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On February 1st of this year, National Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) abruptly released a statement about recently discovered "irregularities in our financial audit process." That was it: no details about whether money might have been stolen, just word that they'd seen fit to bring in the federal authorities.

The details, as they've come, have been embarrassing for the committee, which works to get Republicans elected to the House (which was already hurting in comparison to its Democratic counterpart before all this began).

According to The New York Times this morning, it all began to unravel when Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), a CPA, asked to meet with the audit firm that was supposedly checking the NRCC's books, an idea that apparently no one had had for several years. Christopher Ward, then the NRCC's treasurer, finally relented, but then chickened out 30 minutes before and fessed up that there actually hadn't been any audits.

It was ultimately discovered that Ward had been faking the audits since 2003. The Politico, which laid out this general outline of events early last month, reported that Ward had forged everything, including the letterhead. So when it came time to actually talk to the people who'd supposedly written those fake reports, it all unraveled.

The FBI is currently investigating, and it's not clear yet why Ward was so keen to hide the real numbers. But as the Times reports this morning, the signs are not good. NRCC internal audits since Ward's discovery show that "hundreds of thousands of dollars are missing and presumed stolen." And it gets worse: there are apparently indications that "the financial irregularities might extend beyond the national committee to the campaign funds of individual Republican lawmakers who also worked with Mr. Ward, a longtime party operative."

Ward had been with the NRCC since 1993 and worked for dozens of Republican campaign committees, political action committees, and other organizations. It'll be interesting to see what the FBI turns up.

Like a house of cards. From the AP:

A Swiss bank has dropped its lawsuit against Web site for posting sensitive customer data.

Lawyers for Bank Julius Baer filed court papers Wednesday in San Francisco that officially ended the case.

Remember that a judge initially went along with the bank's request to block access to the site, an order that was broadly criticized as unconstitutional. And when a bunch of journalism and civil liberties groups got involved, the judge threw up his hands.

It was a landmark ruling by any measure. On April 2, 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency had the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and that it had to act. The justices made the choice clear: the agency had to determine whether greenhouse gases contribute to climate change or not. Environmental groups exulted that, after several years of stalling, the administration would finally be forced to do something.

Except that they didn't. Nearly a year after that ruling, which required the EPA to make a decision, the agency still hasn't. And with Administrator Stephen Johnson at the helm, there's no sign that it's going to happen anytime soon.

This is made all the more remarkable by the fact that Johnson, in blocking California's attempt to regulate greenhouse gases, has made it clear that the EPA considers them pollutants. As Georgetown Law professor Lisa Heinzerling, who wrote the lead brief in the Supreme Court case, Massachusetts v. EPA argues, "Johnson concluded that California's problems aren't "compelling and extraordinary" because they're no worse than the very bad problems the rest of the country faces as a result of climate change." That reasoning, she says, made explicit the EPA's view "that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare." That leaves Johnson with no choice, she writes.

But Johnson is a stubborn opponent. Yesterday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) asked Johnson a simple question during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing: How many staff at the EPA does he have working on this? Johnson, a Zen master of digression, mind numbing minutiae ("gobbledygook"), and generally thwarting questioners, never gives a simple answer. Here's the video:

After a digression covering Judge Antonin Scalia's minority opinion and all the other things that the EPA is considering ("I can go on and on"), Feinstein had had it.

"Let me ask you this... all right let me ask you this question. How many personnel right now are working on the endangerment finding?"

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If you're a staffer at the Environmental Protection Agency, you might have found yourself wondering what the point is. As EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson likes to put it, the final decision is his to make. And he has a history of disregarding the recommendations of EPA staff when he makes them.

Which makes this not very surprising:

Unionized EPA workers are withdrawing from a cooperation agreement with the political appointees who supervise them over controversies including the agency's refusal to let California regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks.

Nineteen union local presidents representing more than 10,000 Environmental Protection Agency employees signed a letter to Administrator Stephen L. Johnson last Friday accusing him of "abuses of our good nature and trust."...

The union locals involved represent the vast majority of EPA workers around the country. Signers included William Evans, president of the EPA headquarters chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union.

Evans said that the purpose of the Clinton-era National Labor-Management Partnership Council was for senior agency officials and workers to deal with workplace and other issues before the decision stage.

Instead, "what we found is decisions are being made and they're being presented to us," said Evans.

You can read the letter from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility here.

As you can see, the union senses a pattern in Johnson's leadership. Scientific standards get junked they say, "whenever political direction from other federal entities or private sector interests so direct." Johnson's denial of a waiver for California's greenhouse gas rules, of course, being a prime example.

We'll have a little bit more on Johnson in a bit.

This month, President Bush is expected to veto a Senate bill that would restrict the CIA to using interrogation techniques approved by the Army Field Manual. That would unequivocally outlaw waterboarding, the inducement of hypothermia, sensory deprivation, and other "enhanced interrogation" techniques that have been in the CIA's arsenal.

The veto is likely to survive an attempt by Senate to override because ever since 9/11, the administration and Republicans (including Sen. John McCain) have preferred to keep legal restraints on CIA interrogators loose.

But the FBI, which, unlike the CIA had ample experience with interrogation, took a different tack. During today's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked FBI Director Robert Mueller why:

LEAHY: And you have a policy, as does the military, the military handbooks, not to use coercive techniques like waterboarding. Why do you have that policy?

MUELLER: There are a number of reasons that probably contributed to the development of that policy years ago. Generally, our questioning has been, in the past, done in the United States, and the results of our questioning often end up in a court. Whereas, you and other who have been prosecutors know the question of voluntariness is at issue for the admissibility of information you have.

And, consequentially, the policy was established, I would imagine, given our particular unique mission here and the operation under the Constitution, the applicable statutes and the attorney general guidelines.

It also is a result, I believe, of the analysis of our Behavioral Science Unit as to effective use of particular techniques where we believe that the rapport-building technique is particularly effective.

Mueller also acknowledged that the "rapport-building" approach apparently was quite successful with Saddam Hussein.

Remember that down in Guantanamo Bay, FBI and military interrogators (the "Clean Team") had to re-examine detainees because the techniques used by CIA interrogators meant that the testimony would not hold up in court. Not that the director of national intelligence has any doubt that "enhanced interrogation" techniques produce reliable information ("we can tell in minutes if they are lying"). I guess it's just a different way of doing things.

The Politico gets the temperature of the current negotiations on the surveillance bill and stresses the "unknowns." So while the signs tend towards the final bill somehow containing retroactive immunity for the telecoms against those vicious lawsuits, it's still not a sure thing.

But there was this choice section, where Senate intelligence committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) expresses befuddlement that Republicans have boycotted talks on a compromise bill. The president and leading GOPers have said that it's the Senate bill or nothing so there's no use negotiating. From The Politico:

Rockefeller supports the immunity provision the administration wants, but he said he was perplexed by the fact that the White House has skipped the meetings the Democrats have tried to hold. “I don’t understand why the White House hasn’t been more active in pushing the solution they want,” he said.

“It’s very strange.”

Of course, the Republicans and the administration have been pushing with all their might (I guess Rockefeller missed this ad... and Bush's every public appearance for the past month). They just see no reason to go to the table, figuring that if they push enough, they'll get what they want.

Did CBS Alabama affiliate WHNT just have really rotten luck with its equipment during 60 Minutes' segment on ex-Gov. Don Siegelman (D), or did the station actually try to censor the story on Republicans' alleged attempts to use the Justice Department to take out a political opponent?

Michael Copps, a Dem appointee on the Federal Communications Commission, has already begun pushing for an investigation. Chairman Kevin Martin has been noncommittal.

But Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who sits on the Senate Commerce Committee, wants Martin to know that he'll be keeping an eye on things. In a letter to Martin today, he asks that Martin share whatever findings emerge from an investigation, and adds "I will be monitoring this situation closely."

The full letter is below.

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Lawyers for Omar Khadr, a Canadian who will be tried by a military commission in Guantanamo Bay on "charges that include murder, related to a 2002 firefight in Afghanistan that left a U.S. soldier dead," are investigating whether a video of Khadr that appeared on CBS' 60 Minutes last fall was leaked by Vice-President Dick Cheney's office. According to Khadr's lawyer, former Guantanamo chief prosecutor Col. Morris Davis "thinks it's possible or likely this tape came from the vice-president's office." If the allegations are true, he says, it would be a "clear violation of the protective orders that are in place" in the case. (CTV)

The towns of Brattleboro and Marlboro, Vermont have passed articles of indictment against President Bush and Vice President Cheney for their violations of the U.S. Constitution. Though one supporter of the articles remarked that he hoped the two were impeached before they were arrested in Vermont, the latter is unlikely because Vermont is the only state in that President Bush has never visited. (USA Today)

When FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies at the Senate today he will face questions about alleged civil rights violations during terror and spy investigations, including the use of national security letters. Last year the Justice Department's inspector general reported that the FBI, between 2003 to 2005, collected personal data on citizens without authorization and in non-emergency situations. (AP)

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While there's a lot of attention on picking a new president, you might not want to take your eye off the current one.

The idea, once scandalous, that Bush would just be handing the Iraq mess off to his successor is now an accepted reality. But he won't be doing it in an informal way, either.

Since last year, the administration has been working towards a long-term security agreement with Iraq, an "enduring relationship," as they had it. The basic outlines were clear: a long-term American troop presence in Iraq and preferential treatment for American investments in return for a guarantee of security for the Iraqis.

To give you an idea of the outline, the Iraqis said that it would be silly to expect that Iraq would be able to defend itself alone until at least 2018. Forever seems a fair conservative estimate.

But there was a problem. There was a strong case to be made that for the administration to strike such a deal without the consent of the Senate was unconstitutional. Democrats were set to fight such a move.

You know what Bush and Cheney think about asking Congress for anything. So, abruptly, the administration's position changed. The administration would be striking a long-term pact along the same lines, but there would be no security guarantee. None at all. According to the letter of the agreement, if Iraq were attacked, we'd just let it burn.

For some reason, some cynics think this is just a workaround. Without the actual security guarantee, the administration can hammer out the treaty without any hassle from Congress.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) is such a cynic. And yesterday Ackerman had the opportunity to press David Satterfield, the State Department's Iraq coordinator, about the deal. The exchange, printed today in The Washington Post, had that taint of absurdity so common to Congressional testimony from administration officials:

Update: Here's video of Ackerman's questioning.

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Jonathan Turley, professor of law at George Washington, writing today in The Los Angeles Times:

The recent decisions of Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey to block any prosecution of Bush administration officials for contempt and to block any criminal investigation of torture led to a chorus of criticism. Many view the decisions as raw examples of political manipulation of the legal process and overt cronyism. I must confess that I was one of those crying foul until I suddenly realized that there was something profound, even beautiful, in Mukasey's action.

In his twisting of legal principles, the attorney general has succeeded in creating a perfect paradox. Under Mukasey's Paradox, lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president -- and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers....

When reduced to its purest form, Mukasey's Paradox is that government officials cannot violate the law -- but that because executive privilege is also a law, it's sometimes necessary to violate the law in order to uphold the law.