Congressman refutes Hezbollah charge
Geoff Metcalf interviews California Rep. Darrell Issa

Editor's note: U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., recently found himself in a firestorm of controversy after WorldNetDaily exclusive columnist Debbie Schlussel wrote a column charging the congressman with making supportive comments about the terrorist organization Hezbollah while in the Middle East recently.

By Geoff Metcalf
Q: The Debbie Schlussel piece -- it's actually turning into a series with the second piece -- vilifying you and calling you "Jihad Darrell" has to do with a recent Mideast trip you made with some other congressmen. I wanted to get you on to hear your side of the story and to find out what you did or didn't say regarding Hezbollah. I've waded through a number of different news reports, and it seems like the propaganda tools of Iran reported one thing, but several other news sources reported something very different. I get the impression that Debbie used just the Iranian propaganda and what came out of Beirut. Is there something personal between you and Schlussel that caused this fatwa?

A: No. I've never met her. And for the life me I cannot understand the combination of the attacks on myself and a similar attack she did on the International Relations Committee chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde. I'm not saying that conservatives can't attack conservatives, but she does seem to have a bent for attacking International Relations members.

Q: Let's get to the essence of what this flap is about. You went with a congressional delegation to Lebanon, Syria, Israel, all over the Mideast. Did you or did you not make pro-Hezbollah statements?

A: I did not make pro-Hezbollah statements. Let me just take a moment to explain the delegation. I took myself and three other members. Plus I took a total of 12 other people, including the committee staff members for both Ben Gilman, chairman of the International Relations Committee's Middle East Subcommittee, and Tom Lantos' staff chairperson. What's interesting is I handpicked them. ... I picked them because they are both Ph.D.s, they are both Jewish, and they have both studied the regions extensively. And they were participants in the entire trip, which was designed to give us a better understanding of what would or would not be possible in the Mideast working with these Arab nations.

Q: I've got to be honest with you -- and I'll tell Debbie the same thing if I get to talk to her -- a lot of the smarmy stuff that is included in her piece is classic. I know California politics and I know especially Sacramento politics. This read to me like some opposition-research piece that came straight off L Street in Sacramento somewhere.

A: And it is. It is easy for us to recognize it because it is the same opposition-research stuff that Barbara Boxer did when I ran for Senate that she dumped on me in the last eight days of the campaign, using a San Francisco newspaper and a rather obscure L.A. Times reporter -- someone who only does hit pieces.

Q: Debbie wrote in her latest piece, "In his youth, he stole cars for a living, culminating in a '72 grand jury indictment for car theft." There wasn't an indictment, was there?

A: There was an indictment actually. And my brother served six years for car theft. However, it had nothing to do with me. By the time I was 17, I was in the Army. I came out of the Army with an Army scholarship, went back to college and went on to be an Army officer. In that in-between time, my brother and I were pulled over one day walking up the street, and the rest is sort of history. What I would say, and the only thing I could say in my Senate race in defense, is if there were any validity to any wrongdoing I would not have been given a "secret" security clearance. I would not have been commissioned an officer after that date. What she is doing is choosing to use an article that is based on an attack that only benefited Barbara Boxer when I was running for Senate.

Q: I was kind of surprised given that Debbie has reportedly done some Jewish activist stuff in the past. It surprised me that she would use as a basis for a piece an Iranian propaganda publication that basically flip-flopped the facts.

A: It stated the story exactly the opposite. We had met with President Assad in Syria and with all the leaders, but particularly President Lahood in Lebanon, asking them to take responsibility for Hezbollah and insure that that organization ceased its terrorist activities. And we got somewhat of a commitment. It wasn't a great commitment, but it is one that we are asking the State Department to follow up on. It was part of the announcement made there in Lebanon in front of 40 different cameras and journalists, all of whom got it right -- except two.

Q: Which two?

A: Iran, the people who fund Hezbollah and have basically paid for murder after murder after murder for more than 20 years. They got it exactly backwards, which was no surprise. Somewhat more benignly, the Beirut Star more or less said, "Hezbollah not a threat." Well, if you're writing in Beirut, of course you'd like to believe that bombs are not going to be falling on Lebanon. Sadly enough, that is not the case. If Syria and Lebanon don't take steps, they are going to be on the wrong end of the war on terrorism, and that was what our mission was there to tell them.

Q: The French headline was "Hezbollah must renounce terrorism says U.S. congressman" -- that's you.

A: Exactly. And this was the second time I stood in Lebanon, not a place where you easily stand and tell people that their sort of local resistance heroes are, in fact, terrorists. They do participate in global activities; they have cells in Australia. There were some really bad people, including the people that killed our Marines back in the early '80s, that are still active participants in this organization.

Q: Schlussel wrote, "He claimed the activities of Hezbollah were legitimate resistance and the group does a lot of humanitarian things ... that he has tremendous sympathy for its work."

A: Those are pieces of sentences. Hezbollah gets about $100 million dollars a year from Iran plus some other dollars. And they do supply little old ladies with heating oil in the winter and all kinds of other activities. And this is one place where I very much agree with Debbie -- it doesn't make them a good organization. But it does make them an organization that has bought themselves and/or coerced themselves eight seats in a 128-seat body that runs Lebanon.

Q: They are a political party.

A: Yes, they are a political party. It's easy to write a nasty letter from the United States -- and they come through the Congress every day -- telling President so-and-so he must do this or denouncing this group or that group. We do them on the floor of the House all the time. It's a little harder to go to a country and say, "You have to make a change," and come out of a meeting with the president with four members of Congress. ... We had had a very heart-to-heart talk for about an hour with President Lahood. This was the second meeting I had had with him in only a month, specifically on the subject that 20 years worth of playing cat and mouse about who was controlling Hezbollah was over. I had met for two and half hours with President Assad -- it's been about 18 months he's been the new president of Syria -- and I made it very clear we knew the money passes from Iran through Syria to Hezbollah and we know that they are part of a porous border that leads to terrorist attacks in Lebanon. And that has to stop if they want to resume the peace talks which, to be honest, Syria wants. They'd like to have the Golan back, and they are not going to get it back so long as they support terrorists.

Q: One of Debbie's gripes was that you made time to meet with all these various Arab leaders but couldn't find time to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Is that true?

A: It's actually the other way around. We had originally scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Sharon and with former Prime Minister and now Foreign Minister Peres. Peres was sick, I mean very deathly sick. I had met with him many times before. He wasn't available. As a result, he canceled a trip to Europe he was so sick. Prime Minister Sharon was not able to meet with us. We did meet with members of the Knesset. We met with one of his ministers, particularly one involved in the peace talks. But there's an intifada going on. I don't want to make any judgments as to why the prime minister didn't meet with the four of us, but we had requested it and waited until the very last minute before we took back off. As a show of good faith, when he couldn't meet with us, we had both rescheduled amicably a meeting when he was going to be here. And as you know, because of the terrible murders over the weekend he was forced to have a quick meeting with the president and turn around and go back. So now that second meeting has been postponed again.

Q: Notwithstanding Ms. Schlussel's protestations to the contrary, you told the delegation in Lebanon that they need to get a bridle on Hezbollah, rein them in, right?

A: Yes.

Q: What was the response from Lebanon? What did they say?

A: They are a little bit in denial. I was surprised. They claimed Hezbollah essentially only acts locally. We were quick to tell them they are not down there, and they are not aware that, like most terrorist organizations -- or even if you want to use kinder terms -- that operate outside the law, they get into side deals. They get into drug trade; they get into allowing contraband to go over the border. ... So we delivered them with -- as a somewhat friendly delegation, if you will, a delegation that included two people who trace their ancestry back to the Middle East -- the fact that they were mistaken and they need to do more.

In Syria, we did thank President Assad, who doesn't always get credit for doing the right thing, for agreeing to turn over a very, very dangerous to Egypt, where he will stand appropriate trial. So there is some progress being made, and we tried to be diplomatic in thanking them for what they are doing but asking them to do more.

Q: You said, "We were delivering a very tough message." Iran "didn't like it, so they made up their own and put our names on it."

A: Not only did Iran not like it, Hezbollah didn't like it. Even before we arrived they came up with this "We refuse to meet with America. We will not be pushed around by America." So both Iran, who funds Hezbollah, and Hezbollah objected to our being there working with their governments. No surprise. Hezbollah is not going to go quietly. There are at least three people in Hezbollah who are wanted for murder in the United States for murder of Americans.

Q: Did Debbie Schlussel from WorldNetDaily ever call you? Have you ever spoken to her?

A: I have never spoken to her. I have never met her and believe neither has Henry Hyde. But this isn't new. When I co-chaired Prop 209, even before Ward Connerly came on board, we knew we were going to get hit, and it didn't matter what you said or what you did or what your motives were -- some people resist change. Debbie is apparently an activist within an Israeli movement that is probably more allied with those who think the status quo is better than what Secretary Burns and Tony Zinni are trying to do, which is try to change the dynamics in order to bring about some peace and hopefully lasting peace in the region.

Q: I'm a columnist for WorldNetDaily, too, and I've gotten in whizzing matches with congresscritters and other pols before, and I always try to talk to them.

A: No surprise. And any congressman who doesn't talk to the press gets one of those "refused comment" type lines, and should. Either my chief of staff or myself takes every single call. In some cases, local press people deal with our press secretary on an almost daily basis. You don't duck calls when you're running for office every two years. And you certainly don't duck it when it is on an issue that you have put thousands of hours into and huge amounts of staff time. I don't claim to be an expert on the Middle East. I've studied it for a number of years, but I'm always willing to listen to someone who tells me, "Did you know 'blank'?"

Q: I'm certainly not an expert either, but I have been saying for months I just don't understand why we waste our time with Yassar Arafat. He's an empty suit, primarily because he cannot control Hezbollah, Hamas or the Islamic Jihad. And I don't understand why you and your buddies keep giving the Palestinian Authority $100 million a year.

A: There are a number of reasons. Probably the biggest one is he is the symbolic leader of his coalition. Oddly enough, he is not intended to be the day-to-day controller. In fact, one of the problems with Hamas is Hamas was originally formed to wipe out the PLO. They are not part of the umbrella; they are sort of the opposition force, if you will. And it is one of the challenges in the region. Probably the biggest, most appropriate criticism is when Yassar Arafat walked away from peace talks he allowed the intifada to start and to brew for a long time. And I agree with you on one very strong point -- I believe it will take work from many parties to get to where we can control the violence in that region again. Yassar Arafat could be one of them, but it will take more than that. It's really gotten to a point where it's sort of like a nuclear power plant running awry -- it's self-generating.

Q: Let me ask you this, since it cuts to the essence of some of Debbie's criticism. Do you see any viable role for Hezbollah? I'd like to see them dead.

A: I'd like to see a lot of them just go back to their farms, go back to some honest living, so to speak. There is no real viable role for Hezbollah. But one of the interesting things is Hezbollah has no role, even under their own mandate. Their mandate was originally to rid Lebanon of an occupying force, which was Israel. That force is gone. Israel has ... pulled back to within their own borders.

Q: I appreciate your taking the time to talk, and I hope that at some point Debbie picks up a phone and calls you.

A: I would certainly be happy to meet with her personally or to talk to her on the phone. I would hope in the future that would happen before an article comes out, notwithstanding that I'm available to anyone, anytime. We try to get people the facts as quick as we can. I don't claim to be perfect. There are people that tell me things everyday that tell me something more about the Middle East that helps us trying to do what's right on the International Relations Committee.