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).