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Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) wanted more detail on those evaluations by Gen. Petraeus? How long will it be before U.S. troops begin to leave Iraq, he wanted to know? Three months? Six months?

"It could be right then," Petraeus answered, meaning after that 45 day evaluation period after July, or "it could be longer."

OK, Levin said, assuming that everything goes perfectly, how many U.S. troops would remain in Iraq at the end of the year? Petraeus didn't take the bait: "I can't give you an estimate on that."

Levin also grilled Petraeus on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Basra offensive. Was it really all on him?

"Would you say that Maliki followed your advice?" Levin wanted to know. "No, sir.... there's no question but that it could have been better planned and that the preparations could have been better."

Update: Here's Levin's questioning:

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You can read Crocker's here. We'll have Petraeus' shortly.

Update: Here are briefing slides provided by Multi-National Force-Iraq that illustrate some of the security gains Petraeus is talking about.

Update: Here is Petraeus' opening statement:

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Gen. David Petraeus' opening statement was no surprise either, with the general providing a battery of slides showing that U.S. forces have made great strides in curbing violence, building up the Iraqi forces, etc. -- but adding the necessary caveat that "innumerable challenges remain."

Towards the end, Petraeus said that starting in July, when the troop level will return to its pre-surge level, he would begin a "45 day period of consolidation and evaluation." After that period, he'd make further recommendations "as conditions permit." That arrangement does not allow a "set withdrawal timetable," he said, but the process would continue with recommendations (more of the same or draw down troops) made every 45 days.

Update: Here's how Petraeus put it:

After weighing these factors, I recommended to my chain of command that we continue the drawdown in the surge to the combat forces and that upon the withdrawal of the last surge brigade combat team in July, we undertake a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation. At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground and over time determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions. This process will be continuous, with recommendations for further reductions made as conditions permit.

This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable, however it does provide the flexibility those of us on the ground need to preserve the still-fragile security gains our troops have fought so far and sacrifice so much to achieve.

Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain's (R-AZ) opening statement was no surprise (except for a brief interruption by protestors in the audience).

Here's video:

Because the U.S. did not "choose to retreat," we now have a successful strategy in Iraq, the surge. And although "much more needs to be done... today it is possible to talk with real hope and optimism about the future of Iraq.... Success is within reach."

If we pull out, he said, Iraq might descend into genocide and become a haven for terrorists and even "draw us into a far more costly war" as a result. "Congress must not choose to lose in Iraq," he concluded, we "should choose instead to succeed."

Update: The full statement is below.

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Since 1994 the FBI has maintained a surveillance link (the Digital Collection System) between 40 of its offices, Quantico, and networks belonging to major telecommunications companies. Three Democratic lawmakers are concerned about the scope of this surveillance and have demanded more information about "transactional data" captured in these networks without court warrants. (Washington Post)

Lawmakers also have concerns about the Department of Homeland Security's domestic surveillance program. Known as the National Applications Office, the DHS' satellite program provides government officials with spy satellite imagery (sub. req.) and has no legal safeguards in place to prevent domestic spying. (Wall Street Journal)

Key legal opinions and documents related to the Department of Justice's torture memos of 2002 and 2003 and warrantless surveillance program remain under lock and key at the DOJ. Though lawmakers have requested the documents for years - and Attorney General Mukasey promised that "there isn't going to be any stonewalling" over Congressional requests for documents - the DOJ seems to be too busy to fill the requests. DOJ spokesman Peter Carr noted that congresisonal inquiries take "an enormous amount of department time and resources." (Washington Post)

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Do you remember that chart?

It was the most memorable of the briefing slides Gen. David Petraeus took with him to Capitol Hill last September. And then, as now, it's all about the question marks.

Today, Petraeus is expected to tell Congress that we ought to wait and see before further reducing troop levels. Petraeus will tout the success of the surge, while at the same time acknowledging failures that require a continued U.S. presence in Iraq. Sure, violence has dropped, but as The New York Times reports this morning, "[a]fter an overall decline in attacks against civilians and American and Iraqi security forces in Baghdad over the past several months, the number more than doubled in March from the previous month." But, on the other hand, that recent violence is all the more reason to delay further troop withdrawals, isn't it?

And The Washington Post is ready for a similar theme:

Petraeus is expected to cite Iranian assistance to Mahdi Army forces as another reason to carefully consider any further troop withdrawals. But U.S. intelligence officials have noted that Iran has also provided training and weapons to all Shiite militias, including those allied with Maliki. "One reality of Basra is that you have Iranian-influenced organizations fighting each other," said one intelligence official. "On multiple levels, Iran has its hooks" in all of them, the official added.

We'll be providing continuing updates on the hearings throughout the day.

Note: Here's one thing to watch for. You can be sure that this time around, Petraeus will have a better answer to this question.

Underlying that Boston Globe story I just noted is a salient fact: outside groups are increasingly taking the form of 501(c)(4) groups this year.

What does it mean? Well, for the groups it means they can take any amount of contributions from virtually any source, including corporations, provided that their ads never cross the line into explicit advocacy -- i.e. "vote for candidate X this election." And the groups never have to disclose their donors, which makes everyone involved happy. That's much more freedom than 527 organizations, like the Swift Boat Vets for Truth, had in the last election.

As David Corn reported earlier this year, the Supreme Court loosened the restrictions on 501(c)(4)s at the same time that the FEC was cracking down on 527s, making them an irresistible model.

Recently, a new 501(c)(4) demonstrated how free the groups are to operate. As we reported last week, a group called the American Future Fund has been running ads supporting Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN). The ads have the look and feel of a campaign ad, so much so that the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party filed a complaint with the FEC charging that the American Future Fund is breaking the law by claiming that it is not a political committee.

Dave Kochel, a spokesperson for the group, said that AFF is not worried: "The law is pretty clear. As long as you're not advocating the election or defeat of a particular candidate, and the ad is crafted in a way that's informative on the issues, you're on solid ground."

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It's only April, but we've already begun to see a flowering of outside groups. The hyper-conservative Common Sense Issues unleashed robo-voiced push polls on more than 11 million households on Mike Huckabee's behalf. A liberal group called Campaign To Defend America has already unloaded a $1 million ad buy tying John McCain to George Bush. And the casino mogul backed conservative group Freedom's Watch is still revving its engines.

But there is much, much, much more to come. And The Boston Globe reports that Republican insiders appear to be favoring a separate vehicle to go after Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). As one Republican strategist tells the Globe, "They're beginning to put the book together on Obama."

What this new group will be called isn't clear. But it will probably be quarterbacked and funded by some of the likely suspects. Some of the bigger Swift Boat Vets for Truth funders are sure to chip in, the Globe reports. And "the chairman and founding partner of DCI Group, Tom Synhorst, is helping lead the new third-party effort this year, according to GOP strategists familiar with the plans."

As Josh pointed out last week, Doug Davenport, a partner at DCI Group, has joined Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) campaign as a regional campaign manager.

As the Globe reports, Republicans know they have lots of catching up to do:

Part of what's driving Republicans' interest in independent groups this year is the tremendous fund-raising advantage the Democratic presidential candidates have. Obama and Clinton raised nearly as much in March as McCain had overall through February.

Now, what might this group end up doing? Well, the new group is likely to closely resemble Progress for America, a DCI-run effort that ran a spate of negative ads against John Kerry, along with one memorable "positive" ad, "Ashley's Story," which showed George Bush comforting a teenager whose mother had been killed on 9/11 (“He’s the most powerful man in the world and all he wants to do is make sure I’m safe.”). The group spent over $14 million airing the ad in the last weeks of the election.

Congratulations to Rep. Don Young's (R-AK) lawyers, who, working together, have exceeded one million dollars in billings!

But don't worry: Young's campaign contributors are the ones bearing the burden. Young's spokesperson put the word out on Friday, in anticipation of Young's upcoming quarterly report to the FEC.

Due to $213,000 in legal fees paid out by the campaign in the first quarter of this year, Young's campaign has now paid out more than $1.1 million in fees. Only Rep. Jerry Lewis' (R-CA) campaign has achieved a similar feat.

Unfortunately, Young paid out more in legal fees than he raised in that quarter (just $164,000). Young started up a legal defense fund early this year to help handle his legal costs.

And what are all those lawyers (there are three different firms) doing for their money? Don't ask Young, or:

Young has consistently refused to detail what he might be under investigation for or even who is investigating him. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that Young was under scrutiny for his ties to the mucked-up oil company Veco. Other than that, things have remained unclear. In a press conference with Alaskan journalists earlier this year, Young was more than a little impatient with reporters who pushed him for details.

You remember the D.C. Madam, the not-a-people-person who ran a high-end escort service out of her laundry room in California.

Well, Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) certainly does, and in a hearing Friday, Vitter's lawyer was trying his best to keep the senator from being called at Deborah Jeane Palfrey's upcoming trial. Palfrey, who has pleaded not guilty and says that she was running a legitimate "fantasy sex" operation, has subpoenaed Vitter, apparently with the idea that Vitter would testify that no, there was no sex, only fantasy.

But for some reason, Vitter seems reluctant. From The Times-Picayune:

[Lawyer Henry Asbill], who represented Vitter in some earlier motions related to the Palfrey case, told [Judge James] Robertson that the defense has a responsibility to establish that it has a valid legal reason to call his client other than to simply "harass and embarrass him." He also said that it's hard to imagine a legitimate reason to call him as a witness given that the escort service had hundreds, if not thousands of customers, and the defense hasn't even spoken to his client about whether he would have anything to say that would assist its case.

Preston Burton, Palfrey's attorney, told Judge Robertson that he shouldn't be required to reveal his reasons for putting people on his witness list because it would disclose his defense strategy to prosecutors.

The judge declined Asbill's suggestion that he hold a hearing in chambers, and declined to nullify the subpoena. Robertson said he didn't know the name of Asbill's client and "didn't want to know."

Vitter narrowly avoided testifying earlier in the case at a pretrial hearing in November. That hearing was mercifully canceled.

Asbill also seems keen to indicate that Vitter would be no help to Palfrey's defense. He'd take the Fifth, Asbill told the judge -- obviously not what Palfrey would want since fantasy is as legal as can be. As the Legal Times reports, the prosecution have a line up of 14 former escorts from Palfrey's service who are expected to testify that the job involved more than a vivid imagination.

And what does Sen. Vitter have to say about all this? Well, when the Times-Picayune queried, he was both sentimental and eager to change the subject:

"I want to reaffirm how sorry I am to have hurt the people I love so deeply, starting with my family and certainly including the people of Louisiana," Vitter said. "I continue to work every day to make up for that."

He continued: "I continue to focus on crucial challenges for Louisiana families like health care reform and good-paying jobs."