TPM News

In response to Michael Mukasey's professed ignorance as to what waterboarding is, all eight Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have sent Mukasey a detailed primer on the centuries-old torture technique. It includes some surprising historical details: did you know, for instance, that during the occupation of Japan, the U.S. prosecuted Japanese soldiers who waterboarded U.S. POWs?

You can read the letter here. But we thought we should do our part to educate Mukasey as well. So here's a waterboarding reenactment, courtesy of Keith Olbermann:



The Senators write, "Please respond to the following question: Is the use of waterboarding, or inducing the misperception of drowning, as an interrogation technique illegal under U.S. law, including treaty obligations?" During the hearing, Mukasey would only reply: "If it amounts to torture, then it is not Constitutional."

Dick Thornburgh, the Republican former attorney general under George H.W. Bush, didn't mince words in his testimony before a House subcommittee today.

The case against his client Dr. Cyril Wecht, he said, is a raft of "nickel and dime transgressions" that include using the county coroner's office fax machine for personal business. It's far from the type of case normally constituting a federal corruption case, he argued, since there's "no evidence of a bribe or kickback" and no evidence that Wecht traded on a conflict of interest.

(Update: You can see video of Thornburgh's testimony here.)

So why was the case brought? Wecht is a high-profile Democrat, "an ideal target for a Republican U .S. Attorney trying to curry favor with a Department which demonstrated that if you play by its rules, you will advance," Thornburgh said, referring to the U.S. attorney firings scandal. Put that together with the fact that U.S. Attorney for Pittsburgh Mary Beth Buchanan has prosecuted "not one" Republican, while prosecuting Democrats in a "highly visible manner," and you have your conclusion.

Beyond the politicization of the Justice Department, Thornburgh said the root of the problem lay in vague criminal statutes that allowed prosecutors to pursue charges for things that should not rise to the level of a felony. There's an "opportunity for abuse" with those laws, he said, that Congress might consider amending through legislation. He pointed to the appellate court's decision in the controversial case of Wisconsin bureaucrat Georgia Thompson, where the judges made a similar suggestion.

The only Republican to make a concerted attempt to discredit Thornburgh was Rep. Ric Keller (R-FL), who called his testimony "the most pathetic example of... innuendo and hearsay" that he'd ever seen. He then shifted gears to say that it was "totally ridiculous" to think that the President would have called up Buchanan and ordered that Wecht be prosecuted because he's a Democrat. Thornburgh countered that he'd never said that and that Keller "should be embarrassed for misciting the record." He didn't have personal knowledge that the case against Wecht was pursued for political reasons, he said, but there was a "set of facts" that led him to that conclusion.

Why did Buchanan "go to such lengths?" he asked. "Measured against the backdrop of nationwide actions of a similar ilk,... I can only come to the conclusion that the prosecution was politically motivated."

Frontline does it again. Fresh after the documentary show's penetrating look at Dick Cheney's pet legal theories, it travels to Tehran to explore the slowly building crisis between the U.S. and Iran. In doing so, Frontline pulls off a real coup, presenting the first-ever televised interview with Mohammed Jafari, a Qods Force commander and deputy leader of Iran's national security council.

Jafari isn't a household name, but in U.S.-Iranian relations, he's a big deal. Earlier this year, the U.S. raided the Iranian consulate in Erbil in an attempt to capture him, but Jafari wasn't at the consulate during the raid. Frontline describes him as one of the architects of Iran's Iraq policy -- which, the U.S. alleges, includes providing weapons to anti-American insurgent and militia groups -- and had the raid succeeded, U.S.-Iranian relations could very well have reached a crisis point.

In the documentary, Jafari promises retaliation against any U.S. military strike on Iran:

You will not find a single instance in which a country has inflicted harm on us and we have not responded. So if the United States makes such a mistake, they should know that we will definitely respond. And we don't make idle threats.


He's joined in that sentiment by Hossein Shariatmadari, a mouthpiece for "supreme leader" Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i:

As the Supreme Leader has said, if we're attacked we will threaten all American interests around the globe. The first step would be that all areas in Israel are in reach of our missiles, I mean there is not a single place in Israel outside the range of our missiles.




Showdown With Iran airs tonight on PBS.

As Josh flagged, CIA Director Michael Hayden recently sat down with Charlie Rose for a two-part interview (the second part of which airs tonight). You'll be relieved to know that CIA has never made any mistakes in detentions, interrogations or renditions, and certainly not during Hayden's year-plus as director. Nor has the director made a mistake in examining the activities of John Helgerson, the CIA's inspector general, who himself was subjecting detentions, interrogations or renditions to review.

According to Hayden, his look into Helgerson's activities are no more than "a management review" -- "inquiry is the big and wrong word here," he said -- to see whether complaints made by the legal counsel's office and the CIA's clandestine operatives about Helgerson's fairness were merited. Hayden didn't say anything about whether such a management review will have a chilling effect on the IG's ability to conduct internal scrutiny of CIA programs, as many veteran intelligence watchers suspect. But not to worry: after all, the CIA doesn't make mistakes. (Except when it does.)

Hayden said that his special adviser, Robert Dietz, conducting the five-month-old Helgerson review, will wrap up work next week. Don't expect Dietz's report to be public. Way Way Way Late Update: Here's the video from Hayden's chat with Rose:

This morning the House Judiciary Committee is taking a look at allegations of political prosecutions at the Department of Justice, including the case of former Gov. Don Siegelman (D-AL), who has long claimed his party affiliation triggered the charges against him.

Noticeably absent today is the key witness, Dana Jill Simpson, who offered traction to Siegelman's claims that politics were behind his case. Simpson claimed in an affidavit that during a 2002 Gov. Bob Riley (R-AL) campaign phone call, she heard that Karl Rove had a hand in a Siegelman investigation. A few weeks ago, Simpson met with House investigators and offered more expansive testimony about her knowledge of the case.

Alabama Republicans, including Riley's son, Rob Riley, have attacked Simpson's character, particularly for saying more to investigators than she did in her affidavit. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) voiced the same complaint this morning during the judiciary hearing, accusing Simpson of "contradicting" herself during the interview with investigators. He went even further, saying that she'd "shredded" her credibility "beyond repair," called her allegations "fabrications" and said that the Justice Department should investigate her.

Update: An excerpt from Forbes' opening statement is below.

Read More →

Testifying alongside former attorney general Dick Thornburgh and a lawyer for Don Siegelman at the House Judiciary Committee's hearing this morning on selective prosecutions is Prof. Donald Shields, the co-author of a study on federal investigations of Republicans and Democrats. Shields' study, first reported back in February, looked at reports of investigations throughout the country. The study found that Democrats were investigated far more than Republican officeholders.

You can see Shields' opening statement for the hearing here, which draws on an update of the study. The key to his findings, he says, is a much higher rate of “below the radar” prosecutions of state and local officials.

A new control group study of investigations by state and local law enforcement, he says, found no such disparity: "Their investigation rates mirrored the national percentages: of 50 % Democrats, 41 % Republicans and 9% Independents/Others."

But "when it comes to investigation and indictment of local officials by the [Department of Justice], the numbers are staggeringly disproportionate: 80% Democrats; 14% Republicans; and 6% Independent – that's 5.6 Democrats investigated for each Republican: 5.6:1 when the ratio should be 1.2:1."

Inside Roll Call's (sub. req.) overview of legislative maneuvers on the two Democratic surveillance bills is this bit of analysis about how the Senate Judiciary Committee will lose influence over the Senate bill if it doesn't mark up what the intelligence committee has reported out:

If Judiciary doesn’t act on anything, the panel could forfeit its right to weigh in and the Rockefeller measure would proceed as-is to the Senate floor. (There’s no guarantee Reid would bring it up if that happened, however.)

“If [Judiciary members] want to stay in the game, they’re going to have to mark something up,” pointed out one civil liberties activist.


The panel's top senators, Pat Leahy (D-VT) and Arlen Specter (R-PA), suggested yesterday that the committee might not act on the intelligence committee's bill if the White House doesn't allow it to see documents outlining the legal basis for the Bush administration's surveillance program. But that implicit threat might backfire. To be out of the legislative process over surveillance programs that Judiciary has struggled for nearly two years to oversee would be a huge blow to the committee's prestige. Furthermore, it might be a missed opportunity to modify what civil libertarians consider the bill's excesses, including retroactive legal immunity for telecommunications companies and a diminished role for the FISA Court over foreign-to-domestic surveillance.

Read More →

The government’s largest terrorist financing case ended yesterday in a mistrial. The prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation was supposed to be a high profile win for the Justice Department. The case has been controversial since allegations surfaced that a "summary of wiretapped conversations attributed inflammatory anti-Jewish statements to members of the charity that were not found in the actual transcripts of the conversations.” (US News & World Report)

Is Blackwater heading south? To the border, that is. Blackwater is planning on building a massive 824-acre military training site just eight miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. According to Salon, Blackwater executives have “lobbied the U.S. government since at least 2005 to help train and even deploy manpower for patrolling America's borders.” (Salon)

A NASA spokesman said that denying the Associated Press’s request to see a database on safety lapses in U.S. aviation on the grounds that it might scare the public "was probably not the best thing to do." NASA will review the AP’s request, submitted 14 months ago, and will release a final report after they analyze all the data. (The Washington Post)

Mitt Romney’s make-over is proving expensive. Harper’s Magazine is reporting that Romney “has employed more than a hundred different consultants, making combined payments to them of at least $11 million—roughly three times the amount spent by John McCain or Rudy Giuliani.” But even with all this money for branding, or perhaps because of it, “the image of slickness is heightened by Romney’s appearance and persona” and “the problem of phoniness can never be far from the brain.” (Harpers)

Read More →

Ambassador Patrick Kennedy has finally delivered his assessment of the State Department's relationship with security contractors in Iraq to Condoleezza Rice. Behind closed doors yesterday, the ambassador, who was tasked with making a comprehensive review of State's contractors following the Nisour Square shooting, told the secretary of state that there were serious problems "with virtually every aspect of the department’s security practices, especially in and around Baghdad, where Blackwater has responsibility," reports The New York Times.

Combined with today's report from Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, that finds an "environment" conducive to waste and fraud in the oversight of DynCorp's $1.2 billion Iraq contract, it's easy to see why one State Department official told the paper that the department's contracting process is caught in "a perfect storm of bad events."

Among Kennedy's recommendations is to create a "special coordination center" with the U.S. military to ensure that contractor movements within a military commander's area of operations don't conflict with the commander's orders. It's unclear whether that means the military would actually control contractor operations, as Defense Secretary Bob Gates is reportedly considering, but it would move Blackwater, DynCorp and Triple Canopy contractors out of the exclusive control of the State Department for the first time. When Gates returns from his European trip, he and Rice will discuss the future of State contractors in Iraq.

In a great understatement, Kennedy also recommends closer coordination with the Iraqi ministries:

“They don’t have the right communications, they don’t have the right procedures in place, and you’ve got people operating on their own,” said one official who has been briefed on the report but who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it has not been released yet. “This is not up to the degree it should be.”


And, needless to say, they're also vulnerable to being murdered by drunken Blackwater contractors during rip-roaring Green Zone Christmas parties.

Read More →

Earlier today, Blackwater's Anne Tyrrell disputed an allegation from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) that the company has committed tax fraud by classifying guards as independent contractors instead of employees with the following statement:

The U.S. Small Business Administration has determined in an official finding applying "the criteria used by the IRS for Federal income tax purpose," that "Blackwater security contractors are not employees."


But according to the Small Business Administration, that's not exactly true.

SBA spokeswoman Christine Mangi says that SBA did make such a determination -- on November 2, 2006. But it was in reference to a dispute about who was a company employee on a project to provide services to Navy vessels in Guam, not Iraq. The ruling, she says, "was for this particular procurement," not an SBA finding about Blackwater personnel in general, contrary to the suggestion of Blackwater's response to Waxman.

Furthermore, Mangi explains, the IRS hardly has to defer to the SBA determination about who's an independent contractor and who's an employee. "Our findings are for the sole purposes of our small business contracting programs and, to the best of our knowledge, carry no legal weight outside of our programs," she says.

TPMLivewire