Defining 'inherently governmental' and role of contractors in U.S. war fight

Christopher Shays, left, and Michael Thibault are co-chairmen of the Commission on Wartime Contracting.
Christopher Shays, left, and Michael Thibault are co-chairmen of the Commission on Wartime Contracting. (Courtesy Of The Commision On Wartime Contracting - Courtesy Of The Commision On Wartime Contracting)
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By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Where should Uncle Sam draw the line for the hired guns protecting his interests in war zones?

Or, put more politely, "are private security contractors performing inherently governmental functions?" asked Christopher Shays, co-chairman of the Commission on Wartime Contracting in his statement opening two days of hearings on Friday.

It's a question with a huge scope and no easy answer. The commission's search for one is an indication of the tricky time the Obama administration is having: It is attempting to define "inherently governmental" during efforts to find the right balance between work, in a variety of areas, that should be done by federal employees and tasks that can be farmed out to contractors.

The questions posed, about the use of private security in Iraq and Afghanistan, are far more complicated than the ones domestic agencies usually face. Private security personnel in those countries put their lives on the line for Sam and may be called to kill in his name. Hiring 40,000 contractors means, as Shays said, "private security contracting is a big business."

"Business" is part of the problem for Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit government watchdog group. Businesses seek profits, and the profit motive can be in conflict with the national interest, she warned.

With so many people working for private employers, doing many jobs with life and death consequences, the notion of "privatizing war" is a concept that seems applicable.

"While it is easy to assume that the enormous private security presence in the war zone resulted from some intentional policy of 'privatizing war,' in truth it resulted directly from the nature and scope of the multiple missions being undertaken," said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, which represents contractors.

Both Soloway, a supporter of the "high level of propriety and professionalism" that he said contractors display in the war zones, and witnesses who are more critical of them agree that contractors have come to play a huge role in the way the United States wages war.

Allison Stanger, a Middlebury College professor of international politics and economics, said that the contingent of private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan has reached the point where they undermine public interest. "In the simplest of terms, armed security contractors enable us to wage two wars simultaneously while avoiding the necessity of a draft," she said.

Stanger zeroed in on contractors who provide moving security, such as those guarding convoys. She said they have crossed the line into the realm of inherently governmental work that should be reserved for people directly on Sam's payroll.

"It seems clear that taking up arms to defend the interests of the United States, whether remotely pulling triggers on drone flights or to guard government personnel as they travel in war zones, would seem to constitute active involvement in defending the nation against foreign enemies," she said.

If defending the nation against foreign enemies isn't inherently governmental, what is?

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