Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky has had enough of the war in Iraq, and
she's had enough of the military contractors that are making it possible.
"These are the guys who carry guns - I would call them mercenaries - who are engaged in inherently governmental activities," she told me in a recent interview, noting that while contractors carry out many of the same functions as the military, they are held to much less stringent standards.
"One has to ask, 'Is it the policy of the United States of America that contractors can get away with murder?' And frankly, so far, it seems like the answer is 'yes.'"
Schakowsky, the House's chief deputy whip, is leading the fight to rein in those mercenaries and face facts on the war - a fight that is not particularly popular, given the extent to which the military relies on contract labor. (Numbering more than 180,000, the list of private contract workers now exceeds the US troop count in Iraq.) But Schakowsky is no stranger to uphill battles. She opposed the Iraq war resolution in 2003 and helped found the Out-of-Iraq Caucus in 2005. She has voted against renewing war funding for the past four years, and has pushed for legislation to attach a timetable for withdrawal to any war monies going forward.
Now, she is zeroing in on the use of contractors in Iraq. In her position on the House Select Intelligence Committee, she's worked for tighter restrictions on private military labor. When the committee marked up its 2009 intelligence authorization bill in mid-May, it included provisions "aimed at reducing the overall use of contractors by the intelligence community," according to the committee report. The legislation includes a requirement that the Director of National Intelligence file a report on the numbers and roles of contractors performing intelligence duties.
Due to an amendment offered by Schakowsky, the authorization bill includes a clause that would eliminate the use of contractors in interrogations. Throughout the Iraq War, the CIA has contracted out interrogation jobs, and Senate Intelligence Committee testimony earlier this year showed that some of those contractors participated in torturing detainees. Schakowsky's amendment would take them out of the equation.
In fact, Schakowsky would prefer to phase out military contractors completely - not only from Iraq and Afghanistan, but from every endeavor the US military undertakes. She pointed out that this would limit the extent of military engagements, perhaps requiring our leaders to think a little more carefully before initiating involvement in other parts of the world.
"Contractors mask the scope of the war, and put at arms' length some of the activities that are taking place," Schakowsky said.
While keeping the issue of mercenaries - and the devastation of the war as a whole - on the Senate's radar, Schakowsky now serves another role: She co-chairs Barack Obama's presidential campaign. The two positions are connected, according to Schakowsky.
She believes that under an Obama administration the US's aim would shift from "winning" an unwinnable war to "getting the US footprint out of Iraq." "Because Barack Obama has so clearly committed to winding down this war, that is exactly what will happen," she said. "It will happen because that is his true commitment - but it will also happen because the expectations of the American people will not take any more excuses. The American people are done with this war."
Still, Schakowsky said that no matter who is president, antiwar advocates will need to keep the pressure on, to make sure withdrawal is as complete as possible. "We need to be a bit concerned about the presence of contractors and residual forces, and exactly what role they will play in Iraq," she said. "That will be an ongoing debate."