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Blackwater and Company

Washington (2008-02-27) Robert Oharrow

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Congress took yet another look yesterday at one of the most compelling themes of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: the use of Blackwater and other private security contractors, or PSCs.

This time it was the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee doing the looking. "An Uneasy Relationship: U.S. Reliance on Private Security Firms in Overseas Operations," was the formal title of the session.

For many of you, the themes will sound familiar. Contractors helping out, performing well under tough circumstances.

Contractors operating with impunity.

Dead civilians.

"Over the past 15 years, we have seen a significant expansion of the role of private firms from just the manufacturers of military supplies, to suppliers of crucial military services, like the logistical support of our troops, the training of foreign police and armies, the conduct of interrogations, and the provision of armed security details," committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) said in his prepared statement.

"Use of armed contractors raises particular concerns, because, traditionally, the use of force in arenas of military conflict has been the sole province of the armed forces. We must think through the fundamental question of what kind of missions PSCs should be hired for in the first place," Lieberman said. "And when they are used, we need stronger disciplines and a clear chain of command for their oversight."

Familiar, yes. But still. This stuff still seems incredible, the need to rely on armed contractors in such great numbers. Defense Secretary Robert Gates himself said not long ago that the contractors operated "at cross-purposes to our larger mission in Iraq."

The hearing follows a review by the committee, which came to a few conclusions. They include:

"■ First, there are no government-wide standards for the hiring, vetting and training of PSCs.

"■ Second, oversight of private security contractors has been hobbled by jurisdictional squabbles between the State Department and the Department of Defense, as well as insufficient numbers of personnel from both departments in theater to supervise the contractors.

"■ Third, reconstruction companies, NGOs, and other non-governmental entities also employ armed security contractors - many of them third party nationals -- further complicating creation of a uniform framework for security services.

"■ And fourth, federal agencies are doing little to assess our future needs or entering into a process which must decide through some rational standard which functions should remain governmental and which should be contracted out."

Laura A. Dickinson, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, was one of those testifying at the hearing. Here's something she had to say:

"How should Congress respond to the problems posed by private security contractors and interrogators? One possibility is to take steps to discourage or ban the outsourcing of at least some military, security, and intelligence functions," her prepared testimony said. "Certainly, the risks are greatest when contractors are authorized to use force, as in the case of security contractors or interrogators. Accordingly, we should be particularly cautious about outsourcing such functions and consider whether they may be inherently governmental."

By Robert O'Harrow | February 27, 2008; 5:34 PM ET Previous: Missile Defense and Money | Next: A Virtual Fence To Nowhere

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Title Blackwater and Company
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Author Robert Oharrow
Pub Date 2008-02-27
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Topic revision: r1 - 2008-03-21, CathyMiller
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