WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins R-Me., Wednesday called on the Departments of State and Defense to develop a comprehensive framework for the hiring, training, vetting, and oversight of private security contractors (PSCs) in foreign theaters and indicated they would consider legislation to do so. At a hearing on the topic, the Senators questioned whether PSCs are performing inherently governmental tasks and sought to determine how federal agencies should improve their ability to hold PSCs accountable.

Department of Defense Under Secretary of Defense for Logistics and Material Readiness, P. Jackson Bell testified that nearly 200,000 private contractors are currently working in Iraq and Afghanistan – essentially a one-to-one ration with uniformed troops in the two countries. At least 15,000 of these contractors are PSCs directly working for the Departments of Defense and State. Furthermore, a significant number of contractors are foreign citizens, raising questions of whether contract employees have been properly vetted by the U.S. Government.

“Over the past 15 years, we have seen a significant expansion of the role of private firms from just the manufacturers of military supplies, to suppliers of crucial military services, like the logistical support of our troops, the training of foreign police and armies, the conduct of interrogations, and the provision of armed security details,” Lieberman said. “Use of armed contractors raises particular concerns, because, traditionally, the use of force in arenas of military conflict has been the sole province of the armed forces. We must think through the fundamental question of what kind of missions PSCs should be hired for in the first place. And when they are used, we need stronger disciplines and a clear chain of command for their oversight.”

In her opening statement Senator Collins said, “There are many valid reasons to employ contractors to carry out or augment overseas tasks. But as the Congressional Research Service has pointed out, never before have private-sector employees played such an extensive role in a combat zone. Furthermore, the heavy reliance on contractors without effective acquisition policies and contract oversight has led in some cases to wasteful spending, unsatisfactory performance, and failure to achieve mission objectives.”

She added, “Our increasing reliance on private contractors for overseas security work adds a new dimension to these concerns. When government agencies hire firms that place armed civilians in foreign countries, their actions have significant impact on America’s foreign-policy objectives.”

Despite testimony from State and Defense Department officials that PSCs are performing non-governmental functions in an appropriate manner, Lieberman said the Committee would continue to press agencies to reexamine the roles of PSCs and would consider mandating hiring, training, and vetting standards to improve oversight. He added that first Congress must determine how well the Administration implements new requirements on PSCs contained in the Fiscal Year 2008 National Defense Authorization Act.

Other hearing witnesses included Patrick F. Kennedy, Under Secretary of State for Management, U.S. Department of State; James D. Schmitt, Senior Vice President, ArmorGroup North America; and Professor Laura Dickinson from the University of Connecticut School of Law