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Senate panel curbs private security firms Print

By Roxana Tiron - 05/01/08
A Senate panel is seeking to rein in private security firms in Iraq and Afghanistan by prohibiting them from conducting military detainee interrogations and operations in combat areas.

The Senate Armed Services panel included language in the 2009 defense authorization bill this week extending Pentagon regulations on private security firms to the Department of State.

The move follows high-profile scandals involving private contractors, particularly in Iraq, where the U.S. government has been employing them in record numbers.

“The State Department is the problem,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the panel’s chairman, told reporters on Thursday. “The Defense Department has strayed a bit from its own rules too in that regard. We are putting their rules into law.”

Democrats and Republicans on the panel supported the provision, and Levin said he did not expect the administration to object.

Language in the authorization bill would bar State Department and Pentagon contractors from performing security in combat zones or highly hazardous public areas in Iraq or Afghanistan where they would be required to use offensive force. Such jobs can be performed only by government employees.

Private security guards with Blackwater USA were involved in a shooting incident last fall that left at least 17 Iraqis dead. This prompted Congress to reassess the role of private security contractors in war zones and brought about an agreement late last year between the State Department and the Pentagon to put contractors under stronger military control.

“We can’t allow private contractors to be performing these jobs. The price that we have paid already is too high and we have got to change the way that it is operating,” Levin said. “The State Department simply cannot have contractors performing military duties.”

The bill also gives the Pentagon a year to stop hiring private contractors to interrogate detainees. The CIA and other intelligence agencies, however, will still be able to hire private contractors for both security operations and interrogations. The bill excludes these intelligence agencies.

CACI and Titan are among the well-known companies that have had contracts with the Pentagon to perform interrogations. The CIA also has used outside contractors extensively for its secret interrogations program.

The Armed Services panel did not broach the issue of military withdrawal from Iraq, but Levin said amendments could come up as the Senate takes up the authorization bill in coming weeks.

The panel did send a unanimous message to the Bush administration and the Iraqi government by blocking U.S. funding for Iraq reconstruction projects worth more than $2 million and by trying to force the Iraqi government to cover the costs of training and equipping the country’s security forces.

The approval of the provision comes as Congress is increasingly concerned about the ballooning costs of the war and the fact that Iraqi revenue from oil has been soaring while Americans struggle with high fuel prices.

The panel requires the U.S. government to negotiate cost-sharing agreements with Iraq for combined military operations and stipulate that Iraq must take steps to ensure that it pays for the Iraqi Security Forces and the costs associated with the Sunni tribesmen who are now helping the U.S. military.

Overall, the Senate panel authorized $612.5 billion in military spending, including $70 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The panel also touched on several high-profile defense programs.

It included $497 million for either advance procurement or the termination of the production line for the F-22 fighter jet, leaving the decision up to the new president. The Air Force and Lockheed Martin have been pressing for more F-22s and for keeping the production line open longer than anticipated.

Boeing has been pressing lawmakers to give the Navy the nod for an additional multiyear buy of F-18 E/F Super Hornets. The panel, however, only encouraged the Navy in report language to assess a potential third multiyear buy to help close a gap in fighter aircraft. The language specifies that the Navy cannot cut the numbers for the new Joint Strike Fighter to buy more Hornets.

Boeing scored an initial victory for the Army’s flagship program, the Future Combat Systems. The panel authorized the full $3.9 billion requested for the program in 2009.

The panel authorized $465 million for an alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. The administration has fought for several years congressional efforts to add funds for a second engine made by Rolls Royce and General Electric .



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