US military code will apply to contractors – and embed journos?

At, Noah Shachtman writes:

Since the start of the Iraq war, tens of thousands of heavily-armed military contractors have been roaming the country — without any law, or any court to control them. That may be about to change, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow P.W. Singer notes in a Defense Tech exclusive. Five words, slipped into a Pentagon budget bill, could make all the difference. With them, "contractors 'get out of jail free' cards may have been torn to shreds," he writes. They're now subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the same set of laws that governs soldiers.

In that Defensetech post, Singer explains how he believes the new law will change things for military contractors. But could it also mean that embedded reporters will now end up being subject to the same justice code? Singer writes:

The Iraq war is the first that journalists could formally embed in units, so there is not much experience with its legal side in contingency operations. The lack of any legal precedent, combined with the new law, could mean that an overly aggressive
interpretation might now also include journalists who have embedded.

Given that journalists are not armed, not contracted (so not paid directly or indirectly from public monies) and most important, not there to serve the mission objectives, this would probably be too extensive an interpretation. It would also likely mean less embeds. But given the current lack of satisfaction with the embed program in the media, any effect here may be a tempest in a tea pot. As of Fall 2006, there were only nine embedded reporters in all of Iraq. Of the nine, four were from military media (three from Stars and Stripes, one from Armed Forces Network), two not even with US units (one Polish radio reporter with Polish troops, one Italian reporter with Italian troops), and one was an American writing a book. Moreover, we should remember that embeds already make a rights tradeoff when they agree to the military's reporting rules. That is, they have already given up some of their 1st Amendment protections (something at the heart of their professional ethic) in exchange for access, so agreeing to potentially fall under UCMJ when deployed may not be a deal breaker.

The ultimate point is that the change gives the military and the civilians courts a new tool to use in better managing and overseeing contractors, but leaves it to the Pentagon and DOJ to decide when and where to use it. Given their recent track record on legal issues in the context of Iraq and the war on terror, many won't be that reassured.

Read the full text of Singer's analysis here: Link. He is Senior Fellow and Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at The Brookings Institution, and author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Cornell University Press) and the upcoming book Wired for War (Houghton Mifflin).

See also this related Washington Post story from today, "Contractors Are Cited in Abuses at Guantanamo": Link. (Thanks, Noah Shachtman!)

Update: my NPR News colleague JJ Sutherland, who has spent much of the past year in Baghdad, Afghanistan, and other places covering war, writes:

Just read the post about how in Fall 2006 there were just 9 embed reporters in Iraq. While there may be 9 folk who are only embedded, that is a very misleading number.

Off the top of my head, and this is just people that I know personally, which certainly doesn't encompass the entire Baghdad press corps, I can think of more than 10 who were embedded over the time I was there, which was from mid October to mid November, and that doesn't include any on the list you posted. And I am sure there were far more than that. NPR alone had four different people embedded since the summer.

Some people embed for long periods of time, but far more common is the embed that lasts a few days to a week, which happens regularly…and that doesn't include the 1 day embeds that occur even more often.

There are myriad reasons people will embed for only a short periods of time during a tour in Iraq, as there are many other stories to cover there besides the, admittedly important, experiences of American troops.

BoingBoing reader Paul says,

In the story on contractors and embedded journalists being subject to the UCMJ, the writer lists one of the journalists as being a member of the "Armed Forces Network". As much of a nitpick as this may be, that is not the correct name.

The correct name is "American Forces Network"– a small change, but critical. The name reflects a shift in emphasis made in military journalism to put the "journalism" aspect at a higher priority. The disuse of the word "armed" is also an attempt to present a friendlier, more neutral face to the civilian world.

I've worked with a lot of AFN folks– journalists, photographers, electronics technicians (as the AFN-Tokyo folks like to say: "200,000 watts! Size DOES matter!"). They're good folks– and it's appropriate to call their organization by its correct name.