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Last Updated:5/13/04

For Immediate Release

May 13, 2004

House Committee Preserves the "Cap" on U.S. Personnel in Colombia
Limit on contractors is abolished in 2005 Defense Authorization bill

The House Armed Services Committee, meeting on May 12, denied the Bush administration's request to double a four-year-old limit on the number of U.S. military personnel who can be present in Colombia. The Defense Authorization bill (HR 4200) drafted by the committee's chairman, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), had sought to eliminate the "troop cap" entirely. Nonetheless, the committee's members voted by a 32-24 margin for an amendment, introduced by Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS), to keep it.

The U.S. presence in Colombia has been legally limited since 2000, when Congress approved “Plan Colombia,” a large package of mostly military aid. Since then, language has prohibited the presence of more than 400 active military personnel and 400 private U.S. citizen contractors in Colombia at any given time. (The “caps” were initially 500 and 300, respectively, but were changed in 2001.) 

Many in Congress, mindful that our troops are already thinly stretched around the globe, fear that Colombia’s complicated, poorly understood conflict has a great potential to turn into a South American quagmire. Congress added the troop cap in 2000 as a sort of “tripwire,” a way to measure and limit the expansion of our military role.

This spring, after several years of quietly expanding that role, the Pentagon has triggered the tripwire. In March, Bush administration officials began asking Congress to raise the “cap” to 800 military and 600 contractors. The stated reason: U.S. participation in “Plan Patriota,” a huge Colombian military offensive in the country’s guerrilla-dominated south. Plan Patriota depends heavily on the logistical and intelligence support of U.S. personnel deployed in southern Colombia. 

Debate on the cap began on May 12, when the House Armed Services Committee met to “mark up,” or draft, annual Defense Authorization legislation. The bill language submitted by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), would have abolished the troop cap entirely, eliminating the tripwire.

Rep. Taylor won approval for an amendment to increase the limit on U.S. personnel by only 100, to 500 - much less than the administration's request. The amendment includes language excluding from the cap U.S. personnel on search and rescue missions, active military personnel working as embassy staff, those on port visits, or those in the country for non-operational reasons.

In addition to Rep. Taylor, three other Democratic members of the committee spoke in favor of the amendment: ranking Democrat Ike Skelton (D-MO), Ciro Rodriguez (D-TX), and Neil Abercrombie (D-HI). Only Rep. Hunter spoke in opposition.

Even with the Taylor amendment, the Defense Authorization bill in its current form abolishes the "cap" on U.S. citizen contractors in Colombia. When the bill goes to the House floor - probably on Tuesday, May 18 - we may see an amendment to restore the contractor cap.

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