Call them the Jack Bauer Republicans.
Two Iraq veterans who left the military after surviving charges of crimes against detainees are running credible campaigns for Congress. And far from minimizing the incidents, both candidates have put the accusations front and center in their campaigns, attracting rock-star adulation from conservatives nationwide in the process. But critics, including human-rights activists, veterans, and now even defeated primary opponents, warn that their records should disqualify them from office.
Last week, Ilario Pantano won the Republican nomination in North Carolina’s 7th District, setting up a challenge to incumbent Democrat Rep. Mike McIntyre in November. In 2001, immediately following the 9/11 terror attacks, Pantano, a veteran who had previously fought in the Gulf War, left his career as a successful producer and media consultant in his native Manhattan to rejoin the Marines and was eventually deployed to Iraq. In April 2004, Pantano killed two unarmed Iraqi detainees, twice unloading his gun into their bodies and firing between 50 and 60 shots in total. Afterward, he placed a sign over the corpses featuring the Marines' slogan “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy” as a message to the local population.
“To shoot two unarmed prisoners 60 times and put a sign over their dead bodies is inexcusable,” says Breazeale. “And once people know the real story, he has no chance of winning in November.”
Pantano said that he acted in self-defense and that the two suspects were charging at him, but the military accused him of premeditated murder. The case became an international news story and Pantano’s defense a popular cause for conservatives. In 2005, military prosecutors dropped the charges, in part because a key witness’s testimony could not be corroborated.
Far from minimizing the incident, Pantano has made his biography central to his appeal. His book, Warlord: No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy, which recounts the ordeal, features blurbs not only from the Michelle Malkins of the world but from Democratic politico James Carville. Pantano received sympathetic treatment from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show as well for his moving account of the complexity of war.
But Pantano’s defeated primary opponent, Will Breazeale, doesn’t buy it. Breazeale, himself a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves who served in both Iraq wars, is not only refusing to endorse the Republican candidate, he’s planning to do everything in his power to ensure his defeat, whether it takes a write-in campaign or a publicity tour.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, he said that Pantano’s actions in Iraq were so severe that his election to Congress would be “dangerous.”
• Mark McKinnon: The GOP’s Fresh 2012 Faces • Benjy Sarlin: The New Jack Bauer Republicans “I’ve taken prisoners in Iraq and there’s no excuse for what he did,” Breazeale told The Daily Beast. “To shoot two unarmed prisoners 60 times and put a sign over their dead bodies is inexcusable. And once people know the real story, he has no chance of winning in November.”
Breazeale, who was the GOP nominee in 2008, said he knows his actions will likely destroy his political career with the GOP. But he views continuing his opposition to Pantano past Primary Day to be a matter of principle. On Tuesday he is scheduled to hold a press conference with a third candidate in the primary, Randy Crow, to announce a joint effort to push Pantano out of the race.
“I know people think it’s sour grapes, but I have nothing to gain by opposing him except clearing my conscience and fighting for good government,” he said. “I’ve already announced I’m never running for anything again in my life. I’m putting everything on the line.”
In an interview, Pantano told The Daily Beast he had no comment on Breazeale: “Our campaign is focused on the future, not on the past.” But he said the bitter experience of being branded a war criminal was an important factor in his decision to run and traced the genesis of his campaign to Eric Holder’s decision last summer to investigate allegations that CIA officers abused detainees.
“For someone who lived through what I lived through, that was very personal to me,” Pantano said. “The idea of people being prosecuted for doing their jobs in what is in fact a war—it struck me that members of Congress were being disingenuous. What our men and women were doing in enhanced interrogations was not torture and the prospect of investigations smacked of politics.”
Pantano is not the only veteran to highlight the moral ambiguities of war on the campaign trail. Retired Lt. Col. Allen West, running in Florida’s 22nd District to replace Democratic Rep. Ron Klein, seems to revel in them.
West was forced to retire from the Army and fined $5,000 after he admitted to apprehending an Iraqi policeman he suspected of planning an ambush, watching as his troops beat him, and then firing a gunshot by the Iraqi’s head in order to scare him into divulging information. West said the decision saved lives by preventing an ambush. But no plot was ever discovered and the policeman in question later told The New York Times that he had no knowledge of any attacks.
Such an incident might be a source of shame for some officers. But not for West, who has developed a superstar following among Republicans by portraying himself as a real-life Jack Bauer.
"You might recall that in 2003, I made the decision where I sacrificed my military career for the lives of my men,” he was quoted in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel as saying in a 2007 campaign speech—his first bid for the Florida House seat, which he lost. ”I will sacrifice every ounce of me to be your next congressman."
In endorsing him via her Facebook page in March, Sarah Palin described West as “a decorated war hero who’s served with distinction in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.” As Palin notes, a video of one of West’s speeches has garnered over 2 million views on YouTube. His national popularity has brought him floods of cash; he raised $677,586 in the last reported quarter versus just $330,140 for the incumbent Klein.
At times his me-against-the-world approach has bordered on paranoia. In 2008, The New York Daily News reported that a booker for Al Jazeera called West up to invite him to appear on their channel and offered to send a car to pick him up and take him to the studio—standard procedure for any TV news appearance. West feared that they were in fact trying to kidnap him and his spokeswoman called the FBI. Al Jazeera confirmed that their booker had talked to West and dismissed his accusations as “outlandish.”
Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge and current law professor at Georgetown University, expressed horror at the actions of both West and Pantano as well as their subsequent rise to fame. Solis stressed that he was not involved in the investigations and as a result was not privy to the full details of either, but said that the evidence publicly available was more than enough to tarnish their records.
“These men are running for office largely on the basis of their war records—war records which they present as being admirable, but many, particularly in the military, see as disgraceful,” Solis said. “But the unknowing American public may well buy it.”
Stacy Sullivan, a counterterrorism adviser for Human Rights Watch, tied the candidates’ popularity to broader trends.
“It's very disturbing because it indicates that we have a culture that not only condones, but rewards detainee abuse,” she said in an email.
Pete Hegseth, executive director of Vets for Freedom, a conservative group that backs veterans who support the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and has endorsed both candidates, told the Beast that he thought West and Pantano had backgrounds that resonate well with voters.
“Both Allen West and Ilario Pantano were courageous warriors on the battlefield who did what they felt needed to be done to protect their troops and accomplish their mission,” he said. “They’re not traditional rank-and-file politicians who follow the path of last resistance, so in that sense I think it does make them appealing.”
On Thursday, Hegseth emailed Breazeale to try to convince him to change his mind about his efforts against Pantano. “How in the world can you judge what Pantano had to do that day?” he wrote.
Joel Arends, a spokesman for a second group that backs veterans, Combat Veterans for Congress, said that his organization had yet to make a decision on whether to endorse Pantano; the group does back West. They previously endorsed Breazeale, but Arends said that was before Pantano had entered the race.
“We're certainly aware of the issues that have been raised,” he said. “What we're going to do is take a systematic look at everything that’s been brought up with regard to his record and determine... whether he fits in with the mission and values of the organization.”
Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.