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Letter to the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice

Letter

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


Obama Iraq Security Contractors Amendment Wins Approval in Senate

Last night, the United States Senate accepted an amendment to the Defense Department Authorization bill introduced by U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) that will require federal departments to compile and report information to Congress on the role of private security contractors in Iraq.

"There are too many unanswered questions about the role of private security contractors in Iraq and it's time for answers," Senator Obama said. "The American people have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent in Iraq and the role that security contractors are playing. This legislation will start getting the information we need to make sure their operations are going forth in a way that doesn't hinder our military's efforts to bring this war to a responsible end. I reiterate my calls on President Bush to immediately begin bringing these answers to Congress."

Obama originally offered the Transparency and Accountability in Military and Security Contracting Act (S. 674) in February.

With an estimated 48,000 private security employees operating in Iraq, and more than 1,000 contractors killed since 2003, little is known about what functions these security contractors are performing, how much their services are costing, and what rules of engagement they are following.

Specifically, Obama's amendment will direct federal departments and agencies to report to Congress on the following within 90 days:

* The total number of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan
* The companies awarded these contracts
* The total cost of the contractors
* And the process by which federal departments will track the number of contractors killed or wounded

Within 180 days, the Department of Defense will have to submit a report to Congress on its strategy for using contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, a description of the activities being carried out by contractors, and a strategy for ensuring that contractors do not perform inherently governmental functions and that they are not supervising other U.S. government personnel.

Obama wrote to Secretary Rice today continuing to push for answers on the Blackwater incident and on the role of contractors in general.

The text of the letter is below:

September 28, 2007

The Honorable Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Madam Secretary:

I am writing regarding the September 16 incident in Baghdad involving the State Department's security escort, which consists of armed private contractors from the firm Blackwater USA. According to press accounts of that incident, Blackwater contractors killed at 11 Iraqis and wounded 12 others.

This incident and a pattern of similar incidents described in press accounts raise larger questions about the role of private contractors in Iraq - who carry out what had once been viewed as inherently governmental functions. Tens of thousands of private security employees are operating in Iraq, and more than 1,000 contractors have died in Iraq since 2003. As the recent incident in Baghdad illustrates, 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.

For this reason, I introduced the Transparency and Accountability in Military and Security Contracting Act (S. 674) in February. This legislation would require federal agencies to report to Congress on: the total number of security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan; the total cost of those 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 legislation 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 engaged in by contractors. The FY 2008 Defense Authorization bill, which is currently before the Senate, includes several provisions from S. 674, and similar provisions have been included in the House version of the bill.

In an effort to learn more about Blackwater's operations in Iraq, I am interested in getting your reaction to several issues under the jurisdiction of the Department of State:

1) The press has reported several other instances involving Blackwater, including a reported shooting of the Iraqi Vice President's security guard inside the Green Zone on Christmas Eve 2006, reported shootings of Interior Ministry employees, and reported armed standoffs between Blackwater employees and Iraqi police. It has also been claimed by U.S. officials quoted in media reports that the State Department was informed of this pattern, but failed to take action against the firm. Has the Department investigated these or other incidents? If so, what were the legal or contractual results of those investigations?

2) Following the recent incident in Baghdad, the Iraqi government reportedly banned Blackwater from operating in Iraq. The resulting ban on Blackwater's operations reportedly caused the entire U.S. diplomatic effort within Iraq to cease operations, preventing State Department from even leaving the Green Zone to carry out their jobs for several days. How did the U.S. government become so dependent on just one company in order to carry out its mandated missions? What reforms are being implemented to prevent such vulnerabilities for inherently governmental operations in the future? Given the obvious needs, will you be rebuilding the Department's Diplomatic Security office, or will you continue to rely on contractors in a way that could lead to similar problems and vulnerabilities in the future?

3) Last year, Congress enacted and the President signed into law a provision stating that contractors operating in contingency operations would potentially fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Is it your view that any illegal actions committed by armed private contractors in Iraq would be punishable under the UCMJ, as Iraq is a contingency operation and they are civilians accompanying the force in the pursuit of that mission? If not, under what legal process would they be held accountable? How many contractors have been held accountable for past incidents over the last four years of operations in Iraq?

4) It has also been reported that two former members of the Blackwater firm have pled guilty to the illegal transfer of American-made weaponry to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), an organization that is designated as a "foreign terrorist organization" by your own Department. What were the effects of the Turkish government's discovery of U.S. weapons in a terrorist group's hands -- apparently facilitated by private contractor personnel? Has this incident harmed U.S. relations with our NATO ally Turkey and your wider efforts to ensure stability and democracy in the region?

5) Lastly, I am concerned about the impact of this incident, as well as others since the private contractor role at Abu Ghraib, on our overall effort to win the wider "war of ideas" that is required to defeat terrorism. This recent incident and other incidents have been widely reported in the Muslim world, with negative implications for U.S. efforts. The result is that not only are the private contractors being blamed, but so is the U.S. government. Has the State Department conducted an analysis of the consequences of turning over such functions in a contingency operation zone to private contractors? Is this outsourcing actually hurting, rather than helping, our public diplomacy efforts, especially our efforts to win "hearts and minds"?

The American people have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent and whether American civilian contractors are following applicable laws. Unfortunately, recent press accounts -- particularly those alluding to the State Department's obstruction of a House investigation -- suggest that the Department is not interested in a full accounting of Blackwater's actions or in ensuring adequate oversight of Blackwater and other private security contractors. The U.S. government must ensure an expedited resolution to these troubling developments.

I look forward to your timely responses to my inquiries. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Barack Obama
United States Senator


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