Legislators Reintroduce Bill to End Government's Use of Security Contractors

Yesterday morning, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) held a press conference to announce the reintroduction of legislation to phase out the government's use of private security contractors in war zones. The Stop Outsourcing Security Act, which Schakowsky and Sanders originally introduced in 2007, seeks to prevent contractors in war zones from performing "mission critical or emergency essential functions," including security, military and police training, interrogation, and intelligence.

During the press conference, Sanders explained the rationale for the bill thusly:

I believe that it is wrong and extremely dangerous for private companies to perform mission critical functions in the field of war. Private contractors do not operate within the traditional military chain of command. They are not subject to the same rigorous standards of vetting and training as are members of our armed forces. Most importantly, ... the function of a private corporation is to make as much money as possible, not to serve the best interests of the people of the United States or our policies.

Sen. Sanders hits the nail on the head. Time after time after time, private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown their inability to perform mission critical functions up to the military's standards by engaging in questionable conduct that severely damages the image of the United States abroad. Just as appalling, the offenders, more often than not, escape without sufficient reprimand, if they receive punishment at all. These events, both the abhorrent conduct and the lack of consequences, are even more harmful in the context of a counterinsurgency effort wherein the military is trying to protect and win over a foreign populous.

A Private Security Contractor in Afghanistan

Phasing out security contractors, though, will likely prove a difficult task, both legislatively and logistically. Legislatively, the government contracting industry, especially the defense contracting industry – within which most security contractors reside – is an exceptionally powerful lobbying force. Faced with essentially the demise of their industry, the security contracting community, represented by influential groups such as the Professional Services Council and the Orwellian-named International Peace Operations Association, will fight tooth and nail against this bill.

Logistically, the government employed, at last count, roughly 22,000 security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a lot of personnel, and while the legislation grants the federal government until the end of the year to replace all security contractors and permits the president a temporary waiver for agencies that can't make the transition deadline, it would be difficult for the government to ramp up hiring to fill those positions that fast. Indeed, the Defense and State departments have gradually transitioned to the use of contractors mainly because they didn't have an adequate number of personnel to carry out their missions to begin with and they view security contractors as a cost-effective substitute.

Reintroduction of the outsourcing bill comes at a propitious moment for Schakowsky and Sanders, as the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing this morning to investigate charges of corruption against Blackwater/Xe, an infamous security contractor. Whether the increased attention to this issue will help boost the bill's chances of passage is debatable, but one would think that security contractors could create only so many high profile foreign policy headaches for the United States before Congress stepped in to cut them off. With that said, the first time Schakowsky and Sanders introduced their bill in 2007 they had the Nisour Square massacre providing impetus, but the bill never progressed beyond the committee level in either the House or Senate.

The use of contractors in war zones is nothing new. The United States has used contractors even before the inception of the country in the days of the American Revolution, but the unprecedented expansion of security contractors, both in their numbers and the roles that they play, is dangerous for the U.S. Even if the government finds it impossible to move beyond the use of security contractors in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I believe it's important for Congress to at least set down a set of policies for future contingency operations.

Image by Flickr user munir used under a Creative Commons license.

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