If Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) have their way—and, let’s be honest, they probably won’t—the days of most private security and military contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan would be numbered. On Tuesday the lawmakers, who are among the most vocal congressional critics of wartime contractors, introduced the “Stop Outsourcing Security Act” in the House and Senate. The legislation would mandate that diplomatic security, which is largely handled by contractors (with occasionally disastrous results—see Nisour Square, Blackwater; vodka butt shots, ArmorGroup), be performed solely by US government personnel. The bills, which would allow the White House to seek certain exceptions for mission-critical contractors, would also “restore the responsibility” of the US military over a variety of functions that have been outsourced, from training foreign security forces and guarding convoys to performing military intelligence and administering prisons. “The behavior of private contractors has endangered our military, hurt relationships with foreign governments, and undermined our missions overseas,” Schakowsky said today.
Sanders and Schakowsky introduced similar measures in 2007, but the bills never advanced. But here’s a bit of interesting trivia. Who was Sanders’ sole co-sponsor in the Senate? None other than Hillary Clinton, who on the campaign trail declared, “When I am President I will ask the Joint Chiefs for their help in reducing reliance on armed private military contractors with the goal of ultimately implementing a ban on such contractors.” By the time she became Secretary of State, overseeing armies of contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq, she had changed her tune. “Whether we can go all the way to banning, under current circumstances, seems unlikely,” she told State Department employees during a townhall meeting last February. Frankly, though, the main circumstance that had changed was that Clinton was no longer running for president.
Given the government’s heavy reliance on contractors, the notion of banning them (or even phasing them out in any precipitous way) was just as unrealistic then as it is now. This point was underscored in a recent Congressional Research Service report that noted “many analysts and government officials believe that DOD would be unable to execute its mission without PSCs.” The same report also made the point that run-amok contractors are fanning anti-American sentiment and undermining America’s foreign policy goals in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the challenges in Afghanistan and ongoing efforts to hold onto security gains in Iraq, that’s really the last thing American troops or diplomats need. But the solution advanced by Sanders and Schakowsky is extremely unlikely to succeed—and could potentially do more harm than good, given that the military is already stretched thin and the State Department’s diplomatic security branch has nowhere near the manpower to do what the lawmakers are asking. What’s doable—or at least should be doable—is to make sure the right laws, regulations, and oversight is in place to keep contractors accountable, to hold them to the terms of their contracts and, this should go without saying, to the highest standards of conduct when they are representing US interests overseas. Iraq IG Stuart Bowen has an interesting plan for addressing some of the oversight challenges, which I covered today. And Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), and Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) have introduced bills intended to clarify some of the legal uncertainties surrounding contractors working overseas. But in the end, if the Obama administration can’t solve its contractor problem, perhaps then it’s time to revisit the Sanders/Schakowsky option.