Hoping to Keep the Fight Alive

(By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) started pressing for greater congressional scrutiny of private contractors in Iraq not long after the war began. Last week she got lots of company.

The House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed legislation to hold firms such as Blackwater USA accountable under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act for possible criminal misconduct. Co-sponsored by Schakowsky, the bill included her proposal to require the Justice Department to disclose to Congress the number of complaints filed against contractors, the number of investigations it has initiated and the number of criminal cases it has opened, along with the results of those cases.

The 389 to 30 vote came despite White House opposition and amid rising alarm in Congress about potential contractor abuses after the Sept. 16 shooting by Blackwater personnel in Baghdad that left at least 14 Iraqi civilians dead.

Schakowsky saw the potential for scandal long ago. In April 2006, she wrote a letter to President Bush asking him to explain how his administration was holding private military contractors accountable. At that point, 25,000 U.S. contractors were employed in Iraq. Now the number is roughly 180,000.

"Finally it's really broken through," Schakowsky said of the expanding role of contractors. "And I think once the Pandora's box is opened here about what these people are doing, I don't think it's going to end."

Also, she said, the public is learning how far the U.S. role in Iraq extends beyond the 160,000-troop presence.

"We don't look at the number of contractors who are engaged in military activities, we don't count the deaths of contractors. We think about 1,000 have died," but the numbers aren't official. "We don't really even scrutinize the cost," Schakowsky said.

Now she wants to go further and is drafting legislation to phase out the use of private contractors for military-like activities. "Not KP duty," Schakowsky emphasized. The Blackwater incident "helps pave the way for us to say, 'There are functions that are inherently governmental. Carrying weapons and engaging in strictly military-like activities should be done by people who are clearly accountable employees of the United States.' "

"The government has to have a monopoly on the use of force," she continued. "We have outsourced war to these people, and now we have to bring it back within the government."

Placing further restraints on private security firms is just one of the Iraq-related measures that Schakowsky is urging the House to consider this fall. Rather than pivoting away from the war, as the Senate has following a slew of recent defeats, Schakowsky and her antiwar colleagues want to keep the drumbeat rolling in their chamber.

"Whether or not the Senate has the votes, whether or not the president signs a bill, we have got to make the fight," she said.

Schakowsky was among the few Democrats who didn't cower when Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) floated the idea of a war tax. "David Obey stirred things up," she said. "While I don't think the tax is going to go anywhere . . . his notion is to say, 'Look, most Americans don't really see themselves as having skin in the game here.' "

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