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In deciding where to build a $451 million national laboratory to study bioterrorism and bio and agro-defense, the Department of Homeland Security asked a committee of experts to rate potential candidates on a strict set of criteria -- but then disregarded the committee's findings.

Beginning in January 2006, the DHS outlined a schedule to review 29 different locations throughout the country, then narrowed that list to 18, visiting each of the sites. Finally, the carefully selected committee of experts reviewed each possibility and ranked the sites according to the agreed-upon criteria.

The long process ended with the report handed off to DHS Undersecretary Jay Cohen, who weighed the findings of the committee and named six locations to a "short list" to be considered for the site.

According to an article published earlier today which cites "internal" DHS documents, the six shortlist candidates included a site in Flora, Miss. -- which was ranked just 14 out of the 17 candidates for the lab.

From the AP article:

It is the inclusion of Flora on that list that one official for a rival bid, Irwin Goldman of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, called "very suspicious."

Mississippi's lawmakers include Rep. Bennie Thompson (D), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees DHS, and Sen. Thad Cochran, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee that oversees DHS money. Each said he was not aware of the department's deliberations about the lab location.


This all seemed a little odd to us, so we called the DHS.

Amy Kudwa, press secretary from the Department of Homeland Security, cited Mississippi's "unique contributions" rather than its "existing resources" as the reason Cohen dismissed the higher-ranked candidates.

"The farther we get in the process, the more we use a qualitative judgment process," Kudwa explained in response to questions as to why the assessments based on a set group of criteria and a panel of experts had not been used.

But according to Margaret McPhillips the press secretary for Sen. Cochran, who released a statement in 2007 when Flora was first named to the National Bio Agro-defense Facility shortlist, Mississippi's selection was all about the great resources it has now.

"Sen. Cochran feels confident in the proposal Mississippi put forward," McPhillips told TPMmuckraker. "We're sure that when people look at the strengths of the Mississippi research facilities they will be convinced that we are the number one choice."

The Gulf-States Bio and Agro-Defense Consortium, which led the proposal to bring the lab to Mississippi echoed those thoughts.

"It is no secret that Mississippi's entire Congressional delegation is supporting this project," Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority said. "Mississippi ought not to be criticized for having one of the most unified, bipartisan and supportive Congressional delegations in the nation. Some are trying to use the media to damage Mississippi's application. The fact is, Mississippi and our Consortium partners represent the best proposal."

But according to representatives of some of the failed proposals, DHS' choice in Flora doesn't make much sense.

"We're a five state, twelve institution consortium," said Stephen Schimpff who led the proposal to bring the lab to Beltsville, Md. "We had easy places to train staff and a pool of trained individuals ready to work in that kind of facility. We thought we had a very strong proposal."

Indeed, the first two criteria listed on the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facilities website is "a comprehensive research community that has existing research programs" and is "within proximity to skilled research and technical staff with expertise . . . and within proximity to training programs to develop skilled research and technical staff." The Maryland facility had both, in spades.

Stranger still, was that their proficiency in these two areas seemed to count against them.

"In the end, the critique we got back was the high density of skilled personnel would create a lot of competition," Schimpff told TPMmuckraker. "So it'll be harder to find good people in Maryland than anywhere else."

"That didn't make a lot of sense to us."

It's been more than a year since we learned that the FBI was abusing its authority granted under the Patriot Act to issue so-called national security letters.

The FBI sent thousands of those letters -- in some cases illegally -- to telephone companies, Internet service providers, banks and other businesses seeking detailed records and personal information without a judge's approval.

We know that some FBI officials are under criminal investigation for the way those letters were used. And the Department of Justice Inspector General's office is also conducting a further investigation. But the details of the program, halted just last year, are still hazy.

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee is still trying to figure out precisely how the FBI was using those letters. The topic was back in the spotlight after reports that the FBI wrongly obtained phone records for reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post bureaus in Indonesia during a 2004 terrorism investigation.

The committee sent a letter today today to FBI Directer Robert Mueller III asking the FBI to brief the lawmakers on the details of how those records were requested and how these abuses occurred.

These reports of misconduct "create a troubling impression of deliberate wrongdoing or serious negligence at the FBI," according to the letter, signed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the committee, and its ranking member, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA).

The lawmakers said they are considering a new law that would provide greater protection for reporters or other Americans.

Read more for the full text of the letter.

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Scientists are stepping up among those most skeptical of the FBI's evidence implicating military microbiologist Bruce Ivins in the 2001 Anthrax attacks.

In yesterday's New York Times, microbiologist Gerry Andrews wrote an op-ed describing himself as "both disheartened and perplexed by the lack of physical evidence" against Ivins. Andrews worked with Ivins for 16 years and served as the chief of the bacteriology division at the military lab at Ft. Detrick in Maryland.

While the FBI last week released extensive documents with circumstantial evidence against Ivins, they provided almost no details of the scientific testing that underpinned the investigation.

While questions about scientific aspects of the case have been aired, they are often relegated to the bottom of news stories behind other aspects of the investigation, such as Ivins' emails around the time of the attacks or his mental problems.

Today Dr. Meryl Nass, a bioweapons expert, rattled off a long list of concerns about the case on her blog.

Editors at Science Blogs built on their initial skepticism by publishing an additional piece titled "Anthrax Case: Reasonable Doubt on the Science."

The American Society of Microbiologists, the primary professional association for the field, has not issued any public statements on the case, but is prepared to provide experts for testimony on Capitol Hill if asked, spokeswoman Barbara Hyde told TPMmuckraker.

Meanwhile, virtually nobody with a science background in microbiology has stepped forward in support of the FBI's conclusion that Ivins was likely the one and only person involved in the 2001 attacks, said Gigi Gronvall, a senior associate with the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"[Federal officials] came out and said they'd made the case, but they didn't actually present that science. So it really can't be evaluated," Gronvall said in an interview. "They talked about the genetic signature but they didn't elaborate on what that was. We want to know how they were able to determine that that one flask contained the parent train of what was sent out."

Take a look at the latest fundraising pitch from Deborah Travis Honeycutt, a little-known Republican running for Congress in a Democratic stronghold down in Georgia.

Or, we could say, the latest pitch letter drawn up by her Washington-based direct mail fundraising firm, BMW Direct.

That's the company we told you about earlier this summer that mounts massive nationwide fundraising efforts targeting self-styled conservatives on behalf of long-shot GOP candidates.

They're very successful at raking in money. But the catch is that not much of that cash ever gets to the candidates' campaigns because almost all of it -- sometimes upwards of 90 percent -- is eaten up in costs related to the direct mail campaign itself. That helps BMW Direct pay the rent on its downtown Washington office, but doesn't help candidates mount much of a ground campaign in home districts.

A TPM reader out in Iowa sent us this copy of the letter he received recently, where Honeycutt clearly underscores her race.

"I am the Democratic Party's worst nightmare," Honeycutt writes in her eight-page letter on small-sized campaign stationary. "Because I am a black Republican woman and I'm running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives."

"Self-appointed black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have used their influence with black people in the Democratic Party to gain great personal influence. They've sold us out for 30 pieces of silver, and I intend to say so!"

That echoes a line from one of BMW Direct's former clients, Ada Fisher from North Carolina, who also cited Jackson and Sharpton in one of her letters.

The TPM reader who sent us Honeycutt's mailer said he's convinced, based on the way the mailing address was written out, that his household's contact information was originally provided by the Weekly Standard magazine, to which his wife subscribes.

So far, BMW Direct has helped Honeycutt raise about $2.6 million so far this election cycle, putting her among the nation's top fundraisers.

The FBI formally apologized to two newspapers for wrongfully obtaining reporters' phone records. The bureau said it reviewed records from the New York Times and Washington Post Indonesia bureaus while conducting a 2004 terrorism investigation. (NYT)

Former Anthrax suspect Steven Hatfill was formally cleared of all suspicion in the 2001 letter attacks, the Department of Justice announced. Hatfill recently settled a lawsuit with the DOJ for about $5 million. (MSNBC)

A disgraced Minnesota transportation official was dismissed from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, where she was hired shortly after facing criticism for her role in a bridge collapse last year. The DHS said it has imposed stricter rules on background checks for employees, including Google searches. (startribune.com)

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Things are moving right along in the wake of the HJC v. Miers decision last week.

White House Counsel Fred Fielding has already responded to Rep. John Conyer's (D-MI) letter requesting "quick compliance" with the ruling and an answer to the subpoena issued to White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten for documents relating to the politicization of the Department of Justice.

Fielding (predictably) demurred, citing the recent motion for appeal, but he did comply to Conyer's other request: a meeting between the two parties to try to "work cooperatively to resolve these issues." From Fielding's letter to Chairman Conyers:

However, the fact that the Executive has noticed an appeal in this matter does not signify that we think further litigation is the exclusive path forward. . . this Administration has responded to more than 650 Congressional inquiries and investigations, and through negotiation and accommodation with Congressional committees has been able to resolve all but a very few of them. . . Toward that end, and hopefully as a prelude to meaningful discussions between us, I propose that members of our respective staffs meet as early as next week to re-commence discussing possibilities for reaching an accommodation between the Branches in this matter.

Remember, at the beginning of the week, when the New York Times reported that "at least 10 people" had access to that critical flask of anthrax linking Dr. Bruce Ivins to the 2001 anthrax attacks?

At the time, we thought that was really significant. Ten people? How did the FBI eliminate the other nine people as suspects to know Ivins was the guilty one?

But then on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the number of people with access to that anthrax was much higher.

In addition, more than 100 people had access to the anthrax in question, a larger number than many had previously believed.
Now today, the Washington Post reports that the flask in Ivins' lab was not the only one containing that particular strain matched to the 2001 letters.

FBI officials said the powdered bacteria mailed to news outlets and Senate offices had a distinct genetic heritage that precisely matched anthrax spores Ivins kept in a flask in his laboratory. But the officials also acknowledged that 15 other labs had the same strain, known as RMR-1029.
At this rate, by the end of next week, we'll find out that this strain of anthrax is typically found in most 10th-grade science labs.

Ron Suskind's bombshell report -- that the CIA essentially forged a letter in late 2003 linking Saddam Hussein to 9/11 and nuclear weapons -- has been getting knocked around all week.

And so far, it's holding up well under scrutiny.

The specific allegations first reported on Monday say former CIA Director George Tenet ordered a former Marine and CIA agent to create a letter indicating that 9/11 ringleader Mohammad Atta was trained in Iraq and also that Iraq was receiving suspicious shipments from Niger (the implication being the now infamous "yellowcake uranium").

The assignment for the agent, Rob Richer, the former number-two in command at the Operations Directorate, was to track down Saddam's former intel chief, Tahir Jalil Habbush, in Jordan and convince him to write the letter in his own handwriting on Iraqi government letterhead, backdated to July 2001.

The order to concoct the letter was drawn up on White House stationary, Richer told Suskind. The book says the CIA ultimately carried out the order, but it does not say how.

The fake letter became public in December 2003 and fueled global media speculation about an Iraq-al Qaeda link. At that time, the U.S. military had failed to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and American domestic support for the war was fading.

The story's veracity took a hit early in the week when Richer, who is now retired, issued a public statement Monday denying any involvement. Well, actually, the White House issued that statement for him, along with its own vague denial that Suskind's report was "absurd."

Today Suskind took the unusual step of publishing a transcript of his taped interview with Richer in June. Richer left the agency in 2005, saying that he lacked confidence in the agency's leadership.

Also today the story got new legs -- and additional details -- from Joe Conason's column in Salon. Conason takes us back to the time of the bogus letter's first appearance.

That letter first popped up in a credulous report in London's Sunday Telegraph, where the reporter cites a key source as Ayad Allawi. You might remember him, the CIA lackey who was propped up as Iraq's interim prime minister in 2004, only to see his political career end when Iraqis held elections a year later.

Conason also notes that Allawi was visiting CIA headquarters just a few days before that story broke in the Telegraph.

The most interesting question raised about Suskind's accuracy came yesterday from Philip Giraldi, a former CIA agent, writing in the American Conservative. According to him, the Bush Administration did order up a forged letter, but did it through the Pentagon and Doug Feith's Office of Special Plans. Giraldi notes the the military has its own false documents center used to draw up fake papers for special ops officers traveling under cover as businessmen.

That does sound plausible, given that the CIA was always more circumspect of the Saddam-al Qaeda links that were popular with the neocons in Feith's office across the river.

Looking back at all the aftershocks this week, what stands out for us is the narrow, legalistic denials that the White House and others coughed up this week.

Take a close look at what Tony Fratto, deputy White House press secretary, told Politico:

"The allegation that the White House directed anyone to forge a document from Habbush to Saddam is just absurd."
Is it false, or just absurd? Did they direct anyone to forge any documents? From Habbush to someone else? Or from someone else to Saddam? Sounds like an attorney wrote that one.

And here's what Tenet said in a statement also issued by the White House.
"There was no such order from the White House to me nor, to the best of my knowledge, was anyone from CIA ever involved in any such effort."
In the transcript Suskind released today, he asked Richer about what kind of paper trail is created when setting an operation like this in motion. Richer said there was only one, closely guarded, piece of paper that originated from the White House.

Rob: It probably passed through five or six people. George probably showed it to me, but then passed it probably to Jim Pavitt, the DDO, who then passed it down to his chief of staff who passed it to me. Cause that's how--you know, so I saw the original. I got a copy of it. But it was, there probably was--

Ron: Right. You saw the original with the White House stationery, but you didn't--down the ranks, then it creates other paper.

Rob: Yeah, no, exactly."

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was supposed to be released from jail today, but instead he faces a new set of felony charges relating to his allegedly shoving a sheriff's deputy into his partner last month. The two deputies were reportedly trying to deliver a subpoena to a friend of the mayor when the incident occurred.

Attorney General Mike Cox -- the first Republican AG in 48 years -- charged the Motown mayor with two counts of felonious assault for "assaulting ... police officers in the furtherance of their duties."

The new charges are separate from those relating to the "Text Message Scandal," which resulted in indictments for obstruction of justice and perjury.

From the Detroit Free Press:

Kilpatrick attorney James Thomas said they were going to fight the new charges as they fought in court today with "law and common sense." He said of the new charges, "it's just an allegation, let's take it step by step." At the suggestion the latest case was on the fast, track, he laughed and said, "Mike Cox could dismiss it in one day."


Kilpatrick comes from a strong political family in Detroit. His mother is U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D), who is currently running for re-election.

Late update: The DFP reports that Kilpatrick was released from jail and arraigned on his new charges this morning. The mayor was fitted with a tether, and forced to pay $50,000 bond in order to secure his release on the two new felony charges.

Kilpatrick has also been forbidden to travel, which includes his planned appearance at the Democratic National Convention later this month.

U.S. military documents show that at least 17 detainees at Guantanamo Bay were forced to repeatedly move from place to place to cause disorientation and sleep deprivation. This program, called the "frequent flyer" program, occurred even after it was banned in March 2004. (Washington Post)

The Mayor of a Maryland suburb is demanding that the Department of Justice investigate a July 29th police raid when police fatally shot his two dogs. The raid was apparently targeting a drug-trafficking scheme in which drugs were delivered to unsuspecting people, such as the mayor, to be picked up later by drug dealers. (AP)

After spending last night in jail, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick may face a new criminal charge for confronting a detective trying to serve a subpoena. He was released from jail today after violating the terms of his bond. (AP)

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