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Rent a War
By Judith Gayle | Political Waves

Early in this century, we discovered that our military had become dependent on the services of private contractors. We were surprised to learn that deals were being struck not only for goods and services, supplies and reconstruction, but also for protection and security. Enter Blackwater USA, a paramilitary organization that provided mercenaries -- literally hired guns -- to defend the new Iraqi Embassy, oversee their many subsidiaries, and provide services to the CIA. Controversy regarding Blackwater's activities grew steadily until a shooting incident in 2007 left 14 civilians dead.

During the Bush years, the Coalition Provisional Authority compiled a list of 60 different firms providing security services. Blackwater was the second largest contractor in support of troops in Iraq. After changing their name to Blackwater Worldwide in 2007, they began offering their services internationally. The Department of Homeland Security used Blackwater in the relief effort during Hurricane Katrina at a cost of $240,000 a day; their heavily-armed presence drew sharp criticism during that anxious period. The Blackwater brand became an embarrassment. To sidestep the resulting bad press, the company changed its name to Xe Services in 2009, and its originator and president, Erik Prince, stepped down. The name change has not stuck with a wary public, however, and the press continues to call the company Blackwater. As Shakespeare's Juliet murmured, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Or stink as badly, considering our topic. Yet this foul organization continues to thrive despite the Iraqi government denying it further permits to operate in that nation.

Make no mistake, private contracting is big business, critical to the U.S. military industrial complex. According to recent reports, we utilize about 250,000 armed or unarmed contractors in the Iraq and Afghanistan war theatres, approximately 50% of our total force. With the American footprint fading from Iraq, our attention has turned toward Afghanistan, and so has Blackwater's. Obama has declared a major goal to be the training of the Afghani national police. This project was in the hands of DynCorp for the last several years, with little progress noted. The Department of Defense has now solicited bids on a new contract for this task.

There are two parts of the proposal up for bid: police training and logistics. Following tightened rules, the DoD is limited to the five qualified contenders: Lockheed, Raytheon, Northrop, Arinc (owned by the Carlyle Group), and Blackwater. Of the five, three withdrew immediately, and Lockheed bid only on the logistics portion of the proposal. Blackwater bid on both police training and logistics, and is likely to be awarded the billion-dollar contract, barring newly raised concerns.

The public, the Democratic Congress and even the Pentagon are reluctant to support the Blackwater award. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman Carl Levin appealed to Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week for the Pentagon to block the award, and Gates appears sympathetic. Levin had familiarized himself with the situation through a SASC hearing on Xe Services' subsidiary Paravant, which had subcontracted its services to Raytheon. Incidents with drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, weapons theft, assault and even murder have marked Paravant's activity in Afghanistan.

Senator Claire McCaskill complained that the cover names used by these subcontractors seem covert. She struck at the heart of the matter when she said, "You know, we've got two kinds of organizations that are performing the same functions. One responds to money, and the other responds to duty." Sadly, due to the snarled legalities that govern these awards, the only way to deny security contracts is for the Attorney General to 'debar' defense contractors for unsatisfactory performance. This happens rarely, and constitutes a glaring failure of the national security system. Although the Pentagon seems aware of the controversy, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell put its position bluntly: "Like it or not, Blackwater has technical expertise that very few companies do have. And they have a willingness to work in places that very few companies are willing to work. So they provide a much-needed service and the ability to do it well."

Unmentioned at the hearing are other disturbing reports not specifically attributed to Blackwater but having the same smell about them. On the day after Christmas, 2009, in what's being called the Kunar Massacre, nine school children, ages 11 to 18, were discovered executed with their hands bound. This occurred under the auspices of a NATO-sanctioned rout of Taliban territory, with reports originally condemning the group as bomb makers. The children's deaths were eventually attributed to "non-military Americans" who were attached to the NATO operation. In another incident, the Pentagon is investigating the February death of a soldier in Helmand Province at the hands of seven U.S.- hired Afghani private security guards, reportedly high on opium. In neither case are we getting full disclosure. Perhaps that's because these are deaths caused by contractors rather than by the military, although the Pentagon is historically reluctant to admit either.

This week we learned that a Defense Department official hired a covert network of private contractors, under cover of reporting on Afghanistan's social and tribal landscape, to track and locate suspected militants for assassination missions. This is particularly sensitive activity in Pakistan where an American military footprint is forbidden. Intelligence-gathering is perilous business, and the DoD official sidestepped legalities and diverted money to support his private rings of spies. He and his program, including liaisons with retired Special Ops officers and a C.I.A. operative whose ties go all the way back to Iran-Contra, are now being investigated by the Defense Department. So far, no one seems to know who authorized the covert -- and illegal -- spying activities or where the money for them has gone. This kind of paramilitary madness is inevitable without stringent oversight. There are not enough Army Contracting Officers Representatives to keep track of all these independent -- often rogue -- contractors.

With levels of subcontracting that go largely unexamined, Blackwater will be making multi-millions with or without a contract to train Afghani police. They will make their money and we will pay it because, as the Pentagon asserts, who else is so singularly prepared to do the dirty work? Yet this is work that even the military is unprepared to do and carries the continued risk of international incident. Some of us wonder why we pay huge chunks of the budget to mercenaries gone rogue, especially as the polls make clear that the American people consider a military presence in Afghanistan good money thrown after bad. We're awakening to the enormity of our largest 'big government' program financed by trillions of borrowed dollars.

Representative Jan Schakowsky and Senator Bernie Sanders, two of the most progressive legislators in the Democratic leadership, have now introduced a bill that would phase out private security contractors in war zones. The "Stop Outsourcing Security Act" would require the military to use its own personnel to train troops and police, guard convoys, repair weapons, run military prisons, conduct military intelligence activity, and provide diplomatic security. Further, and quite sensibly, contracts over $5 million would be subject to Congressional oversight.

Supremely sensible, but not likely to be supported by a Congress tied to defense contractors and lobbying money. In order to scale down our operations to what we can actually accomplish -- not services we can buy -- we would have to limit the imperialism that has characterized our foreign policy for decades. But perhaps the economy, scrutinized now for every unnecessary purchase or deficit-increasing project, holds the key. The military budget for 2011 is $159,300,000,000. The administration has requested another $33,000,000,000 supplemental this year to fund the troop buildup in Afghanistan; a vote on this request is still pending.

As we look in the mirror of our current crisis, we see ourselves reflected back by corporations and big business. As the world looks at the face of America abroad, they see opportunism, mercenaries and corporate machinery. Every attempt to stop the footprint of rogue capitalism meets with a shrug from those who benefit. To continue to fund hired guns who operate largely unsupervised under the protection of the American flag perpetuates our insane, self-defeating hubris.

As McCaskill indicated, contractors and mercenaries are all about money, so these are financial decisions. With a spending freeze in place for domestic issues but none for military spending, this would be a good time to contact your lawmaker about the appropriate use of your tax dollars. They listen now when you talk money. And while you're at it, you might demand an end to that dreadful smell floating over the Pentagon, the stench of an organization that hides behind the name Xe. For too long we've paid little heed to who was on the American payroll. At the least, when we look back on this period, we can say that we stood against thugs that operate in our name.

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