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Once again, Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) invulnerability to the charms of lobbyists and his campaign supporters is put to the test.

This time it's The Washington Post going front page with the tale of McCain's role in a major Arizona land swap in 2005.

The basic thrust is this: a rancher owning 250 acres that intermingled with federally owned forest started pushing for a land swap that provide him with federal land in exchange for his own -- land that he could develop. Such land swaps are fairly common, though obviously easily abused. He was able to get the support of ex-Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ), but without McCain's backing the bill died in 2002.

After that, he decided to get smart and retained a number of lobbyists with connections to McCain. That, after all, is the way Washington works:

[The rancher Fred Ruskin], who is a pediatrician by training, said he realized he needed to hire lobbyists "to open communications with McCain's office."

He turned to some of McCain's closest former advisers. In 2002, he sought out Mark Buse, McCain's former staff director at the Senate commerce committee, which the senator chaired.

"I had gone to him to see if he had any advice as to how to deal with McCain," Ruskin said. "We had a couple of meetings and I paid him a little bit." Buse's federal lobbying records do not list the ranch as a client.

That year, lobbying records show, Ruskin also paid $60,000 to Michael Jimenez, another former McCain aide. Wes Gullett, who had worked in McCain's Senate office, managed his 1992 reelection bid, and served as deputy campaign manager for his 2000 presidential run, also lobbied on the bill, documents show. The watchdog group Public Citizen lists Gullett and his wife, Deborah, as bundlers who have raised more than $100,000 for McCain's White House bid. Ruskin also hired Gullett's partner, Kurt R. Davis, another McCain bundler and member of the senator's Arizona leadership team, to work with local officials and "to help with McCain if we needed help." Buse, Jimenez and Gullett did not return calls seeking comment.

With that sort of help, McCain became much more engaged. But McCain spokesman Brian Rogers "said that McCain does not recall being lobbied by his former staff members on the land swap and that 'no lobbyist influenced Senator McCain on this issue.'"

Nevertheless, somehow, some way Ruskin eventually ended up with his swap. And the company that's been hired to develop his new property is run by Steven A. Betts, "a longtime McCain supporter" who's raised $100,000 for McCain this election. (McCain's camp says that Betts' involvement was never discussed prior to the bill's passage.)

Now, is this is a major scandal? No. But like The New York Times' story last month, it shows McCain delivering for a campaign contributor in a way that belies his claim that he underwent a Road to Damascus conversion after the Keating Five scandal.

Senate Dems are still pushing a measure that would limit CIA interrogators to methods approved in the Army Field Manual -- this would effectively ban waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation" techniques.

President Bush and a number of Senate Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), have opposed that measure, saying that it is too restrictive for the CIA, and Bush vetoed the bill after it passed Congress. Now Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) is floating a compromise, reports the AP:

Rather than prescribe what the intelligence agency is allowed to do in an interrogation, Bond wants to write into law only what the CIA cannot do: force detainees to be naked, perform sexual acts, or pose in a sexual manner; have hoods or sacks placed over their heads or duct tape over their eyes; be beaten, shocked, or burned; threatened with military dogs; exposed to extreme heat or cold; subjected to mock executions; deprived of food, water, or medical care; or waterboarded.

There's no word in the piece of how Dems are reacting to the proposal.

Some of you might have noticed that the feed for recent reader posts has disappeared from the right sidebar. Not to worry! Andrew explains here.

The Senate ethics committee has dismissed a complaint against Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) for soliciting prostitution.

The complaint was filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The group had charged that Vitter's solicitation of prostitutes in Washington, D.C. and Louisiana had broken the law and thus was "improper conduct" that ought to be punished. Vitter reportedly used the D.C. Madam's escort service, in addition to repeatedly visiting a prostitute in New Orleans back in 1999.

The committee dismissed the complaint, according to the letter, because "the conduct at issue" occurred before Vitter's run for the Senate, he was not charged criminally, and because it "did not involve use of public office or status for improper purposes."

The letter, signed by all six members of the committee, adds: "The Committee also wishes to make clear that this decision to dismiss this matter without prejudice should not be taken as personal approbation or acceptance by any of the members of the Committee of the kind of conduct alleged in this matter. In fact, if proven to be true, the Members of the Committee would find the alleged conduct of solicitation for prostitution to be reprehensible."

You can see the letter here.

Update: The response from CREW's Naomi Seligman is to the point: "The Senate Ethics Committee has once again done what is does best: nothing.... While Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who committed suicide last week, was found guilty of operating a prostitution ring, Sen. Vitter has not been held accountable for his activities. He walks away without even a slap on the wrist."

Unfortunately for Bob Schaffer, it doesn't look like the U.S. will be adopting the guest worker system from the Norther Marianas as a model any time soon. From the AP:

Workers in the Mariana Islands will receive the protection of U.S. labor law under a bill signed Thursday by President Bush.

Debate over whether to extend federal labor and immigration law to the Marianas, in the northwestern Pacific, had been sullied by reports of sweatshop labor and past associations with the lobbying scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff, whose firm was hired by the islands to oppose the changes.

The measure, approved by Congress last month, creates a federally run guest-worker program in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which includes Saipan and 13 other islands north of Guam.

Last month, The New York Times published its front-page exposé of the Pentagon's strategy of using military analysts. The retired officers who frequently appeared on TV were the ideal vehicle to broadcast the administration's message on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Message force multipliers," Pentagon officials called them.

Well, earlier this week, the Pentagon released all of the documents that had been turned over to the Times. It is a staggering load. But most immediately intriguing is audio of some of the briefings at the Pentagon, including two featuring Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The audio we've excerpted here comes from a meeting on April 18, 2006. It was an emergency meeting called because earlier in the month, several retired generals had hit the airwaves demanding that Rumsfeld resign. 17 analysts attended the briefing, which featured Rumsfeld and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Peter Pace. It was a remarkable display of servility, with one analyst at one point proclaiming that Rumsfeld need to get out there on the "offense," because "we'd love to be following our leader, as indeed you are. You are the leader. You are our guy." Here's the audio:

Another analyst chimed in to the effect that, though PsyOps or "brainwashing" are dirty words, it was necessary to get out there on offense. "You know what they call PsyOps today, they call those public relations firms," another said approvingly. Finally, Rumsfeld had to throw up his hands: "You people should be taking notes. I'm taking all the notes!" It sure was an eager group.

A transcript is available here (pdf) for those who want to follow along at home. The excerpt above begins at the bottom of page 18. It cuts at one point to the top of page 20. The full audio of the briefing is here (wav).

Unfortunately, the transcript does not name the analysts when they speak (it just says "Question"), meaning that it is not easily possible to figure out which of them said what. A list of the participants, however, is here.

The Times reported that the meeting was a rousing success for the Pentagon:

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Well, that was quick.

As I noted yesterday, the White House offered a "compromise" to the FEC deadlock -- except that they refused to withdraw the centerpiece of the conflict, Hans von Spakovsky. Oh, and the offer also included replacing the sitting Republican commissioner David Mason, who's been creating trouble for the McCain campaign. The only aspect of the offer that could be characterized as a compromise was the promise from White House officials that Senate Republicans would now agree to have a vote on Spakovsky separately from the other uncontroversial FEC nominees.

But now Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says they won't. It's either a vote on all the nominees together or nothing. So... no progress has been made. The FEC will remain shut down.

As The Washington Post reported late last month, a host of former detainees have come forward to say that they were drugged by CIA and military interrogators. Put that together with the fact that John Yoo's 2003 torture memo authorized the use of drugs on detainees, and you have plenty of grounds for suspicion.

Today Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI), Joe Biden (D-DE) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) followed up and signed letters to both the CIA and Defense Department inspectors general calling for an investigation. The letter to the DoD IG is below.

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Republicans in Washington D.C. have asked Office of Special Counsel chief Scott Bloch to resign. This follows an FBI-led raid of his offices uncovered documents related to an investigation into allegations of Bloch's political bias and obstruction of justice in an office designed to protect whistleblowers and enforce rules on political activity in federal workplaces. (Washington Post)

Pentagon officials are pointing to the suicide bombing in Iraq by Guantanamo detainee Abdullah Salih Al Ajmi as a justification of holding prisoners there until the government is sure they are innocent. The Pentagon went on to release a list of a dozen former Guantanamo prisoners they claim have been released and then returned to fighting against the U.S. and its allies. (Boston Globe)

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is once again crying foul over ads from the organization Freedom's Watch. The DCCC claims the conservative group did not follow election guidelines by not reporting more than $600,000 of television ads in Louisiana and Mississippi elections. Freedom's Watch says the ads followed the rules, yet the complaint filed by the DCCC accuses the group of airing "electioneering communications" on April 22 and 29 regarding the race for a Louisiana Congressional seat without proper notice to the FEC. (Roll Call)

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Three for three?

National Security Letters have been the FBI's favorite toy for the past several years, and who can blame them? With none of the hassle of a warrant and a gag order that ensures stealth, the NSL is a counterterrorism investigators best friend. The FBI issues tens of thousands of NSL requests each year (nearly 50,000 in 2006). After a major review by the Justice Department's inspector general last year found a host of abuses, FBI Director Robert Mueller promised that the FBI would clean up its act. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the number of NSLs issued has gone down -- just that agents are on alert that they can't be so sloppy.

Yesterday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU announced that they'd succeeded in getting the FBI to back down from an NSL request issued in late 2007. The request had gone to the Internet Archive and had requested personal information about one of the Archive's users, including the individual's name, address, and any electronic communication transactional records. It just so happens that the Archive's Digital Librarian Brewster Kahle is on EFF's board of directors, and he decided to fight the request. Except it wasn't easy due to the gag order that accompanied the letter: "Because they initially were not allowed to discuss the NSL over the phone, Kahle and his attorneys had to drive to one another's offices whenever they wanted to talk about the case."

But Kahle's lawyers at the EFF and ACLU were ultimately successful -- and the ACLU says this means that they've won every time they've gone to court to fight a NSL:

Every time an NSL has been challenged in court, the FBI has backed off, said Melissa Goodman, an ACLU staff attorney. "That calls into question how much the FBI needed the information in the first place, and finally, whether the FBI needs this kind of sweeping and unchecked surveillance power."

The two other instances of NSL withdrawals involved a library and an Internet consulting business. In February 2004, the FBI served an NSL on the Internet firm. In November 2006, the FBI withdrew the letter, after a lawsuit by the ACLU, but maintained the gag order, which is why the firm has not been publicly identified. The lawsuit, which challenges the constitutionality of the law authorizing NSLs, is still pending.

In July 2005, the FBI served an NSL on Library Connection, a library consortium in Connecticut. That year, the ACLU sued on grounds similar to the other case. In April 2006, the FBI withdrew the gag order. Three months later, it withdrew the NSL as well.

Meanwhile the FBI says that the information requested was "relevant to an ongoing, authorized national security investigation." I guess they'll just have to get the information some other way.