On Wednesday, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) will hold new hearings into the Benghazi consulate attack which claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Hyping tomorrow's show, the Grand Inquisitor of Barack Obama boasted that he intends on "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 engaged in a cover-up of the Benghazi tragedy and warned that "lying to Congress is a crime."
Of course, when Republican George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office, Darrell Issa played a different role, that of Lord Protector of the GOP. During her March 2007 testimony, Congressman Issa accused outed covert CIA operative Valerie Plame of perjury. And when his committee held hearings on the U.S. government's use of private security contractors the month before, Darrell Issa openly mocked the family members of the four Blackwater private security guards slaughtered in Fallujah.
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.As you can see below the fold, 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.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:
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.
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. "What we're hearing today is in fact a repeat of the MoveOn.org attack on General Petraeus' patriotism.")
Ultimately, the families lost their battle, as the judge dismissed their suit in 2011 when they were unable to continue paying the costs of arbitration. As for Darrell Issa, he won big-time when Republicans gained an overwhelming House majority in November 2010. As the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa was anointed "Annoyer-in-Chief" by the New York Times. AsIssa's spokesman Kurt Bardella warned Politico at the time:
"How acrimonious things get really depend on how willing the administration is in accepting our findings [and] responding to our questions," adds Bardella, who refers to his boss as "questioner-in-chief.'Wednesday's Benghazi circus, like Darrell Issa's mockery of the bereaved Blackwater families six years ago, will be acrimonious, indeed.