These days, the buzz on Capitol Hill seems loudest about Gary Condit. But late Thursday afternoon, phones started ringing after a Congressional staffer discovered a disconcerting bit of text in the considerably less sexy but eminently more important House Foreign Operations Appropriations bill.

The passage has left a number of legislators and staffers wondering: Is the Bush Administration trying to quietly increase the use of private US military contractors in the Andean drug war?

When the Clinton Administration was pushing Plan Colombia–the $1.3 billion package of largely military aid it held would help end Colombia’s narcotics-financed civil war–Congress took into account concerns that the US might find itself mired in another Vietnam. As such, legislators capped the number of Colombia-based US military personnel at 500, and restricted them to training activities. Unlike their active duty counterparts, however, civilian contractors–many of whom are former soldiers or airmen working under State Department auspices–can put themselves in harm’s way, as they’re specifically paid to do everything from piloting fumigation planes to ferrying and even rescuing counternarcotics troops. But Congress capped their numbers, too, mandating that no more than 300 outsourced civilians can be in Colombia at any time.

As violence and drug production spills over Colombia’s borders, the Bush Administration has decided to broaden Plan Colombia. Congress is giving the Bush Administration an additional $676 million to fund what is now called the Andean Counterdrug Initiative (ACI)–an effort that would send more drug war cash to Colombia and, now, its neighbors. Many are skeptical that a disproportionate amount of money spent on supply reduction will ameliorate America’s drug problem or Colombia’s war; as such, on July 10, House Appropriations Committee Democrats Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and David Obey (D-WI) offered amendments that would have redirected some or all of the money to US drug treatment programs. No one was surprised when they failed. “At least on this side of the Hill,” sighed one Democratic staffer, “the notion of expanded treatment or demand reduction is virtually hopeless.”

But what did come as a shock was the discovery of language in the bill (apparently inserted late in the game by Foreign Operations subcommittee chairman Jim Kolbe) that not only gives the Bush Administration authority to send as many private military specialists as it wants to Colombia, but to send them in as heavily armed as they want–and with broad rules of engagement.

According to the bill, the $676 million will only be available as long as it’s “without regard to section 3204(b)(1)(B) of Public Law 106-246″–the part of Plan Colombia that capped the contractor cadres at 300. Neither Kolbe’s office nor State Department officials had responded to queries by Friday evening, leaving critics of US Colombia policy concerned that the bill’s language could open the door for the United States to start fielding a private army in Colombia. “It’s a back-door way of escalating our involvement in the Andean region and providing additional money to private military contractors [PMCs} who have not been effective,” said Nadeem Elshami, a staffer for Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill).

Lisa Haugaard, legislative coordinator of the Washington-based Latin America Working Group, said that State is likely to explain the waiver of contractor limits as necessary to accommodate more contract personnel for the US Agency for International Development, or “the more palatable side” of the Plan Colombia expansion. While ACI does increase funds for social and economic development programs, according to the State Department’s fact sheet on ACI, there is also more fiscal support for “backing joint operations between the Army’s new, air mobile counternarcotics brigade and the Colombian National Police’s anti-narcotics unit” as well as “maritime and aerial interdiction [and] the Colombian National Police’s aerial eradication program with additional spray aircraft”–all areas where US private military contractors play a role. “This is an attempt by the Bush Administration to shake off the limits imposed by Congress last year,” says Haugaard. “The question is, Is Congress going to let them?”

Any effort to strike the language is likely to face an uphill battle in the House, which will likely vote on the bill July 18 or 19. But Schakowsky (who has introduced legislation banning the use of PMCs in the Andes) and Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich) are nonetheless gearing up to lead a fight against the contractor cap waiver.

On the other side of the Hill where the Democrats are in control, several powerful senators have seen the House bill, and are not pleased–especially after a pointed encounter with Administration representatives last week. At a July 11 hearing before the Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittee, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Rand Beers incurred some ire by dodging a number of questions put to him about the use of–and lack of information about–State Department contractors like DynCorp.

But Beers also told senators that US contractor pilots would be out of Colombia by the end of 2002–an assertion which some senators and their staffs now find strange, given the language in the House bill. “If anything, the number of Americans should be going down, not up, as people in the Andean countries learn from Americans and take on their own responsibilities,” says a senior aide to one committee chairman. “There are concerns here about the growing presence of Americans in Colombia and throughout the Andean region, and about the limited information on what they’re doing, and risks to their safety.”

Which raises another question about the Andean Counterdrug Initiative. Apparently even the most vigilant Andean policy critics missed a condition buried in the original Plan Colombia package that has cropped up again in the ACI legislation, a proviso stating that “section 482(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 shall not apply to funds appropriated under this heading.” The first part of Section 482 forbids State Department contractors from using federal money to buy weapons. But Section 482(b) actually exempts State Department counternarcotics contractors from this restriction, allowing them to buy guns and ammo with federal funds to arm aircraft and personnel–as long as it’s for “defensive” purposes.

“Defensive,” as staffers and others note, can already be expansively interpreted; by essentially erasing the “defensive” clause, the new bill removes even the vaguest restrictions on armed contractor arsenals and activities. According to Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project of the Institute for Policy Studies, the re-affirmation of the Section 482(b) exemption is particularly troubling, as it echoes a proposal in a US Air Force-sponsored RAND Corporation report that policymakers are reading with increasing interest.

Entitled “Colombian Labryinth,” the RAND report asserts that “drugs and insurgency are intertwined in complicated and changing ways but the former cannot be addressed without the latter,” and concludes US-backed efforts to reduce the drug supply in Colombia have been ineffective, The reason, RAND says, is because the United States has focused more on “counternarcotics” assistance (aid to anti-drug police and special military anti-drug units) rather than “counterinsurgency” (aid to Colombian military in its war with the left-wing FARC and ELN).

While a number of investigative journalists and watchdog groups have demonstrated US aid and assistance has already crossed the line from counternarcotics to counterinsurgency, RAND recommends that the United States once and for all dispense with the dubious notion that there’s any difference between the two, and lays out an expansive proposal for increasing US military aid and assistance to Colombian government in its fight against leftist rebels. But use of US troops is something even the Bush Administration is leery of: At his confirmation hearing earlier this year, Peter Rodman, Bush’s nominee to be Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, told senators that “none of us wants to get into a war. The word ‘counterinsurgency’ scares the hell out of everybody.”

But as Tree notes, everything the RAND report recommends–helping the Colombian military develop new infantry and air tactics, setting up better intelligence networks in Colombia, and greater training and equipping Panama’s police and military–are all things that don’t necessarily have to be done by active-duty US military personnel, but hired contractors. “While there are certainly those who favor that approach,” says a Congressional specialist on Colombia, “we haven’t really felt that much pressure to go down that road this year, contrary to last year. Whether that view would carry weight here, without a fair amount of more selling on the part of the administration, isn’t clear.” There is, however, even more money slated for Colombia’s armed forces and counternarcotics operations in the Pentagon’s FY02 spending bill, which is still stuck in the Defense Appropriations subcommittee. In additional, while troops may be capped, a lot of US-produced military hardware is already heading south.

As for the language in the House bill, whether or not it gets a warm reception from Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittee remains to be seen; Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) is no fan of the drug war, and even ranking minority member Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) is working with Leahy to legislate a ban on presidential waivers of human rights conditions tied to counternarcotics aid. While Leahy’s office did not return calls, Allison Dobson, press secretary to Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN), said Wellstone will “certainly fight the House provision” if it crops up in the Senate. “Plan Colombia,” she said, “is quicksand. What this shows is we’re being asked to put more and more into it, which is what we feared from the beginning.”