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Before Benghazi, GOP Mocked the Fallujah Families

August 11, 2016

The grief and suffering of the families of the four Americans killed in Benghazi, Libya in 2012 must be unbearable and interminable. Only someone with the most hardened heart would fail to understand their pain and anguish.
But that doesn't mean the latest efforts of some of the relatives, enthusiastically supported by Republican hardliners, to blame Hillary Clinton for the deaths of their loved ones deserve the same sympathy. After all, nine separate investigations, including the two-year, $7 million inquisition led by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), concluded that Secretary Clinton bore no culpability for that tragedy in Libya four years ago. Those now arguing that Benghazi should "disqualify" Clinton from the White House will be hard pressed to explain why Ronald Reagan deserved reelection after the slaughter of 241 Marines in the Beirut barracks bombing of 1983 or why George W. Bush earned four more years after the 9/11 calamity and disastrous invasion of Iraq that occurred on his watch.
Oh, and one other thing. When the families of the four American contractors butchered in Fallujah in 2004 pressed their claim of negligence against Blackwater, the GOP mocked them for it.
On February 7, 2007, then Chairman Henry Waxman opened a hearing to "investigate potential fraud, waste, and abuse in the almost indecipherable world of contractors and subcontractors." As part of that probe into $4 billion spent on private security firms in Iraq and Afghanistan (details of which the Bush Defense Department had refused to provide for 18 months), the committee heard testimony from the families of the four Blackwater contractors killed in Fallujah three years earlier.
But from the beginning, Rep. Issa decided the defense is a good offense. His first question to the Kathryn Helvenston-Wettengel, mother of Blackwater employee Stephen Helvenston?

Although I don't think your testimony today is particularly germane to the oversight of this committee, I am deeply sorry for the losses that you have had. [...]One question I have is the opening statement. Who wrote it?

After Helvenston-Wettengel replied that the families' statement was a "compilation of all four of us" who "sent in our thoughts and feelings to [their attorney] Dan Callahan and he compiled it, because we were told we only had 5 minutes," Issa took aim a second time:

It was well written and I asked because it did appear as though it was written by an attorney who had obviously slipped in a lot of things that they believe would be facts in the lawsuit now pending, and certainly I think it is regrettable that a family should have to sue to get information.

If Issa thought it was regrettable, he had an odd way of showing it.
(If that charge sounds familiar, it should. After Gold Star father Khirz Khan addressed the Democratic Convention about his Purple Heart son, Donald Trump sarcastically asked of his speech, "Who wrote that? Did Hillary's scriptwriters write it?")
The families were seeking not only $10 million in damages from Blackwater, but access to information the company refused to provide them for over two years. The company, later renamed Xe, countersued. And Congressman Issa made quite clear whose side he was on:

ISSA: My understanding is that the U.S. Congress has put into law prohibitions on lawsuits for our Government contractors operating as agents of the U.S. Government in a combat zone.
HELVENSTON-WETTENGEL: Sir, I cannot answer any legal questions. I don't have the---
ISSA: I am not asking. I am making a statement just to set the record straight. I have reviewed some of that. That bar might be something that this and other committees should look at. Obviously, when a company bids, they bid based on the assumption that relevant U.S. law would be there. In other words, that their losses would be limited to whatever they contracted for in the case of a death.

For the families, it only got worse from there. When she asked why he was dwelling on the authorship of her opening statement, Issa told Helvenston-Wettengel that she and the other families had no place at the hearing, and were simply using it as an opportunity to try their case:

I am dwelling on that because, in fact, there is a real question, not as to whether or not we should oversee Blackwater and other contractors, but the role of having you three bereaved women here [...] to tell us about your loss when, in fact, it is the subject of a lawsuit that is ongoing and, in fact, this committee has no jurisdiction here to change the outcome of your loss today or to settle your lawsuit.

For their part, committee Democrats were appalled by Issa's brow-beating of the witnesses. A stunned Massachusetts Rep. Stephen Lynch remarked, "I've only sat through several hundred, maybe 1,000 hearings, and that is the first time as a member of Congress that I have heard any witnesses asked who wrote their opening statements." Jan Schakowsky was blunter still:

I also wanted to take exception to the question about who wrote the testimony, because I think clearly the implication was that somehow these wonderful women couldn't possibly have written that wonderful heartfelt testimony and that it took a lawyer in order to put it together. I resent that very much and I wanted to just put that on the record.

As it turned out, Issa resented Schakowsky's comment even more. After returning from another committee vote, Issa protested her "disparaging comment" and demanded to "to have the words taken down." In addition, he had a final point to make:

It's absolutely clear that things have not gone perfectly well in Iraq, but to victimize a particular company, especially a company undergoing a lawsuit, is something we should be extraordinarily careful about.

As it turned out, that wasn't all Darrell Issa wanted to be extraordinarily careful about. He was very concerned, not about the Fallujah families, but instead the reputations of Blackwater CEO Erik Prince and General David Petraeus.
On October 2, 2007, Issa blasted then Chairman Henry Waxman and committee Democrats for their inquiry which occurred just days after an incident in which 11 Iraqi civilians were killed by Blackwater employees:

I think it's been made incredibly clear by the previous statements on the Democrats side that this is not about Blackwater. [...]What we're hearing today is in fact a repeat of the MoveOn.org attack on General Petraeus' patriotism.
What we're seeing is that, except for the 79 members who voted against denouncing MoveOn.org, eight of whom are on the dais here today, what we're seeing is what they couldn't do to our men and women in uniform, they'll simply switch targets.
The bodies were not cold in Iraq before this became a story worth going after here in committee.
I'm not here to defend Blackwater.
But I am here to defend General Petraeus and the men and women in uniform who do their job, who were first denounced by MoveOn.org, then not denounced by members of Congress, many of whom are on the dais today, speaking as though they don't support attacking every possible way the administration's war in Iraq.

But that was then and this is now. And now, it's not Republican George W. Bush who sits in the Oval Office, but Democrat Barack Obama. Worse still for Rep. Issa, Obama's former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is poised to succeed him.
Which is why Issa performed a 180-degree turn after the killings of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three Americans in Benghazi. In May 2013, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Darrell Issa boasted he would be "making the president come clean." Not content to rest there, Issa said there is "no question" that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and those in her inner circle were engaged in a cover-up of the Benghazi tragedy and warned that "lying to Congress is a crime."
And that's not all. After the first Benghazi probe--the State Department's Accountability Review Board (ARB) led by former Ambassador Charles Pickering--cleared Secretary Clinton of any wrongdoing, Issa slandered the same David Petraeus he once deified. Appearing on NBC Meet the Press with David Gregory that same May, accused Petraeus of doing President Obama's bidding:

GREGORY: Chairman, my reporting of the immediate aftermath of this talking to administration officials is that CIA Director David Petraeus made it clear when he briefed top officials that there-- that there was a spontaneous element to this, that it was not completely known that this was a terrorist attack right away. You don't give any credence to the notion that there was some fog of war, that there were-- there were conflicting circumstances about what went on here.
REP. ISSA: David Petraeus said what the administration wanted him to say is the indication. Ambassador Pickering heard what the administration wanted to hear. The only under oath people I know about who have said what happened on the ground that day was, in fact, before our committee just on Wednesday.

Three-plus years later, Hillary Clinton is now the target of a civil lawsuit being brought by two Benghazi parents who also happen to being Donald Trump supporters. Led by long-time Clinton attack dog Larry Klayman, the suit is being brought by:

The plaintiffs are Pat Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, a U.S. Foreign Service officer, and Charles Woods, the father of Tyrone Woods, a Navy SEAL. Beyond the wrongful death claim, they are also suing for negligence, infliction of emotional distress and defamation.

But while their lawsuit is just wrapping up, the legal redress sought by the Fallujah families has already come to an end. Despite the conclusion of a Congressional committee that called Blackwater an "unprepared and disorderly" organization on the day of the 2004 ambush that killed Scott Helvenston, Jerko "Jerry" Zovko, Wesley J.K. Batalona and Michael R. Teague, the families' seven-year suit ended with a small settlement in January 2012. As The Virginian-Pilot reported:

Two sources who insisted on anonymity said the company agreed to a total payout of $635,000 - a mere fraction of the legal fees in the long-running case, let alone the $30 million in claims and counterclaims at stake.
The settlement is in keeping with an aggressive makeover effort by Academi's current owners, who bought the company from founder Erik Prince a year ago and are doing their best to distance themselves from allegations of lawless behavior at Blackwater, from the streets of Baghdad to the executive suite in Moyock, N.C.
Beyond any financial considerations, the Fallujah victims' families never got what they always said they wanted most: an opportunity to hold the company publicly accountable for their loved ones' deaths.

Whatever the merits of their case, "We were outfinanced, outgunned, outmanned in a sad similarity to what happened to Jerry, Wes and Mike," said Zovko's brother Tom. It wasn't just Blackwater's deep pockets and $10 million countersuit that won the day. It was Blackwater's lawyer who successfully defended his client all the way to the United States Supreme Court. That lawyer? Kenneth Starr.
As for Benghazi and the ongoing saga of Hillary Clinton's emails, Rep. Issa proclaimed in June that "there's more than enough [evidence] for an indictment." For his part, Larry Klayman explained his motivation behind the lawsuit brought this week by Mrs. Smith and Mr. Woods:

Klayman argued that "no politician, short of the Muslim King Barack Hussein Obama, is more evil than Hillary Clinton" and that she and others who try "to assassinate the Republican candidate chosen by the people" should "be taken to the 'legal guillotines,' as they are not just despicable political hacks, but also traitors!"

As we hear more language like that in the months to come, we won't need to ask, "Who wrote it?"


About

Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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