Two congressional lawmakers have announced legislation that would effectively remove military contractors from war zones.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) introduced the "Stop Outsourcing Security Act" on Tuesday. If passed, the act would force the United States to phase out its controversial use of private security contractors in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The legislation would restore the responsibility of the American military to train troops and police, guard convoys, repair weapons, administer military prisons, and perform military intelligence," the lawmakers' offices said.
"The bill also would require that all diplomatic security be undertaken by US government personnel," they added.
While the bill is likely to meet stiff opposition from the Pentagon and the defense industry, it's certain to be well received among progressives and peace activists, who have watched with alarm as the use of private contractors in war zones has skyrocketed in recent years.
Last month, a report (PDF) from the Congressional Research Service found that one-fifth of the US armed forces in Iraq consists of private contractors, while in Afghanistan that number reached one-third by September of 2009.
The report found that there were some 22,000 "armed private security contractors" in the two war zones, and that the number in Afghanistan is likely to keep growing.
While "[m]any analysts and government officials believe that DOD would be unable to execute its mission without PSCs," the report stated that the "use of armed contractors has raised a number of issues for Congress, including concerns over transparency and accountability."
"It is inexcusable that as much as one-third of our military’s armed force in Afghanistan may be contractors," Schakowsky wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, following the report's release. "These men and women are not part of the US military or government. They do not wear the uniform of the United States, though their behavior has, on numerous occasions, severely damaged the credibility and security of our military and harmed our relationship with other governments."
This is not the first time that Schakowsky has attempted to end the growing tradition of private contractors fighting public wars. In 2007, she introduced a bill, with the same name as the new one, which would have phased out the use of contractors over a number of years. The bill never made it out of committee.
In an interview with Russia Today earlier this month, Schakowsky said that the use of private contractors "masks the scope of our involvement" in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When the President asks for a 30,000 troop increase in Afghanistan, we are talking about at least that number of contractors too, which makes the mission much bigger. We don’t even count them when they get killed,” she said.
Schakowsky added: "We have seen these private hired guns, mercenaries if you will, actually in situations that have jeopardized the mission of the United States, have put our own troops at risk, have killed private civilians, really raising the question, can these private companies that don't seem to be part of the chain of command [or] have the same transparency or accountability as our military, can they actually get away with murder? And so far the answer has been yes."
Much of the anger around the use of security contractors has focused on the company formerly known as Blackwater, whose involvement in the September, 2007, civilian massacre in Baghdad's Nissour Square is widely seen as a watershed moment when public opinion among some began to harden against contractors. Seventeen Iraqi civilians were killed when Blackwater guards opened fire during what they mistakenly thought was a security breach.
Since then, many allegations have surfaced regarding Blackwater, including allegations of homicide reaching to the company's highest levels, as well as claims that company employees hired underage prostitutes. A series of reports over the past six months indicates that Blackwater is deeply involved in counter-terrorist activities in Pakistan.
Earlier this month, Schakowsky questioned why the US government continues to do business with Blackwater.
"After everything that has gone wrong ... with Blackwater, I cannot understand why the US government has anything to do with them," Schakowsky said. "I have yet to hear a convincing reason for their continued work for the government."
-- With Agence France-Presse
The following video was broadcast on Russia Today, Feb. 4, 2010.