Obama's Blackwater Problem--Updated

UPDATE: What interesting timing! A day after this story went live on TheNation.com, Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose staff refused for a week to answer my questions about her position on private security forces, released a statement announcing that Clinton is now co-sponsoring legislation to "ban the use of Blackwater and other private mercenary firms in Iraq," saying, "The time to show these contractors the door is long past due." Why February 28, in the middle of a tough political campaign? Why not after last September's Nisour Square massacre, when Blackwater operatives killed 17 Iraqi civilians? Or, better, before it? Regardless of the curious timing, this makes Clinton the most significant US political figure to date to issue such a call. We will be monitoring closely how much of a legislative priority this becomes for Sen. Clinton.

A senior foreign policy adviser to leading Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama told me that if elected Obama will not "rule out" using private security companies like Blackwater Worldwide in Iraq. The adviser also said that Obama does not plan to sign on to legislation that seeks to ban the use of these forces in US war zones by January 2009, when a new President will be sworn in. Obama's campaign says that instead he will focus on bringing accountability to these forces while increasing funding for the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the agency that employs Blackwater and other private security contractors.

Obama's broader Iraq withdrawal plan provides for some US troops to remain in Iraq--how many his advisers won't say. But it's clear that Obama's "follow-on force" will include a robust security force to protect US personnel in Iraq, US trainers (who would also require security) for Iraqi forces and military units to "strike at Al Qaeda"--all very broad swaths of the occupation.

"If Barack Obama comes into office next January and our diplomatic security service is in the state it's in and the situation on the ground in Iraq is in the state it's in, I think we will be forced to rely on a host of security measures," said the senior adviser. "I can't rule out, I won't rule out, private security contractors." He added, "I will rule out private security contractors that are not accountable to US law."

But therein lies a problem. The US Embassy in Iraq is slated to become the largest embassy in world history. If Obama maintains that embassy and its army of diplomats and US personnel going in and out of the Green Zone, which his advisers say he will, a significant armed force will be required for protection. The force that now plays that role is composed almost exclusively of contractors from Blackwater, DynCorp and Triple Canopy. And at present, these contractors are not held accountable under US law. Obama and a host of legal experts, including in the Justice Department, acknowledge that there may be no current US law that could be used to prosecute security contractors for crimes committed in Iraq, such as the killing of seventeen Iraqi civilians last September in Baghdad's Nisour Square.

The irony is that it was Senator Obama who sponsored a bill in February 2007 defining a legal structure to prosecute State Department contractor crimes in US courts. Obama staffers say they will "fight like hell to get it passed." But it may not pass before the next President takes power. Even if it does and Bush signs it, serious questions will remain unresolved about how contractor crimes can be monitored effectively. The senior adviser acknowledged that Obama could find himself in a situation where, as President, he continues using forces he himself has identified as "unaccountable." The Obama campaign, in other words, may have painted itself into a corner.

Obama campaign and Senate staffers characterize this as an inherited problem with no good alternatives. "We are in a situation where, because of bad planning and a series of disastrous policy choices by the Bush administration, we're forced to rely on private security contractors," says the senior adviser. "What we're focused on at the moment is getting the legal architecture in place that will hold these guys accountable to the same standard that [applies to] enlisted US military personnel."

The private security industry knows well that it has become a central part of US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Extricating the firms from this position would require a major and aggressive undertaking with significant Congressional support, which is by no means guaranteed. In fact, Blackwater appears to see a silver lining in the prospect of US forces being withdrawn or reduced in Iraq. Joseph Schmitz, chief operating officer of Blackwater's parent company, The Prince Group, said, "There is a scenario where we could as a government, the United States, could pull back the military footprint, and there would then be more of a need for private contractors to go in." The Obama senior adviser called Schmitz's comment "an unfortunate characterization."

Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky, one of Congress's sharpest critics of the war contracting system, says of Schmitz's remark, "That's why some of us have been really careful about not just talking about a troop withdrawal but a contractor withdrawal as well." Obama, she says, should make it impossible for Schmitz and others "to think that Barack Obama would be creating new opportunities for Blackwater after our troops are withdrawn."

Hillary Clinton's staff would not make anyone available for an interview on this subject. Interestingly, she is the top recipient of campaign contributions from the defense industry--more money than John McCain has received.

Read my full story in The Nation or watch today's Democracy Now!