TPM News

From the Wall Street Journal:

WASHINGTON -- After more than a year of partisan acrimony over government surveillance powers, Democratic and Republican leaders have agreed to a bipartisan deal that would be the most sweeping rewrite of spy powers in three decades. The House is likely to vote on the measure Friday, House aides said.

Removing the final barrier to action on the measure, which has been hashed out in recent weeks by senior lawmakers in both parties, House Democratic leaders decided to allow a vote on the bill, despite the opposition of many in their party.

The new agreement broadens the authority to spy on people in the U.S. and provides conditional legal immunity to companies that helped the government eavesdrop after the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to congressional aides in both parties.

Late Update: The deal-maker was offering some retroactive immunity to the telecom companies who have already participated in the program.
Critical to sealing the deal was a compromise that would grant conditional immunity to telecommunications companies for assistance they provided from September 2001 through January 2007. If the companies can show a federal district court judge "substantial evidence" they received a written request from the attorney general or head of an intelligence agency stating the president authorized the surveillance and determined it to be lawful, the cases against them will be dismissed.

We haven't heard what "conditional" means.

Politico reports that the House Democrats have agreed to vote for it, possibly tomorrow.

Late Update: The Electronic Frontier Foundation says the deal offers broad immunity and says the Democrats caved in to pressure from the telecom industry and the White House.
"Whatever gloss might be put on it, the so-called 'compromise' on immunity is anything but: the current proposal is the exact same blanket immunity that the Senate passed in February and that the House rejected in March, only with a few new bells and whistles so that political spinsters can claim that it actually provides meaningful court review," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston. "We call on all members of Congress to reject this sham compromise and maintain the rule of law, rather than deprive the millions of ordinary Americans whose privacy rights were violated of their day in court."
EFF is representing plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit of AT&T customers who claim their records were illegally handed over to the National Security Agency (NSA).

Career officials are in open revolt over at the Office of Special Counsel.

The underlings are outraged at their boss, Scott Bloch, who is under investigation by the FBI. The one man in the Bush Administration who is supposed to investigate whistle blower complaints is himself accused of retaliating against whistle blowers.

"We're trying to deal with this by decapitation," one official told TPM. "The big question is: Why isn't the White House letting him go?"

Meanwhile, Bloch is desperately trying to improve morale.

Against the advice of career officials in the office -- some of whom have been subpoenaed in the investigation -- Bloch is convening a day-long "retreat" in Alexandria, VA, flying in officials from offices in Dallas, Oakland and Detroit, for a pep talk.

During the training session, Bloch himself will give a talk entitled: "Training on Accountability, Efficiency, OSC's Independence, and "What a Whistleblower is."

The meeting was scaled back from Bloch's original idea of a multi-day retreat out in the Shenandoah Valley.

"He brought up the idea and said, 'What does everybody think? And everybody just kind of sat there," the official said.

We'll post the agenda for next week's retreat shortly.

Late Update: One former OSC official points to the afternoon session on "E-Discovery Training" and says it's "ironic in the extreme, given the accusations of his own attempted destruction of computer files that were requested in connection with the investigation of him!"

Bloch reportedly hired Geeks on Call to erase his email files.

Late Update: Here's the agenda.

Former UBS banker Bradley Birkenfeld appears in court today and is expected to enter a guilty plea in a tax evasion scam. Birkenfeld and his fugitive co-worker Mario Staggls stand accused of helping their ultra-high-net worth clients evade hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes to the U.S. government. (WRS

The dominoes continue to fall for Wall Street banks in the wake of the mortgage fallout. Two former Bear Stearns hedge fund managers were arrested this morning on charges of securities fraud. Matthew Tannin and Ralph Cioffi are the first executives to face criminal charges as a result of the subprime mortgage crisis. (Associated Press)

A massive report issued by Physicians for Human Rights detailing torture suffered by 11 prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib was released Wednesday, the most extensive such study done on the torture tactics used on detainees. One of the interviewed detainees, Ali al-Qaisi, detailed horrors of defecation, sodomy, excruciating pain and humiliation. (Associated Press and Physicians for Human Rights)

Members of Congress have called for increased attention into an ABC News report that revealed government-run pharmaceutical drug testing was done on mentally distressed veterans. The members, in a letter to the Secretary of Veterans' Affairs, called for an end to the testing of the drug Chantix that has been linked to nearly 40 veteran suicides and over 400 incidents of suicidal behavior. (ABC News)

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More than five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the western alliance of big oil firms is making its final move on Mesopotamian oil reserves.

The New York Times reports today that the Iraqi government will soon announce the award of no-bid oil service contracts with a coalition of western oil companies, marking the first legal agreement between big oil and the post-Saddam Iraqi government.

The no-bid contracts are unusual for the industry, and the offers prevailed over others by more than 40 companies, including companies in Russia, China and India. The contracts, which would run for one to two years and are relatively small by industry standards, would nonetheless give the companies an advantage in bidding on future contracts in a country that many experts consider to be the best hope for a large-scale increase in oil production.

The Times notes the four main companies -- the Texas-based Exxon Mobile, British BP, Total of France and Royal Dutch Shell, which has its headquarters in the Netherlands -- were the four companies that made up the Iraq Petroleum Company that Saddam Hussein ousted when he nationalized Iraq's oil resources in 1968.

According to the Times, "It is not clear what role the United States played in awarding the contracts."

To be sure, the companies are somewhat disappointed that this is how they have to return to Iraq. The companies and the Bush Administration for years pushed the Iraqis to accept a so-called Hydrocarbon Law that would permit Production Sharing Agreements for the oil companies. That was among the so-called "benchmarks" that Bush enumerated at the outset of the "surge" in early 2006.

The PSA's are often called "colonial" style agreements that permit western oil companies to exert a lot of control over a nation's subterranean resources. Few countries still use them, as most, like Venezuela and Russia, demand more control over their own oil.

These no-bid deals were probably as good as the companies could expect.

The no-bid deals are structured as service contracts. The companies will be paid for their work, rather than offered a license to the oil deposits. As such, they do not require the passage of an oil law setting out terms for competitive bidding. The legislation has been stalled by disputes among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties over revenue sharing and other conditions.

And it gives the Western oil giants a leg up on companies like the Russian-run Lukoil, which lost out big after the U.S. invasion.

A clause in the draft contracts would allow the companies to match bids from competing companies to retain the work once it is opened to bidding, according to the Iraq country manager for a major oil company who did not consent to be cited publicly discussing the terms.

Oil has been a major source of strife in domestic Iraqi politics. Opposition to giving foreigners access to Iraq's oil wealth has always been a critical motivation for followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, for example.

I wonder how this news will go over in Sadr City?

One day after Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) announced he will seek re-election despite his upcoming federal trial, his sister pleaded guilty in a federal court in New Orleans.

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

Brenda Jefferson, a younger sister of embattled U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, pleaded guilty this afternoon to concealing her knowledge of an alleged conspiracy to take money from nonprofits that involved several of her relatives.

The alleged conspiracy was the centerpiece of an recent indictment charging her sister, 4th District Assessor Betty Jefferson, her brother, political strategist Mose Jefferson, and her niece, Angela Coleman, with plundering more than $600,000 from three charities they controlled.

Brenda Jefferson, who also goes by the name Brenda Foster, signed a summary of the government's case against her in which she says that Coleman and Betty Jefferson made out a series of checks to her but then deposited the money in their own accounts.

Jefferson is awaiting trial on separate corruption charges in Virginia.

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) has had his share of federal investigations, scandal and legal bills, but he may now have a new problem: "The A Team."

In a document obtained today by, entitled 'An Intern's Survival Guide,' new interns in Young's office are given various instructions on how to thrive and excel working in Young's office. The document was distributed to new interns by a paid member of Young's staff.

The advice and rules range from the jocular to the mundane. But the most striking is the section on phone duty. The 'Guide' refers to an "A-Team" of nine lobbyists who should immediately be connected to any member of the staff they ask to speak with.

The A Team: Rick Alcade [sic], Colin Chapman, Randy DeLay, Billy Lee Evans, Jack Ferguson, Mike Henry, Ducan Smith [sic], CJ Zane or Jay Dickey. These people can talk to whomever they want, normally Mike or Sara. Tell them who it is and transfer over unless they say otherwise. I recommend looking up who they are.

Most notable on the list is Rick Alcalde, the lobbyist at the center of the "Coconut Road" earmark scandal, which the Senate, in an unprecedented move, has formally asked the Justice Department to investigate.

For readers (and interns who may have fallen behind on their duties), we've done the work for you. What do these nine all have in common besides being the perfect number for a baseball team? They're all transportation lobbyists.

Young was Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2000 to 2006.

As we mentioned, there's Rick Alcalde who besides organizing the Coconut Road earmark debacle for Young, is a lobbyist for wealthy Florida developer Daniel Aronoff.

Jack Ferguson, is the former Chief of Staff for Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), another of Alaska's scandal ridden representatives, and an Administrator for Midnight Sun PAC.

Randy DeLay, lobbyist brother of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Billy Lee Evans, the former Georgia congressman turned lobbyist.

Mike Henry, a former Young legislative assistant turned lobbyist.

Jay Dickey, a former Arkansas congressman turned lobbyist.

Duncan Smith, a former Young staffer and Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board member turned lobbyist.

CJ Zane, a former Young Chief of Staff, turned lobbyist.

and Colin Chapman, another former Young Chief of Staff, turned lobbyist.

At first glance, seems like an All-Star lineup.

A statement release late this afternoon by Young's congressional office claims that 'Guide' was unofficial and "outdated":

"Rep. Young has welcomed dozens of interns into his office over the years and finds their assistance in the office invaluable. But interns are not staff. This incredibly outdated "survival guide" was pieced together by several former interns and not by staff. This "guide" in no way reflects the official policies of Rep. Young's office.

"It's always interesting to see how students view their intern experience. It appears that some of what they have written is tongue in cheek, some to help relieve the daily stresses of working on Capitol Hill. At the end of the day, our goal is to ensure that all interns have the best experience possible.

"As for those listed, they include either former staffers (who represent Alaskans) or close friends and former colleagues of Rep. Young, whom he has known for many years."

Contrary to this account, has learned that the 'Guide' and other initiation materials were distributed by a paid member of Young's staff.

After getting zinged for having a number of domestic and foreign lobbyists advising the candidate, the McCain campaign recently introduced new campaign rules barring anyone currently employed as a lobbyist from serving on the campaign.

But they seem to have another new policy too: not telling anyone who the candidate's advisers are.

Until a couple weeks ago, included a page with a long list of its advisers.

But they took it down right after TPM asked about an economic adviser who was linked to Jack Abramoff's lobbying scheme.

A McCain aide explained at the time that the list was outdated and did not reflect the new no-lobbyist rules that took effect in May. (Yes, the adviser we asked about, Carlos Bonilla, is both a lobbyist and a former White House official accused of taking favors from Abramoff's shop. He's no longer with the campaign, the aide said.)

We were curious about a handful of people with lobbying backgrounds who had been working for or advising the campaign. So we drew up a list and asked a McCain spokesman to tell us which ones remained with the campaign and which ones, like Bonilla, had been removed.

The spokesman refused to comment on the people individually and only reiterated the policy announced a few weeks ago, that no registered lobbyists work for the campaign and policy advisers can't be registered to lobby on issues they advise the campaign on.

It's been about a month since the campaign's new rules took effect, and the Web page we asked about is still blank.

When we asked today about the Web page that used to list advisers, the McCain aide told us they are "updating the page."

So how can anyone know who's on the McCain campaign, then?

The McCain spokesperson suggested that we go to the Federal Election Commission for information about staff and advisers.

Of course, that won't really tell us much. The FEC filings include expense records with outdated payroll payments for hundreds of campaign workers -- but without any indication of what the individuals actually do.

The McCain aide also responded: "Please show me a list of Obama campaign staff and advisers."

We asked the Obama campaign about that this morning and we haven't hear back from them. We'll let you know when we do.

Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Kent Conrad (D-ND) are still fending off questions about special-rate loans they received from Countrywide Financial.

Countrywide's been at the center of the mortgage meltdown, and the GOP is cranking up the pressure on the two Democratic lawmakers.

Dodd told reporters yesterday that a loan officer specifically told him and his wife they were getting "VIP" consideration in 2003 when they took out two loans on their Connecticut home and Capitol Hill townhouse.

But Dodd said he didn't think to ask precisely what that meant. Even though he is chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which oversees the mortgage industry, Dodd said he "assumed" that "it was more of a courtesy thing."

From the New York Times.

"Somebody told you you were in a V.I.P. program," a reporter said, "And you didn't think you were getting ... "

Mr. Dodd cut off the reporter and finished the question himself. "A special deal on a loan?" the senator asked. "No."

According to Portfolio, which broke the story last week, the lower rates Dodd received saved him "about $58,000 on his Washington residence over the life of the loan, and $17,000 on the Connecticut home."

Calculating the exact benefit is a challenge, and some suggest Dodd's perk was far less. The Washington Post reports:
Dodd borrowed $506,000 at 4.25 percent to refinance a Capitol Hill townhouse, originally purchased in 1999, and $275,042 at 4.5 percent to refinance a home in East Haddam, Conn.

Rather than requiring him to pay the full amount to obtain the reduced mortgage rates, as other customers must, Countrywide waived three-eighths of a point, or about $2,000, on the first loan and a quarter-point, or $700, on the second.

Meanwhile, Sen. Conrad has moved quickly to quell the criticism. Through the special program -- known as the "F-O-A program", or "Friends of Angelo, named for Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo -- Conrad got a good deal on loans for both a Delaware beach vacation home as well as an eight-unit investment property he owns in Bismarck with his brothers.

Conrad said he gave $10,700 to Habitat for Humanity to compensate for any benefit he may have received on the vacation home loan. And this week, he said, he paid off the final $32,000 on the investment property.

Conrad spoke to Mozilo about his mortgage in 2002, but the deals under scrutiny were not finalized until 2004. Yet like Dodd, Conrad also said he was unaware of any discount. "I had absolutely no clue they had done that," he said yesterday.

"My conscience is absolutely clear," he told the Times.

Recent weeks have seen a rash of activity from some of the old players involved in the investigation of shamed Washington insider Jack Abramoff, including the uber-lobbyist himself. Here are complete listings from the Associated Press and TPM's own ongoing tally of the Abramoff ripple effect. (Associated Press)

Committee hearings in the House and Senate are revealing evidence of abuse, possible torture, handicapped legal proceedings and innocent detainees in prisons like Guantanamo Bay. The Senate Armed Services Committee released documents detailing the U.S. military's policy of hiding detainees from outside humanitarian groups such as the Red Cross. (McClatchy)

Sen. Barack Obama-antagonizer and polygraph-test failure Larry Sinclair is responsible for charging the presidential candidate with past sex trysts, drug use and accusations of murder, mainly through an oft-visited YouTube video. Public records show Sinclair has a hefty, 27-year-old rap sheet and is wanted in Colorado. Nevertheless, the National Press Club is giving Sinclair time to speak today in Washington D.C. (Politico)

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As we reported yesterday, the China-drilling-off-Cuba story that has been a talking point for high level Republicans for the last few weeks is an urban legend. And the GOP is slowly acknowledging that:

From Roll Call:

"We're not using the China talking point anymore, but we will continue to point out that it is absurd that Cuba is developing its deep-water energy resources while Democrats are blocking America from doing the same," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).