POLITICS
04/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated 4 days ago

House Dems Want To Phase Out Armed Contractors

One morning, Uncle Sam woke up and his military had been privatized. There had been no national debate. No congressional action. No sweeping White House order. It just happened.

Today, the Pentagon employs more than 217,000 contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, doing the kind of work that enlisted military personnel would have performed in the past, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

Now, there's a move in Congress to change that. On Tuesday, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) introduced the Stop Outsourcing Security Act, which would make it the military's responsibility to use its own personnel to train troops and police, guard convoys, repair weapons, run military prisons and do military intelligence activity.

There are strategic reasons to move away from a reliance on contractors, says Schakowsky, a senior member of the intelligence committee. They damage the U.S. reputation with reckless behavior, are overly costly and hurt the morale of troops, who see private guards earning much more money than they do.

WATCH: Brave New Foundation on Blackwater and the outsourcing of U.S. security

"There's a larger philosophical question as well," Schakowsky adds. "Our definition of 'nation-state' has been a hegemony on the use of force. Now we seem so reliant on these companies that we need them to conduct war, that even when Blackwater was thrown out of Iraq, we had to extend their contract last fall because they were the only ones capable of this helicopter contract. And so we had to continue to use them."

It's dangerous, Schakowsky says, when a nation has no apparent choice but to hire a paramilitary corporation to do its war-making.

If such a bill had been introduced just a few years ago, it would likely have easily passed.

But in today's world of privatized war, it is sure to face stiff opposition, not least of all from a lobbying firm that has sprouted to defend the interests of the mercenary industry: the International Peace Operations Association.

"Peace operations," scoffs Schakowsky. "I love that name."

Schakowsky's bill has in principle the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). When President Obama proposed an across-the-board spending freeze that exempted the military, Pelosi pushed back, insisting that the military, and specifically its outsourcing policies, get a special look.

"We will continue to fully support our veterans and our men and women in uniform and their families, but curbing military contractors' wasteful practices must be part of our efforts to restore accountability, transparency and fiscal discipline to the federal budget," Pelosi said.

As Schakowsky, seated in her office, lays out her plan for phasing out military reliance on contractors, her assistant gets a news alert on her BlackBerry reporting that Blackwater is close to getting a major contract to train soldiers in Afghanistan.

Schakowsky is appalled and momentarily speechless. "That is just so unthinkable," she says. "I really believe that were they an individual -- and nowadays you can call corporations individuals; they have the same rights, right? -- they'd get a dishonorable discharge for what they've done. How many people do they have to kill? How many missions do they have to screw up before we say, 'No, we're not going to do that'?"

Schakowsky has close to 20 cosponsors and is exploring how to move her legislation as a stand-alone bill, but would be open to other avenues of passage, she said.

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in the in the Senate, she signed on to a similar bill. This year, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced the upper chamber's version.

"The American people have always prided themselves on the strength, conduct, and honor of our United States military. I therefore find it very disturbing that now, in the midst of two wars and a global struggle against terrorism, we are relying more and more on private security contractors -- rather than our own service members -- to provide for our national defense," Sanders said at a press conference earlier Tuesday.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tells HuffPost the military is already moving in Sanders' direction. "There's a major shift away from contractors in the military, by the thousands... by the tens of thousands in their planning. They're definitely moving in that direction."

Levin says he "very much" supports that movement. "I think we've got a lot of problems with some of the contractors," he says, adding that a hearing Wednesday will specifically address armed contractors.

For Schakowsky, the movement away from contractors is strategic, moral, practical and philosophical.

"There has never been a real cost analysis. We get told that this is a cheaper way to go, that it's actually cost effective to use these outside contractors, but there has never been a real analysis of that," she says. "Because they pay them so much more, and because they've been a constant fixture throughout this war, it's estimated that 40 cents of every dollar goes to a private contractor."

It also bothers troops to watch contractors getting rich -- and can inspire them to quit the military and find a higher-paying gig after receiving millions of dollars worth of training at taxpayer expense. "It does create a morale problem, the fact that we give them so much more. In fact there's now a verb: To be 'Blackwatered' is to be recruited -- not necessarily by Blackwater -- but any of these private companies where you can get a lot more money," she says. "And then there's this murky legal realm in which they operate. On one hand, they're not part of the official chain of command, and on the other hand, when they get sued or when there's a problem, they claim immunity."

A federal judge recently threw out charges against Blackwater guards who shot and killed apparently unarmed Iraqi civilians in a case that drew international attention.

"So far, it appears that the answer to the question, 'Can they get away with murder?," offers Schakowsky, "is 'yes.'"