"We know Iraqis don't benefit from this. We know it ruins our relationship with the world. We know that we are paying through the nose for these services. We know its unjust."
Private security contractors have taken on a frighteningly disproportionate and largely unaccountable role in the United States' military occupation of Iraq.
This poses many problems for U.S. policy, American soldiers, and Iraqi civilians. Last week's incident involving Blackwater guards killing 11 Iraqi civilians underscores this problem.
Barack Obama is picking up the torch on this issue, and much like everything else -- he's not new to it either.
More below the fold.
Most Daily Kos readers need no reminding of the incident I'm referring to in Iraq.
Here's a little more on Blackwater. This video was produced by the Nation, specifically by Current Obama campaign blogger Sam Graham-Felsen.
(That is Jan Schakowsky, current Obama national co-chair, in the video - Obama links abound!)
The AP has more on how Blackwater manages to get away with it all, without accountability:
Not one diplomat has died while being guarded by employees of the politically connected company based in the swamplands of northeastern North Carolina. Experts say that success — combined with the murky legal world in which Blackwater operates and its strong ties to Republicans — has allowed the company to operate with impunity.
"You can argue about the methodology and say it's negatively impacting relationships between the Iraqi government and citizens and the U.S. But if you get right down to the terms of the contract, they're tasked with protecting U.S. diplomatic personnel. They've done that," said Scott Traudt, operations manager for Cohort International, a Lebanon, N.H.-based competitor.
Let's be clear here: They're effective BECAUSE there are no rules of engagement or accountability. That's why we use them. We don't want them to be accountable. We need an unaccountable, extralegal praetorian guard to maintain our occupation until Shrub leaves office.
Thats the point.
For years, North Carolina Democratic Rep. David Price has urged colleagues to regulate the private security industry and increase congressional oversight of companies such as Blackwater. But as the GOP controlled Congress, he said, his efforts went nowhere.
"I was getting silence," Price said. "My impression is that many Republicans see any attempt to tighten up the contracting practice as an implicit criticism of the Bush administration."
Blackwater's ties to the GOP run deep. Company founder and former Navy Seal Erik Prince has given more than $200,000 to Republican causes, a pattern of donation followed by other top Blackwater executives. The company's vice chairman is Cofer Black, a former CIA counterterrorism official who is serving as a senior adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Members of Blackwater's legal team have included former Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr and current White House Counsel Fred Fielding. The company tapped a GOP-connected public relations firm after the grisly 2004 deaths of four Blackwater employees who were ambushed by insurgents in Fallujah.
And, circle complete.
We know Iraqis don't benefit from this. We know it ruins our relationship with the world. We know that we are paying through the nose for these services. We know its unjust.
But we also know, importantly, that the US military's leadership is sick and tired of this too.
It's a question that Navy Adm. William Fallon, the senior U.S. military commander for the Middle East, planned to address in weekend meetings with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Fallon said security contractors shouldn't be seen as a "surrogate army" of the State Department or any other agency whose workers they protect.
"My instinct is that it's easier and better if they were in uniform and were working for me," Fallon told The Associated Press in Kabul, Afghanistan. "There's a rule set out there, and these guys should adhere to it as far as action, training and accountability."
But it is largely accepted that the Pentagon doesn't have enough troops to fight both the war in Iraq and perform all the tasks contracted out to firms such as Blackwater, including protecting diplomats and other civilians in one of the world's most dangerous places.
It is becoming harder and harder to find anyone who actually benefits from Blackwater's activities other than the Republican Party and Blackwater themselves.
In steps Barack Obama.
Obama has proposed sweeping reforms of the mercenary contracting industry:
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has proposed clarifying that private contractors accused of misconduct can be tried under U.S. law and urging the Pentagon to pursue such civilian prosecution. Following a Sept. 16 shooting that infuriated the Iraqi government and got the contracting firm Blackwater USA briefly barred from the country, Senate aides are working on adding parts of Obama’s plan to the defense authorization bill.
Obama told Bush in a Monday letter that he should pin down information immediately on offenses committed by contractors.
"It is our government’s obligation to ensure that security contractors in Iraq are subject to adequate and transparent oversight and that their actions do not have a negative impact on our military’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan," Obama wrote.
His proposal also would require the Justice Department inspector general to report to Congress on the number of complaints it has received against private contractors, and the number of investigations opened and criminal cases pursued in response. Baghdad officials are investigating Blackwater’s actions in the Sept. 16 violence and other recent incidents that caused Iraqi civilian casualties, and the State Department launched its own probe late last week.
Obama told Bush he was "disturbed" by the Blackwater episode, which "raises larger questions about the role of private security contractors."
There's more. Obama himself penned a blog post Monday on the Hill's congress blog about his legislation, which dates back to February of this year:
.... This recent incident, which is under investigation by the Department of State, raises larger questions about the role of private security contractors. An estimated 48,000 private security employees are operating in Iraq, and more than 1,000 contractors have died in Iraq since 2003. Little is known about what functions these security contractors are performing, how much their services are costing, what military and safety equipment they are provided, and what rules of engagement they are following. And according to press accounts, Blackwater has been exempt from military regulations governing other security companies, such as restrictions on the use of offensive weapons, requirements to report shooting incidents, or abiding by a central tracking system that allows commanders to monitor the movements of security companies on the battlefield.
In February, I introduced the Transparency and Accountability in Military and Security Contracting Act (S. 674). This bill would require federal agencies to report to Congress on: the total number of security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan; the total cost of the contractors; the number of contractors killed or wounded; information about the military and safety equipment provided to contractors; and a description of disciplinary action taken against contractors. The bill also would improve coordination between security contractors and U.S. armed forces by requiring the issuance of rules of engagement, clarify the legal status of contractors, and require investigation of criminal misconduct committed by contractors.
I have offered this legislation as an amendment to the FY 2008 Defense Authorization bill, which is currently before the Senate. I also sent a letter earlier this week to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, calling on him to answer questions about the Blackwater incident and the role of private security contractors and the impact of their operations in Iraq. ...
Barack Obama is LEADING on this issue.
He has identified the main problems -- the lack of accountability, the lack of standards or rules of engagement, and the ambiguity about criminal liability -- and he is not only speaking about about them to Bush and Gates, he proposed legislation back in February to deal with it. Now that the Defense Authorization bill for FY2008 is in the offing, he's tacked that legislation on as an amendment and is pushing for it again.
Barack Obama gets it on this issue, and he's taken a leadership role. For our military, for justice, for our country.