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A Rose By Any Other Name
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 not only were deals being struck 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 supply services to the CIA. Controversy regarding Blackwater's activities grew steadily until a shooting incident in 2007 left 14 civilians dead.

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 gently 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. 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, a project in the hands of DynCorp for the last several years, with little progress noted. The Department of Defense is now soliciting 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 five qualified contenders: Lockheed, Raytheon, Northrup, Arinc (owned by the Carlyle Group), and Blackwater. Of the five contenders, three withdrew immediately, and Lockheed proposed to take on only 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 concerned, 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.

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? Some of us wonder why we pay huge chunks of the budget to mercenaries gone rogue.

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, do military intelligence activity and 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, still pending vote.

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 taxes. They listen 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.

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