A Bill to Ban Blackwater . . . and Save Democracy?

Baltimore Sun

November 7, 2007 – A team of Democratic lawmakers led by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) introduced a bill this afternoon that would quickly force private security contractors out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bill, which Schakowsky dubbed the S.O.S. — “Stop Outsourcing Security” — Act, would force the State Department to phase out an estimated 800 private diplomatic security guards within six months of enactment. It would ban other private security guards in Iraq, Afghanistan and anywhere else Congress has authorized the use of force by 2009.

Sponsors estimate between 40,000 and 100,000 private security contractors are currently at work in Iraq, though they complain the Bush administration won’t share the documents necessary for a more accurate count. The contractors have generated controversy for their tactics, their compensation — many are retired members of the military who pull down six-figure salaries — and what critics call a lack of accountability for their actions.

In September, guards employed by the security firm Blackwater USA killed 17 Iraqi civilians and provoked cries of outrage in Iraq and in Washington. Investigating the killings, the State Department apparently promised immunity from prosecution to Blackwater guards it interviewed.

Schakowsky said it appears contractors “can get away with murder” in Iraq. “With this legislation, we’re saying enough is enough,” she said. “It’s time to end the Bush administration’s addiction to contractors.”

Other lawmakers suggested higher stakes — such as the future of America’s signature form of government.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee and a historian by trade, said history shows “mercenary armies can overthrow democracy.”

Speaking about Blackwater in particular, he added: “A private army, in the hands of people in a democracy, is fatal… it’s very fragile, this democracy.”

Other lawmakers and speakers at the press conference, including the mother of a Blackwater employee killed in Iraq and an Iraq war veteran who co-founded the political action committee VoteVets.org, said the private forces undermine America’s moral authority and demoralize comparatively lower-paid American soldiers.

The lure of private security jobs “is why we’ve had to lower our standards in the military to retain people,” said Jon Soltz, the VoteVets co-founder.

Asked how a U.S. military already struggling to recruit enough troops could make up for the lost private security forces, Soltz suggested National Guard or Army Reserve troops could step in. Schakowsky said the military would step up its recruitment, likening the situation to the federalization of airport security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The bill faces an uncertain future. It has a Senate sponsor, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, but so far no home in a House committee. Stay tuned.

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