Exclusive: The Only Senator To Serve In Iraq

Sharyl Attkisson is the Capitol Hill Correspondent for CBS News.
Maybe it's his South Carolina roots. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has strong viewpoints on every important, controversial issue of the day, but manages to present them so logically and politely that it's hard to be offended, even if you disagree. In that understated fashion with the southern drawl, Sen. Graham talked exclusively with me about his recent experience serving as an active duty reservist in Baghdad: the first sitting U.S. Senator to serve in the Iraq War.
It was last month. Sen. Graham joined Sen. John McCain on an official trip to Baghdad. What almost nobody knew at the time was that Sen. Graham then quietly broke away and did an official tour of duty as an Air Force Reservist. He's served in the Air Force for 25 years in the capacity of active duty, guard or reserve as an attorney, both for the prosecution and defense.

What could this attorney, this Senator, offer to the effort in Iraq? Sen. Graham volunteered for something called the Rule of Law Task Force. While soldiers are fighting bombs and bullets, there's a parallel effort underway to defeat the insurgency by establishing a credible judicial system: something Iraq hasn't ever really had. This is a nation where the police and military have served as judge, jury and executioner. The concept of a system of checks and balances, where defendants have rights including their day in court, where judges aren't biased, where people from different sects are treated fairly. It's all brand new.

If you're interested in knowing more about the Rule of Law Task Force, Sen. Graham does a great job explaining it so I've included excerpts from the interview below. Read about the very first hearings in a new courthouse built by American forces, in which accused criminals from rival sects each had their day in court. A landmark event for Iraq, happening quietly under the media radar screen.

Excerpts from my interview with Sen. Lindsey Graham:

The one thing I learned about the surge is that the military part of it knocking down doors and shooting Al Qaeda and arresting extremists is a part of it but not all of it. There is a surge going on on the law front. The Rule of Law Task Force was stood up on April first.

I looked at some detention issues, we have 19,000 people detained in American custody, and trying to create a better legal venue to hear their claims and keep the bad ones off the street who are a danger to our troops and the Iraqi government, and to let some of them go with supervision and to get the others tried in Iraqi criminal court.

One way to kill the insurgency beyond military force is to create a government that is fair to its citizens and the rule of law to me is about 'what you did' not 'who you are'. We're trying to break the politics of revenge and the cycle of revenge. Instead of killing someone who has killed a member of your family, we're trying to create a legal system that will hold Shiias, Sunnis and Kurds accountable when they try to topple the government or kill innocent people. The old legal system was there to serve the dictator. The new legal system has to be there to serve all people not just one group of people... a jury of peers will decide your fate, not politicians or dictators.

The problem in Iraq is out of control violence. The number one target of the insurgency are judges. If you're a judge in Iraq you're an incredibly brave person. Because they just don't try to kill you, they try to kill your family. So General Petraeus tried to build a compound in Baghdad for judges. Took an old army base, reinforced it, put housing on base for judges and their families and created a brand new courtroom a detention facility to hold people in the compound to give the judges confidence that if they did their job they could do it without fear. Within 60 days the American military took over this old Army base and just about completed all the housing as I speak, got the courtroom built in five days and reinforced the compound to provide security for the judges and their families.

April 1st, the day I got into the theatre, the first trial was held in the Rule of Law Green Zone. An Iraqi judge heard two cases on the same day, one case involved a Shiite police officer, a very powerful captain in the police force who was accused of torturing Sunnis in the jailhouse. And it was an earthshaking event in Iraq because this person was well-known in the region from where he came and nobody believed that he would ever be held accountable because of his political connections.

The second case was a Sunni Al Qaeda operative who was accused of randomly killing Shiite civilians to spark sectarian violence. On the same day you had a Sunni and a Shiite held accountable for trying to topple the government and to kill people of the other sect. And the judge was a Sunni. It is a small step toward breaking the politics of revenge where the legal system focused on what they did to a fellow Iraqi, not what their sect was. It was a brave, bold move by the judiciary to be independent of sectarian violence.

There exists a large number of people in Iraq who want a different way of doing business, who are literally risking their own lives to change Iraq. And I do believe that with the right amount of support, that there is still hope that those who believe that the law should be about what someone does, not who they are, have a chance of winning in Iraq.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.