In April of 2008, KBR employee Dawn Leamon went public. A few months earlier, she had been raped and sexually assaulted by co-workers while deployed at Camp Harper, in Iraq, and after weeks of being pressured not to report the incident, forced to work alongside her attackers, and medically neglected, Leamon brought the story to a Houston attorney and to The Nation. Leamon joined a slowly building chorus of female defense contractor employees who’d been raped or sexually assaulted by co-workers while in Iraq, to utter impunity on the part of their assailants. In response, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called a hearing to investigate why the Justice Department had not prosecuted any sexual assault allegations in Iraq since the going to war in the country.
When it turned out that defense contractors often required employees, as a condition of employment, to submit to binding private arbitration in disputes with the contractors (including allegations of sexual assault), instead of bringing complaints to public courts, and that the Department of Defense claimed they couldn’t prosecute for this very reason (even though these clauses only prevented civil suits), Senator Ben Nelson, who called the hearing, offered a simple solution: "This might be something you want to require and include in your contracts–before you award them," Karen Houppert reported in The Nation.
Freshman Sen. Al Franken took Nelson’s suggestion seriously, and has pushed through an amendment to a Defense Appropriations bill that would prevent the Pentagon from doing business with contractors who force employees into binding arbitration over rape and sexual assault charges. (As Jon Stewart put it, "How is that a loophole that needs closing?")
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After another KBR employee, Jamie Leigh Jones, began speaking out about her own gang rape in December 2005, she met other women with similar stories, and in response formed a non-profit to support women who experienced sexual assault at the hands of co-workers while employed by a defense contractor. When Houppert reported on Jones’s organization in The Nation, by then supporting forty women, Houppert observed, "Most of these complaints will never see the light of day."
Adding insult to injury, the Department of Defense could prosecute these crimes under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act and the Patriot Act’s special maritime and territorial jurisdiction provisions, but has opted not to. In the face of DoD inaction, survivors, meanwhile, had signed away their right to sue civilly and were left only with arbitration.
Predictably, Sen. Jeff Sessions, ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, opposed Franken’s bill. "Congress should not be involved in writing or rewriting private contracts," he argued. The bill was, he maintained, a "political amendment at bottom, representing a political attack on Halliburton." In fact, the amendment only goes so far as to require contractors doing business with the government to permit employees to sue civilly in the "most egregious violations," Franken emphasized in a statement. (For less egregious matters, contractors can still require employees to waive their right to sue and submit to arbitration.)
No thanks to Sessions or most Republican members of the Senate, the bill passed, 68-30. And the next time you hear the Chamber of Commerce come out swinging against healthcare reform, remind yourself that they opposed this bill, too.
Upon hearing the amendment passed, Jamie Leigh Jones told the Minnesota Post: "It means the world to me…It means that every tear shed to go public and repeat my story over and over again to make a difference for other women was worth it." It’s a reminder that rape survivors go public with their stories at a serious emotional cost, and the onus is on political leaders and advocates to make it worth what could be only in the most euphemistic sense be referred to as their while.
At the end of his segment on the bill, Jon Stewart tied it all up with a bow. Now we get it! Comparing this move to regulate government contractors to ACORN’s frozen funding, he says, "You don’t want to waste taxpayer money on someone who advises fake prostitute how to make imaginary crimes. You want to give it to Halliburton, because they’re committing real gang rape. You cut out the middleman! And they say government doesn’t work."