Playing Politics With Blackwater

A month after voters last year gave Democrats the control that would elevate Nancy Pelosi to speaker of the House, Pelosi received a letter from a trial lawyer in Santa Ana, Calif., named Daniel J. Callahan. "We look forward," he wrote, "to the New Direction of America, and to your dedication to putting an end to the fleecing of the American taxpayers and death to its citizens in the name of war profiteers such as Blackwater." That plea was answered last week with House hearings.

Callahan did not disguise his political orientation, requesting a full-scale investigation of an "extremely Republican" company: Blackwater Security Consulting, which provides security guards in Iraq. He asked Pelosi to investigate "now that there has been a shift in power in Congress." It took nearly a year for Chairman Henry Waxman to find a peg for holding a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing last Tuesday.

Callahan and Waxman are driven by quite different motives. The trial lawyer seeks a big payoff for the families of four Blackwater guards who were ambushed and massacred 3 1/2 years ago. For the congressman, a fierce Democratic partisan, this issue is part of a wide-ranging investigation of the Bush administration, with emphasis on its conduct of the Iraq war. Their paths merged last week and, with two more hearings planned, will continue together for the near future.

On March 31, 2004, four Blackwater employees were killed and their bodies desecrated in Fallujah by attackers wearing Iraqi police uniforms. Under federal regulations, their families would receive $57,000 a year and be prohibited from suing Blackwater. But Callahan and North Carolina lawyer David Kirby (erstwhile partner of former senator John Edwards) went to court in Raleigh, N.C., (Blackwater's home) claiming gross negligence.

The case immediately elicited interest from investigation-minded Democrats in Congress such as Waxman and Sen. Byron Dorgan. But they could do little until the Democrats won control of Congress. Waxman's inquiry still received scant attention until Sept. 16, when Blackwater security forces were reported to have killed at least 11 Iraqis. The Iraqi Ministry of the Interior -- a discredited and dysfunctional agency -- assailed Blackwater's performance.

Four days later, Waxman demanded testimony from Blackwater founder and chief executive Erik Prince, a former Navy Seal lieutenant with Republican connections. On that same Sept. 20, Callahan initiated a telephone conversation with Blackwater counsel Joseph E. Schmitz. A memo by lawyers representing Blackwater quoted Callahan as saying "the company can bury" its bad publicity "by paying $20 million . . . consisting of $5 million per family." (Callahan confirmed to this column that he mentioned $20 million but said he also required the families' approval, Blackwater's release of its after-action reports and a plaque honoring the dead men at the place they were killed.) No deal was struck.

While the trial lawyers wanted money, Democrats wanted more bad publicity for Blackwater -- and the Bush administration. Paradoxically, the killing of the Iraqis last month, which put Blackwater on front pages and news broadcasts and made possible a show hearing, could not be mentioned Tuesday because of the ongoing criminal investigation. The core of the anti-Blackwater hearings was the Fallujah incident, as Callahan clearly hoped when he wrote Pelosi a year ago.

Questioning by Democrats seemingly came straight from Callahan's legal briefs. Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky called the Fallujah operation an "infamous mission fraught with mistakes of the Blackwater supervisors." Democrats ventured into broader questions of whether private firms should function in war zones, though they did not make clear who would guard State Department personnel and visiting members of Congress if they didn't.

Waxman followed the path that Callahan suggested to Pelosi a year ago, which pointed to a crusade against "corporate greed." But the focus was on the plaintiffs in the pending lawsuit, with families of the Fallujah four present in the hearing room. Asserting that their loved ones were "killed in a tragic and unnecessary accident," the chairman said to the survivors: "I know many of you believe that Blackwater has been unaccountable to anyone in our government. I want you to know that Blackwater will be accountable today."

What could have been a serious inquiry into the role of private firms performing tasks that cannot be handled by the United States and its overburdened military was inseparable from a precedent-setting private lawsuit. They were attached from the moment trial lawyers seeking a big payout solicited help from Democrats seeking a political advantage.

Robert D. Novak