Based in DC, Dan covers politics and national security. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, the Village Voice, the Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.
Blackwater improperly obtained hundreds of weapons intended for use by Afghanistan's already underequipped police force—and then falsely claimed to a Senate committee that the firearms had been returned when many remained unaccounted for.
According to a months-long investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee that unearthed a range of misconduct by the company's personnel, contractors working for a Blackwater subsidiary named Paravant operated recklessly and routinely violated military regulations. The inquiry also identified a series of major vetting lapses by the company, which employed at least one contractor it had previously fired for improper behavior in Iraq and others who abused alcohol and drugs, including steroids. The investigation paints a grim picture of the state of contracting oversight in Afghanistan, where, according to committee staffers, military officials missed multiple red flags calling Paravant's conduct into question—and were even confused about who was ultimately responsible for overseeing the company's work in the first place.
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.
Whether he meant to or not, Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), just launched the opening volley in a bureaucratic turf war. On Monday, Bowen's office released a report outlining the creation of a new government agency that would be responsible for managing, planning, and funding stability and reconstruction operations, like the ones that are ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan and the aid effort that is ramping up in Haiti. Not surprisingly the lead players in these operations—namely the departments of state and defense—don't like the idea of a new government entity bigfooting their terrain one bit.
Dubbed the US Office for Contingency Operations (USOCO), the proposed agency would gather under one roof a variety of government divisions that are currently spread among a multitude of agencies, each responsible for a piece of the puzzle but none for the whole picture. The idea, says Bowen, is to provide a single point of accountability for the billions of dollars being poured into reconstruction and stability efforts. In other words, one agency to blame when things go wrong—a concept that, at the very least, would save congressional committees the trouble of calling officials from multiple agencies to the mat to answer for reconstructiondebacles.
Presently authority over reconstruction and stability programs—and the associated contracting—has been diffused among the State Department, the US Agency for International Development, the Pentagon, and others. The result, in many cases, has been unclear lines of authority, ad hoc or absent oversight, and overlapping or contradictory efforts. Given the litany of oversight lapses that have marred reconstruction efforts—resulting, among other things, in untold amounts of taxpayer money squandered or outright ripped off—shaking up the status quo would seem like a welcome and long overdue option. But ceding territory is never something government agencies take kindly to. And, if Bowen's proposal threatens to become anything more than a well-read white paper, the firm, yet polite opposition of government officials could turn into a bureaucratic insurgency.
The Office of Professional Responsibility report on the Bush administration's torture memos—released at long last this evening, completely bollixing this reporter's plans for after work cocktails—is remarkable on a number of levels, not least the duration it took to put together. The report was almost five years in the making. What took so damn long? "This was not a routine investigation," the report notes, going on to detail a laundry list of complications. One was the deletion of the email records of Office of Legal Counsel officials John Yoo and Patrick Philbin. (Sound familiar?)
OLC initially provided us with a relatively small number of emails, files, and draft documents. After it became apparent, during the course of our review, that relevant documents were missing, we requested and were given direct access to the email and computer records of [REDACTED], Yoo, Philbin, [Assistant Attorney General Jay] Bybee, and [Assistant Attorney General Jack] Goldsmith. However, we were told that most of Yoo's email records had been deleted and were not recoverable. Philbin's email records from July 2002 through August 5, 2002—the time period in which the Bybee Memo was completed and the Classified Bybee Memo...was created—had also been deleted and were reportedly not recoverable.
Supporting an alleged war criminal's bid to evade accountability is surely not a popular stance. But when the Supreme Court took up the case of Somali General Mohamed Ali Samantar last fall, an odd coalition of defenders emerged. Among them were the government of Saudi Arabia, various pro-Israel groups, and three former US attorneys general. At stake is whether foreign officials can be sued in US courts for human rights abuses, or whether they are protected by a swath of immunity that shields them from answering for even the most heinous acts. Supporters of Samantar’s position contend that if the Supreme Court rules against him, it could leave officials from Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US, and elsewhere vulnerable to an avalanche of lawsuits. And the case raises major foreign policy questions, particularly as the Obama administration wages an aggressive fight against terrorism around the world.
The case is the first ever to target a member of the brutal regime of Somalia's late dictator Mohammed Siad Barre. Samantar served as his defense minister and later prime minister, and he oversaw the country's armed forces as they engaged in a litany of human rights violations. "He was the dictator's enforcer," says J. Peter Pham, the director of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy's Africa Project. Samantar moved to the US in 1997 and for years has battled a lawsuit by alleged victims of the regime’s abuses—who collectively tell of torture, rape, extrajudicial killings, wanton imprisonment, and the abduction of family members who were never heard from again. Samantar's lawyers argue that he's immune from such suits under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), a 1976 law that, with some exceptions, protects countries (and any "agency or instrumentality" of those nations) from being sued in US courts. The high court will consider whether or not Samantar's claim of immunity is valid when it hears oral arguments on March 3. (An attorney for Samantar did not respond to an interview request.)
Samantar’s defenders—along with officials from countries with questionable human rights records—have cause to be anxious about how the Supreme Court rules in this matter. In the past, attempts (unsuccessful thus far) have been made to sue ex-Israeli officials in American courts for their role in military campaigns that caused civilian casualties. The case makes the Saudis tense because of their experiences fending off a spate of lawsuits accusing Saudi officials, nonprofits, and other entities of complicity in the September 11th attacks. These concerns also hit a little closer to home, given, among other things, the Bush administration's controversial interrogation and rendition policies. In 2004, Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was detained in the US and rendered to Syria, where he alleges he was tortured, sued Attorney General John Ashcroft and other US officials—using one of the same statutes that Samantar was initially taken to court under. The case was dismissed by an appeals court, but earlier this month Arar petitioned the Supreme Court to review the decision.