It started when Jeremy Scahill, self-appointed scourge of the PSC industry, wrote in the liberal magazine The Nation last week that if elected Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., will "not 'rule out' using private security companies like Blackwater Worldwide in Iraq."
Quoting an unnamed Obama adviser, Scahill reported the candidate opposes a ban and instead "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."
All this really says on this issue is that Obama is a lot smarter than Scahill and The Nation.
There are probably about 30,000 security contractors in Iraq. If there were U.S. forces -- military or otherwise -- to spare for those roles, they would have been provided.
Much of their work -- protecting U.S. and allied officials and other civilians involved in aid and reconstruction -- will continue after a military pullout.
Removing them precipitously would likely delay the withdrawal of U.S. forces, because U.S. personnel would have to replace them.
Obama sensibly does not support legislation introduced into Congress last year called Stop Outsourcing Security. The language of the proposed law makes no bones about where it is coming from.
"The use of private security contractors for mission critical functions undermines the mission, jeopardizes the safety of American troops conducting military operations in Iraq and other combat zones, and should be phased out."
The day after Scahill's article appeared, Obama's rival for the nomination, Sen. Hilary Clinton, D-N.Y., announced that she is co-sponsoring a bill to ban "Blackwater and other private mercenary firms in Iraq." This looks like an attempt to outflank Obama on the left and pick up the support of those, like Scahill, who consider PMCs as mercenaries.
"From this war's very beginning, this administration has permitted thousands of heavily-armed military contractors to march through Iraq without any law or court to rein them in or hold them accountable," Clinton said in a statement. "These private security contractors have been reckless and have compromised our mission in Iraq," she said. "The time to show these contractors the door is long past due."
But as Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution noted, Clinton's campaign might have trouble getting traction with it.
"At the end of the day," he said, "it's only a five-sentence statement of intent, coming after her being eight years on the Armed Services Committee, a full year after Obama issues his bill on contracting, seven months after the Blackwater shootings, and six months after Obama's bill became the core of much of the latest round of reforms in the Defense Authorization act."
Indeed, Obama has been at the forefront of efforts to address the issue in the Senate, as Scahill himself has acknowledged. In addition to the February 2007 Transparency and Accountability in Military and Security Contracting bill that Singer refers to, he is a cosponsor of a bill introduced by Sen. James Webb, D-Va., to provide for the study and investigation of wartime contracts and contracting processes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And Obama cosponsored the Senate equivalent, not yet passed, of H.R. 2740, passed in the House last fall, which would subject all contractors to civilian criminal jurisdiction and, importantly, provide the Justice Department with the means and the direction to actually investigate and prosecute potential abuse.
All realistic observers, even critical ones, of private military contractors know their use is not going away. So the issue is about regulating their use, not ending it.
As Scott Horton of Human Rights First, which has been critical of the private security industry, said at a news conference in January, "The issue is, we have contractors. We need them. So let's make sure that they play by rules that are basic to the way Americans want to conduct their work."
And when it comes to issues of control, regulation, and legal accountability there are real issues that, sadly, are virtually ignored.
Consider what Kateri Carmola, an assistant professor at Middlebury College and author of the forthcoming book, "Private Security Contractors and New Wars: Risk, Law and Ethics," wrote in the fall/winter 2006 issue of the Brown Journal of World Affairs:
"The West's increasingly strong perception of itself as fighting only humanitarian wars, in as humane a way as possible, infused with the spirit of canonical humanitarian laws, contrasts with the reality of a military that is increasingly contracting out services of all types and overseeing the contracts that guide this outsourcing with "contract officers," not military commanders. Private military firms "show up," so to speak, as private employees in need of regulation, not as soldiers fulfilling a public service."
In other words, much of the difficulty in crafting appropriate rules and regulations for private military and security contractors is, because we are, to paraphrase the old saying, trying to fit round laws into square holes.