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Cindy McCain Bankrolled Conference That Called for Ban on Mercenaries

by Jeremy Scahill

A little-publicized US Naval Academy conference named after Senator John McCain and bankrolled by his wealthy wife, Cindy, issued a call earlier this year for the US government to ban the use of armed private security contractors like Blackwater in US war zones, stating bluntly, "contractors should not be deployed as security guards, sentries, or even prison guards within combat areas."

The ‘McCain Conference on Ethics and Military Leadership’ appears to be ahead of the senator when it comes to the US use of mercenary forces. "[T]he use of deadly force must be entrusted only to those whose training, character and accountability are most worthy of the nation's trust: the military," reads the executive summary of the U.S. Naval Academy's 9th Annual McCain Conference on Ethics and Military Leadership, which was held in April at the Annapolis Naval Station. "The military profession carefully cultivates an ethic of ‘selfless service,' and develops the virtues that can best withstand combat pressures and thus achieve the nation's objectives in an honorable way. By contrast, most corporate ethical standards and available regulatory schemes are ill-suited for this environment."

In 2001, Cindy McCain, who may be worth as much as $100 million, first endowed the McCain conference "in honor of her husband" with a $210,000 gift that was specifically intended to fund conferences that would "bring together key military officers and civilian academics responsible for ethics education and character developments."

According to the Fall 2009 newsletter, "Taking Stock," published by the US Naval Academy's Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership-the host of the McCain Conference-among the speakers at the 2009 event was none other than Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater. Prince's company is the most infamous of those engaged in the type of armed activity explicitly condemned by the conference's leadership.

The executive summary released by the McCain conference was recently highlighted in a report completed on September 29 by the Congressional Research Service on the use of private contractors. That report said that the US is "relying heavily" on armed contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan and suggests their use could continue to rise. The report also states that misconduct and the killing of civilians by armed security contractors "may have undermined U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Despite the fact that the McCain conference, which publicly advocated against the use of armed contractors in combat areas bears Sen. McCain's name and was bankrolled by his wife, when it has come to making this a major issue on Capitol Hill, the Arizona Senator has been largely silent. In 2007, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Jan Schakowsky introduced the Stop Outsourcing Security Act, which sought to do precisely what the McCain conference called for two years later: to ban the use of mercenaries in US war zones. McCain did not endorse or co-sponsor that legislation, which would certainly have benefitted from his support (neither did then-Senator Barack Obama). Responding to a reporter's question on the campaign trail in July 2008 about whether he believed that US troops and not private guards should protect US diplomats in Iraq, McCain said, "I'd like it, but we don't have enough. Yes, and I'd love to see pigs fly, but it ain't gonna happen."

The McCain campaign hired people with deep ties to the mercenary industry to work on his presidential bid. Among these was senior strategist, Charlie Black, whose firm BKSH & Associates worked for Blackwater's owner Erik Prince, helping to guide Prince through his appearance on Capitol Hill in the aftermath of the September 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad. McCain also brought on as a senior foreign policy advisor Richard Armitage, the former deputy Secretary of State. After leaving the government, Armitage served as a senior adviser for Veritas Capital from 2005 to 2007. Veritas owns the mercenary giant DynCorp, which holds billions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan security and training contracts.

Moreover, the International Republican Institute, which has deep ties to McCain, hired Blackwater as its private security force in Iraq, paying Blackwater an average of more than $17 million a year since 2005 for security services, according to records.

As the Obama administration weighs a substantial troops increase in Afghanistan, leading Democrats and Republicans are calling for an expanded role for US trainers for the Afghan military, which will mean more business for private contractors. Blackwater continues to play a central role in the CIA's drone bombing program in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which vice president Joe Biden and others are suggesting should intensify. At present, there are 74,000 contractors on the DoD payroll in Afghanistan-roughly 10,000 more than the number of US troops. Thousands of other contractors work for the US State Department and other agencies.

The McCain conference raised questions about "the privatization of combat support functions," including intelligence collection and analysis, as well as "advising/training for combat." It concluded, "In irregular warfare environments, where civilian cooperation is crucial," barring the use of armed contractors "is both ethically and strategically necessary."

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