All Cowboys Out Now

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The Nation

All Cowboys Out Now

by
Jeremy Scahill

Jan Schakowsky is one of the few members of Congress who have made confronting the radically privatized war machine a legislative priority. Even before Blackwater operatives gunned down seventeen Iraqis and wounded some twenty-four others in Baghdad in September, propelling the issue of private forces to front-page news, Schakowsky had mercenaries in her scope. Now she is introducing legislation that seeks to end the use of companies like Blackwater in US war zones by 2009. Her Stop Outsourcing Security (SOS) Act "would mandate that all diplomatic security in Iraq be undertaken by U.S. government personnel within 6 months of enactment." It would also allow Congress to view any current security contract greater than $5 million and require government agencies and the military to report the number of contractors employed in Iraq and Afghanistan, any disciplinary actions taken against them, the total cost of the contracts and the number of contractors wounded or killed. "Private contracting companies have forfeited their right to represent the United States," says Schakowsky, asserting that they "put our troops in harm's way, and resulted in the unnecessary deaths of many innocent Iraqi civilians. They have become a liability instead of an asset."

The SOS bill is by far the toughest legislation to target private forces in Iraq, but it is not without problems. There is a loophole that could unwittingly pave the way for an expansion of the US war machine in Iraq. Calling for the government to take over from Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp could amount to de facto support for the dramatic and unprecedented militarization of the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. The department's Worldwide Personal Protective Services was originally envisioned as a small-scale bodyguard operation to protect small groups of US diplomats and other US and foreign officials. In Iraq, the Administration has turned it into a paramilitary force several thousand strong. Spending on the program jumped from $50 million in 2003 to $613 million in 2006. Schakowsky chose not to address this issue in her legislation, saying it "deserves a separate bill" and adding that she believes the issue should be investigated. In the absence of such action, her legislation could encourage more spending on what has become a paramilitary squad under the command of the White House.

Some Democrats have already been moving in that direction. In an October letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Senator Joe Biden, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the Administration should examine "whether we should expand the ranks of Diplomatic Security rather than continue to rely so heavily on contractors." He called for hiring more agents, saying, "The requirement for extensive personal security to protect the employees of the U.S. mission will continue for several years to come--regardless of the number of U.S. forces in Iraq."

Firms like Blackwater operate in a demand-based industry, and it is this demand (which derives from offensive, unpopular wars of conquest) that must be cut off. If the positions filled by private security contractors are simply transferred to government employees without addressing the Administration's use of the diplomatic security division as a way of sneaking even more paramilitary forces into Iraq, it could result in a dangerous expansion of the war apparatus. While Schakowsky has worked tirelessly to hold mercenary companies accountable and now to ban their use by the government, Congress should aggressively investigate the Administration's expanded use of diplomatic security for war-related activities. Blackwater and its ilk are not simply bad apples. They are the fruit of a very poisonous tree.

Jeremy Scahill is the author of the New York Times bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He is currently a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute.

Copyright © 2007 The Nation

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