Clinton supports bill to ban use of State Department private security contractors

Democratic presidential hopeful wants diplomatic security in Iraq and Afghanistan handled by federal personnel.

Sen. Hillary Clinton has signed on as the first co-sponsor of a bill that would ban the use of all State Department private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill could create a wedge issue with her chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who does not support the measure.

Last week, Clinton, D-N.Y., offered her support to the Stop Outsourcing Security Act, which was introduced last November by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. An identical House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill., was introduced in 2007 and has 23 co-sponsors.

The bill requires that within six months of passage, "the secretary of State shall ensure that all personnel at any United States diplomatic or consular mission in Iraq are provided security services only by federal government personnel."

If the White House is unable to meet that deadline, Congress can authorize a postponement, but only if all private security contractors have undergone background checks and do not have criminal records. Under such a postponement, contractors would have to abide by the same rules governing the conduct of U.S. military personnel.

"These private security contractors have been reckless and have compromised our mission in Iraq," Clinton said in a statement. "The time to show these contractors the door is long past due. We need to stop filling the coffers of contractors in Iraq, and make sure armed personnel in Iraq are fully accountable to the U.S. government and follow the chain of command."

The bill, which also would provide Congress with oversight over private security contractors' contracts worth more $5 million, does not dictate which federal entity would replace the private security firms.

"It will be the responsibility, when it comes to protecting diplomatic personnel, of the secretary of State to determine which federal employees take over protecting our diplomats in combat zones," said William Wiquist III, a spokesman for Sanders. "The main point is that diplomatic protection, and in the near future all military mission-critical operations, should no longer be performed by private contractors."

The legislation would affect about 1,400 contractors -- roughly two-thirds of whom are American -- operating under the State Department's Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract to guard infrastructure and diplomats.

The contract, which is up for renewal in May, is held by Blackwater Worldwide of Moyock, N.C., DynCorp International of Falls Church, Va., and Triple Canopy of Herndon, Va. The current WPPS contract has a ceiling of $l.2 billion per contractor over five years.

In testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week, Jack Bell, deputy undersecretary of Defense for logistics and materiel readiness, said the Pentagon has nearly 1,000 private security contractors operating in Iraq, the majority of which are third-country nationals or Iraqis. The legislation would not affect these contractors, along with those hired directly by private firms providing other services in Iraq.

A senior foreign policy adviser to Obama told The Nation last week that the senator did not plan to sign onto Sanders' bill and would not rule out the use of private security contractors in Iraq. The Obama campaign said it would focus on beefing up the size of the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security and providing greater oversight of the private security firms.

Clinton announced her support for Sanders' bill one day after The Nation published its story. Clinton's Senate office did not respond to a request for comment from Government Executive.

The debate over the use of private security contractors was sparked last September when Blackwater guards opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square, killing 17 civilians and injuring two dozen others. Neither DynCorp nor Triple Canopy has been involved in any similar high-profile shooting.

Of the nearly 1,400 guards operating under the WPPS contract, Blackwater provides about 70 percent of the labor, according to a July 2007report from the Congressional Research Service. DynCorp's 150 guards protect facilities and infrastructure in the relatively secure northern Kurdish region while Triple Canopy's 250 employees operate in southern Iraq.

Replacing such a large security force may prove troublesome. The two most likely options to succeed private security contractors would be the Diplomatic Security Service or the Marine Corps. But bringing private security in-house could be a difficult and costly proposition.

The Diplomatic Security Service has only 1,450 special agents stationed at more than 285 posts around the globe. Hiring and training enough DSS agents to assume a lead security role in Iraq could take several years and cost millions of dollars.

"The DSS would have to double in size oversight," said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, an industry group that represents private security contractors. "Monetarily, it doesn't make any sense."

The Marines, meanwhile, have experience providing security at U.S. embassies and protecting civilians during armed conflicts. But the service already is stretched thin and officials have indicated that they prefer not to take on the added security responsibilities.

Jeff Green, who lobbies for the Private Security Company Association of Iraq, said it would be "short sighted" and "potentially dangerous" for the U.S. military to switch from an offensive combat role to a defensive security posture. The PSCAI, he said, would prefer that the terms of the WPPS contract be clarified and changed, rather than eliminating the contract altogether.

Last October, an independent review panel focused on examining regulations and improving accountability with security contractors in Iraq concluded that private industry remains the only feasible option. The panel recommended that the State Department provide greater accountability, oversight and discipline over its private security force.