Sanders sets sights on hired guns (Brattleboro Reformer)

By EVAN LEHMANN, Reformer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., announced Wednesday he'll introduce legislation that would replace thousands of hired guns in Iraq with traditional military service members.
The Vermont independent and other lawmakers argued that private security contractors like Blackwater USA is corrupting Iraqi perceptions of the U.S. effort there and eroding morale among American troops, who often earn a fraction of the salary of their private counterparts.

"Every time a Blackwater employee kills an Iraqi citizen, every time a security contractor assaults Iraqi nationals, America's standing with the people of Iraq dramatically worsens," Sanders said. "The use of private security contractors in Iraq has undermined our presence there."

Sanders' legislation will mirror a bill introduced in the House of Representatives Wednesday by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who aims to "put private security contractors out of business" in conflicts around the world.

The bill would require nearly 900 hired guns currently guarding U.S. State Department officials to be withdrawn within six months, including Blackwater units accused of killing Iraqi civilians.

Additionally, between 40,000 and 100,000 contractors conducting "critical mission" operations, like conducting interrogations, collecting intelligence and training Iraqi security forces would be phased out by Jan. 1, 2009.

The president could extend that deadline if each contractor undergoes a background check certifying that they haven't been convicted of a crime.

Military personnel would replace the contractors.

Sanders said some contractors make as much as $1,000 a day.

"Not even four-star generals in the United States military make that kind of money," he added. "It is time to end this two-tier pay system, developed by the anti-government, pro-privatization agenda of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld."

Sanders was referring to President Bush, Vice President Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The legislation, named the Stop Outsourcing Security Act, would also make each military contract open to congressional oversight.