Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- A month after voters last year had given Democrats control that would elevate Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, she 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 by 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 required 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 three and one-half years ago. For the congressman, a fierce Democratic partisan, this issue is part of his wide-ranging investigation of the Bush administration, with emphasis on its conduct of the Iraq war. Their divergent paths merged last Tuesday and will continue together for two more planned hearings.

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

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

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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