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The Fall of Fallujah and the Rise of Darrell Issa

January 6, 2014

Four Americans were slaughtered there. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held hearings to try to understand what really happened there -and why. And California Republican Representative Darrell Issa dominated the proceedings, determined to advance his party's interest--and not the national interest--at every turn.
But that city wasn't Benghazi in eastern Libya, but Fallujah in Anbar Province in Iraq. Now, 10 years after the brutal killings of four Blackwater contractors and the subsequent assault by U.S. Marines to clear the city, Fallujah has once again fallen into the hands of Al Qaeda in Iraq. And its fall recalls a telling episode in the rise of Darrell Issa, when the future Obama Inquisitor-in-Chief mocked the families of the Americans butchered in Fallujah and then used General David Petraeus as a human shield to protect President Bush and the Republican Party.

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. 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."

Later that year during October 2007 hearings on Blackwater, Issa introduced a new charge. Committee Democrats, he declared, were motivated not by a genuine desire to help either the Fallujah families or to get to the bottom of Blackwater's shady practices. Instead, Darrell Issa insisted, it was all a vendetta against President Bush's commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus:

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 attack on General Petraeus' patriotism.
What we're seeing is that, except for the 79 members who voted against denouncing, 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, 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 Issa's defense of Petraeus lasted only as long as Republican George W. Bush remained the White House. In May 2013, now Chairman Issa told NBC's David Gregory that CIA chief Petraeus had done President Obama's bidding in covering up the tragedy at Benghazi:

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.

Petraeus, of course, ultimately had a fall of his own. Now, ten years after Sunni insurgents first made Fallujah their stronghold, the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are back. As for Darrell Issa, he doesn't appear to be going anywhere.


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

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