned his bosses that one of their employees might be running a brothel in Kabul. Gordon also says he reported the trainee’s alleged boast to Heidi McMichael, a State Department contracting officer.
Later Gordon asked McMichael why the State Department had not acted, and McMichael assured him the matter was serious and was handed off to the FBI. She declined to comment for this story, as did the bureau. Besides firing the trainee, nothing happened as far as Gordon could tell.
“It seems utterly bizarre,” Gordon said. “Someone was talking about buying women. But no one has been interviewed. There was a complete lack of action.”
Susan Pitcher, a spokesman for ArmorGroup’s parent company, Wackenhut Services Incorporated, said in an e-mail that due to ArmorGroup North America’s “contract with the State Department, AGNA may not respond in the press regarding the substance of Mr. Gordon’s allegations.” But she stressed that ArmorGroup “has a policy prohibiting trafficking-in-persons and in no way condones … such activities.”
The company did undertake an internal investigation in November 2007. ArmorGroup found that Nick Powis, its progam manager in Kabul, “was aware that some members of [the company’s] workforce had abused the MWR [moral, welfare and recreation] policy for the purposes of seeking out prostitutes.” A copy of the report was submitted as evidence this month in Gordon’s litigation with ArmorGroup.
The report disputed allegations that Powis went to brothels himself or encouraged others to go. But it concluded that Powis “was aware of the possibility of un-sanctioned activities that could bring discredit upon both the company and the client.” A letter of reprimand was placed in the Powis’s personnel file as punishment.
A difficult mandate
Prosecutors privately complain that the zero-tolerance policy for contractors working alongside the U.S. military, crafted by anti-prostitution advocates in the Bush administration, is nearly impossible to enforce — because it makes little distinction between organized sex trafficking and voluntary prostitution.
“Are we interested in chasing every contractor that gets a hooker, or using our resources to go after the guys who force people into modern-day slavery?” asks one former trafficking investigator, who requested anonymity.
The White House did not comment on whether it plans to change the policy. “Presidential directives remain in effect unless and until revoked or superseded,” said Steven Aftergood, who tracks presidential policies at the non-profit Federation of American Scientists.
This is on top of other challenges law enforcement faces in warzones — gathering evidence and establishing legal jurisdiction — according to Laura Dickinson, a law professor at Arizona State University.
Strained resources put limits on evidence gathering. The estimated 40 FBI agents and 150 Army investigators deployed in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan get pulled into all types of felony-level crimes.
“If you have a case where it will take a significant amount of effort to get the evidence to bring the case” — as is typical in trafficking cases — “it will be very hard for the Justice Department to do it,” said Stephen Paul Cullen, a former JAG Corps attorney who has written about contractors being beyond the reach of the U.S. justice system.
A legal loophole also might thwart prosecutions. Contractors that work for the State Department or other non-Defense Department agencies in war zones might argue they are not under the reach of the U.S. law — and they might win — said Dickinson.
Is anyone investigating?
Prosecutions can only occur if investigators dig up evidence. There were no Defense Department investigations into trafficking in persons in 2006 and 2007, according to annual Justice Department reports. The section detailing the military’s efforts is altogether missing in the 2008 report, the most recent available — the Justice Department declined to comment on the missing section.
In 2009, a January Pentagon report noted “one report of preliminary investigative activity of a contractor in Iraq” for labor trafficking violations, and while briefed to the Justice Department, prosecutors “determined facts and circumstances did not warrant further action.”
Over at the State Department, two investigations, one each on sex and labor trafficking, were opened in 2009 and closed this year, said a State inspector general spokesman. He said both cases were unsubstantiated, and declined to name companies or countries involved in the allegations.
State Department inspector general officials said allegations such as those by Gordon, the former ArmorGroup manager, are hard to consider under their purview because they occur during an accused employee’s free time.
That explanation doesn’t sit well with Gordon. “If it’s so serious,” he says, “if you have a zero tolerance policy, why aren’t you doing anything?”
This report is a collaboration between The Center for Public Integrity and The Washington Post. Carol Leonnig is a staff writer for the Post.