Robert Novak

Four days later, Waxman demanded testimony from Blackwater founder and CEO 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 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 11 Iraqis, which put Blackwater on front pages and evening TV news and made possible a show hearing, could not be mentioned Tuesday because of an 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.

Waxman followed the path suggested by Callahan 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 congressional 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 U.S. and its overburdened military was inseparable from a precedent-setting private lawsuit. It was attached from the moment trial lawyers seeking a big payout solicited help from Democrats seeking a political advantage.

Robert Novak

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

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