Posted by The Progressive on December 12, 2007
By Ruth Conniff, December 2007 Issue

As much as the anti-war Left has tried to push Hillary Clinton on her vote to go to war in Iraq and her statements on Iran, maybe the most important questions the frontrunner should answer now are what role private contractors should play in these wars, how they should be monitored, and whether there is a conflict of interest for public officials who take their money.

By Ruth Conniff, December 2007 Issue

In the so-called money primary, Democrats are running a lap ahead of the Republicans, and Hillary Clinton is crushing the other Democrats.

The candidates’ third quarter reports, released in mid-October, showed that Hillary had raised $90.9 million. That exceeds her $75 million goal for 2007, the Center for Responsive Politics points out, noting that Hillary is asking her big donors, the “Hillraisers,” to come up with $1 million a piece—ten times what George W. Bush asked his elite donors, the Pioneers, to pony up. Barack Obama is running second to Hillary, at $80.2 million, while Mitt Romney has raised $62.8 million and Rudy Giuliani is at $47.3 million.

But the big news is the massive contributions by defense contractors to Hillary. Talk about “making history.”

The defense sector as a whole gave Hillary $122,988 this quarter, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, compared with Romney’s $82,975, Giuliani’s $58,400, and Obama’s $57,990. Only Chris Dodd, who has a major General Dynamics submarine project in Groton, Connecticut, fared better than Hillary, with $168,900.

Reversing their historical pattern of giving lopsidedly to Republicans, employees of the nation’s biggest weapons makers chose Hillary as their candidate, reports Thomas Edsall, Columbia journalism professor and Huffington Post political editor. Analyzing records of individual candidate contributions of $500 or more, Edsall found that employees of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, and Raytheon gave Democratic Presidential candidates $103,900 and Republicans only $86,800 in the third quarter. That’s a big vote of confidence for the Democratic Party, and particularly the frontrunner.

“The contributions clearly suggest that the arms industry has reached the conclusion that Democratic prospects for 2008 are very good indeed,” Edsall writes.

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clinton has befriended the defense industry (the contractors tend to be big donors to members on Armed Services, who control their access to lucrative government contracts). She has also issued calls for beefing up the military, increasing troop strength in Iraq and, most recently, refusing to discount the possibility of war with Iran.

But taking money from big military contractors isn’t the most troublesome fundraising issue in the current election season. The more worrisome group of donors is the private contractors that have been quietly taking over the war business from the military. It’s one thing to endorse boondoggle weapons programs like Star Wars, as Hillary did, or bring home the bacon for the base in your state, like Dodd. But the rise of the mercenary industry is a new threat to our democracy.

Democrats have begun to question the lack of accountability and oversight of such Iraq War profiteers as Halliburton and Blackwater. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, held hearings on the issue, explaining that Congress doesn’t even know how much money these private contractors receive or how they spend it. And despite being a favorite Senator of General Dynamics, well before the Democrats regained Congress, Dodd introduced an amendment after Abu Ghraib to prevent the use of private military contractors for interrogations.

But now the construction and mercenary firms in Iraq have been reaching out to Democrats. “As Democrats continue to spearhead oversight efforts, defense contractors are swiftly hiring lobbyists with Democratic ties,” writes Lindsay Renick Mayer of the Center for Responsive Politics.

To help answer questions about a rash of killings by his employees in Iraq, Erik Prince, the founder and CEO of Blackwater, hired the PR and lobbying firm run by Hillary Clinton’s top campaign strategist, Mark Penn. Penn is the CEO of Burson-Marsteller, whose lobbying arm, BKSH, prepped Prince for his testimony.

Among the other companies in the metastasizing war profiteering network is the Fluor Group, which testified before Waxman’s committee about its construction contracts in Iraq. Fluor gave Hillary Clinton $5,000 in the 2006 election cycle, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.

As much as the anti-war Left has tried to push Hillary Clinton on her vote to go to war in Iraq and her statements on Iran, maybe the most important questions the frontrunner should answer now are what role private contractors should play in these wars, how they should be monitored, and whether there is a conflict of interest for public officials who take their money.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.