By Peter Maguire
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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's vision of a downsized American military, one that depends on private security contractors to do its dirtiest work, may have met its most formidable foe, not in Iraq, but in Orange County: Dan Callahan.
Last year, the high-powered Santa Ana trial lawyer filed suit against Blackwater USA on behalf of the families of the four American contractors infamously slaughtered in March 2004 by Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah.
Callahan's lawsuit stems from the company's role in what Americans might consider the most gruesome incident of the Iraq war.
On March 31, 2004, the four Blackwater security contractors, in two SUVs, drove through downtown Fallujah, a hotbed of the Iraqi insurgency yet to be subdued by American troops. They thought they'd be guarding a high-ranking U.S. dignitary. Instead: kitchen supplies.
When their convoy became mired in traffic, a group of insurgents approached them from behind and sprayed their vehicles with bullets. The insurgents dragged the contractors—all of whom were by then either dead or nearly so—to the pavement, where a crowd of angry Iraqis tore them apart, set their bodies on fire and hung their charred remains from a bridge over the Euphrates River. Images of their remains were captured on film and broadcast around the world, an event that mocked President Bush's May 2003 "Mission Accomplished" press conference on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lincoln.
Citing the ongoing lawsuit, a Blackwater spokesperson refused to comment for this story, but the company has argued that it has no liability for employees killed in combat zones.
If the case does reach a courtroom, Callahan promises to use Helvenston et al. v. Blackwater Security to force a national debate over the Bush Administration's controversial reliance on private firms in Iraq.
"The U.S. is outsourcing its military to private contractors," Callahan told the Weekly in a recent interview at his well-appointed high-rise office overlooking a lake in Santa Ana. "Blackwater worships at the altar of the almighty dollar. In a foreign land like Iraq where there is no government or police department, it's worse than the wild, wild West. They are recruiting patriots who want to help their country and who are being sold a bill of goods only to find out Blackwater is treating them like chattel."
Callahan's sleek Motorola cell phone rings with the theme from the movie Rocky and his business card boasts that he was named "Attorney of the Year" in 2003 by California Lawyer Magazineas well as one of the "Top 10 Attorneys in the U.S." in 2004 by the National Law Journal. He says the family of slain contractor Scott Helvenston hired him after reading that he had just won the largest corporate fraud case in Orange County history, a $934 million jury decision for a Fullerton-based multinational corporation, Beckman Coulter Inc.
After months of researching the case, Callahan filed a corporate fraud and wrongful death lawsuit against Blackwater in Wake County, North Carolina, in January 2005. The suit charges that Blackwater promised Helvenston and his three partners that they'd be working with three men per vehicle, including a rear-door gunner armed with a heavy machine gun capable of firing 850 rounds of ammunition per minute, and that the vehicles would be armored. Blackwater was also supposed to give the contractors 24-hour notice before each mission, allowing them ample time to study the geography of their travel route, and complete a risk assessment study that would reveal whether the mission was too dangerous, the lawsuit states.
"All of these representations are what these individuals relied upon in deciding to become security contractors for Blackwater," the suit alleges. "Unfortunately, Blackwater's representations were untrue and Blackwater cut corners in the interest of higher profits, which ultimately resulted in the deaths of these four Americans."
The lawsuit relies on a timeline that suggests Blackwater lured Helvenston (a former Navy SEAL and bodybuilder who trained Demi Moore for the movie G.I. Jane) and the other contractors to Iraq in early March 2004. Callahan alleges the company then surreptitiously changed the terms of their employment contracts—what he calls a "bait-and-switch" maneuver. To save cash, the suit alleges, two of the six contractors who were supposed to be in the convoy were reassigned to clerical work in Baghdad. The remaining four men were placed in two unarmed SUVs, neither of which had armor or a rear-door gunner. "They were sitting ducks," Callahan says.
The suit also alleges that, shortly before the operation, John Potter, a Blackwater supervisor and friend of Scott Helvenston, noticed the contract had changed—and complained that it could cost lives. Blackwater not only ignored his warnings, Callahan charges, but demoted him. One of Callahan's attorneys, Marc Miles, bought a ticket to fly to Potter's home in Alaska and depose him on Jan. 28, 2005. But four days before Miles was to leave, Blackwater rehired Potter and flew him to Baghdad.
"They shipped him out of the country to avoid our questions," says Miles. "Blackwater has done nothing but stall this case. It has now been over a year since we filed the case and Blackwater has not answered one question or produced one document. What they have done is tie the case up in a federal appeal."
Following an unsuccessful motion to kill the case, Blackwater is appealing to the Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond, Virginia. Citing the Defense Base Act, a federal law that requires private security contractors to pay insurance premiums to the U.S. government, Blackwater argues that it is not liable for the deaths of its employees. According to Miles, who flew to Richmond to argue against Blackwater's appeal, the federal appeals court is expected to rule any day. He fully expects the lawsuit will go forward.
Like any good trial attorney, Callahan likes his chances. But he says Blackwater's political connections with the Bush White House can't be underestimated. Erik Prince, Blackwater's founder, chairman and chief executive officer, a former Navy SEAL and conservative Christian billionaire, is a top Republican donor. The firm's executive staff includes Joseph Schmidt, a former Defense Department inspector general, and Cofer Black, Bush's former counter-terrorism czar. The company has hired seven different law firms to fight Callahan's lawsuit, including the Washington, D.C.-based firm Wiley, Rein, & Fielding. The firm's website brags that its staff includes ex-White House officials, and that "[we] maintain ongoing professional relationships with the highest Executive Branch officials and key Republican and Democratic members of Congress, as well as their respective staffs."
Callahan keeps a blown-up image of the charred remains of the contractors on an artist's easel near his desk. He says he can't wait to grill Blackwater executives in front of a jury.
"The underlying facts of this case are so hideous, and it will be on the national scene," he says. "I think it will be like the tobacco cases or the gun cases. It will be the first to shine a light on what's going on. It will make the contractors be held responsible for what they're doing."