TPM News

The New York Times has a piece out today adding new details about the September 16 Blackwater shootings in Nisour Square. Relying largely on 12 Iraqis described as eyewitnesses, Iraqi investigators and a U.S. official familiar with one of the American investigations, the account suggests Blackwater's rules of engagement worked against both the Blackwater convoy and the Iraqis left dead and wounded.

The State Department's rules of engagement for Blackwater call for a series of escalating measures starting with signaled and verbal warnings to halt and progressing to the use of deadly force.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry account of the shooting is familiar by now: a car carrying a young family was ordered to stop by a traffic policeman so a Blackwater convoy could pass through. But the car rolled forward, resulting in Blackwater guards killing the driver, his wife and their young child -- and sparking the melee that followed.

But the Times reports that the car may have proceeded because its driver was already dead:

The car in which the first people were killed did not begin to closely approach the Blackwater convoy until the Iraqi driver had been shot in the head and lost control of his vehicle. Not one witness heard or saw any gunfire coming from Iraqis around the square. And following a short initial burst of bullets, the Blackwater guards unleashed an overwhelming barrage of gunfire even as Iraqis were turning their cars around and attempting to flee.

As the gunfire continued, at least one of the Blackwater guards began screaming, “No! No! No!” and gesturing to his colleagues to stop shooting, according to an Iraqi lawyer who was stuck in traffic and was shot in the back as he tried to flee. The account of the struggle among the Blackwater guards corroborates preliminary findings of the American investigation.

Yesterday, Erik Prince, CEO of Blackwater, said that it's far from clear that Blackwater did anything wrong. That response might be self serving, but it's not necessarily false -- at least from the perspective of the State Department-issued "escalation of force" policy.

Read More →

Last month, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) had a simple message: the President's nominee for attorney general, Michael Mukasey, wasn't going anywhere until the administration finally handed over documents he'd long been seeking.

But now it appears that things are moving along, though it seems that the administration hasn't handed over anything.

In a letter this morning, Leahy listed roughly a dozen questions he wanted answers to -- all of them relating to whether Mukasey would lead the Justice Department differently from Alberto Gonzales (e.g. would he fire a large number of U.S. attorneys at the direction of White House political operatives?). We've posted that letter below.

Chief on that list, apparently, is whether Mukasey would work with Leahy in a way that Gonzales, who often ignored Leahy's queries, did not. Leahy writes:

With so much to do and so much damage that needs to be repaired, I had hoped that the White House would have taken advantage of the time since the resignations of Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Rove to work with us to fulfill longstanding requests for information so that we could all agree about what went so wrong at the Department of Justice and work together to restore it. Instead, they have left you to answer the unanswered questions and left longstanding disputes unresolved.

Leahy offered to meet with Mukasey October 16th as a prelude to a confirmation hearing.

Read More →

Yesterday Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) asked if Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) "really" wanted to investigate Blackwater, since if he went to Iraq to snoop around, "Blackwater will be his support team."

Well, apparently it's not so hypothetical of a scenario. From The New York Daily News:

When a team of FBI agents lands in Baghdad this week to probe Blackwater security contractors for murder, it will be protected by bodyguards from the very same firm, the Daily News has learned.

Half a dozen FBI criminal investigators based in Washington are scheduled to travel to Iraq to gather evidence and interview witnesses about a Sept. 16 shooting spree that left at least 11 Iraqi civilians dead.

The agents plan to interview witnesses within the relative safety of the fortified Green Zone, but they will be transported outside the compound by Blackwater armored convoys, a source briefed on the FBI mission said.

"What happens when the FBI team decides to go visit the crime scene? Blackwater is going to have to take them there," the senior U.S. official told The News.

A new Supreme Court term, a new chance for a legal challenge to the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance efforts. Today the ACLU asked the Court to take up a case it brought last year against the administration by American citizens who suspect that their communications were unlawfully monitored.

Last year, District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor ordered an injunction on the surveillance in response to the case, an order that led to the Bush administration placing the program(s) under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (well, for the time being). The Justice Department objected, saying the plaintiffs in the case -- a collection of "prominent journalists, scholars, attorneys and national advocacy organizations" -- couldn't prove they had been surveilled, since the administration wasn't revealing who it spied upon. Circuit Court Judge Alice Batchelder sided with the government in July.

Read More →

There's good news and there's bad news for lawmakers.

First the good news: Brent Wilkes' lawyer Mark Geragos withdrew the twelve subpoenas for House lawmakers after the judge signaled that he'd only approve them if they specifically related to Wilkes' defense -- i.e. the alleged bribes he gave Duke Cunningham.

The bad news:

Even though Geragos dropped the initial subpoenas, he told reporters later that he planned to file new ones against former House Speaker U.S. Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and California Republican Reps. John Doolittle, Duncan Hunter, Darrell Issa and Jerry Lewis.

The basis for all this, Geragos says, is that "we've got members who were on these plane flights with Mr. Cunningham [on Wilkes' plane], who were going to these dinners hosted by Mr. Wilkes." Presumably this would be part of Wilkes' defense that his gifts to Cunningham were just part of a system of which he was the victim.

So the lawmakers still on Geragos' list are there because they had a relationship with Wilkes. And perhaps not coincidentally, two of those five are already under federal investigation -- Lewis for his ties to Wilkes and other lobbyists and Doolittle for his ties to Jack Abramoff.

House Democrats are proposing new legislation that strengthens independent oversight of the Bush administration. Their proposed legislation would put more teeth into the 1978 law that established independent inspector generals by making it more difficult for the administration to fire inspector generals or otherwise control internal watchdogs. The White House is threatening a veto, arguing that the law will interfere with the president’s Constitutional right to fire inspector generals. (CQ Politics)

Ray Hunt, CEO of Hunt Oil, claimed (sub. req.) yesterday that he did not take advantage of his connections with Republicans- and specifically, the President- to help land an oil arrangement with the semi autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. The State Department has previously claimed that it advised Hunt against the deal; Hunt claims he did not communicate with anyone in the government prior to the agreement. (Wall Street Journal)

If the White House won't talk, try the telecoms. ABC's investigative superstar Justin Rood reports that Congress is seeking information about the government's warrantless wiretapping programming by asking telecommunications firms about their role. The firms have until October 12th to suddenly become a part of the executive branch so that they can claim privilege. (ABC's The Blotter)

Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-IN) earmarks over $7 million for a technology start-up incubator to be built (sub. req.) in his state. The first five businesses to take up residence in the new building are all clients of the lobbying firm PMA. PMA is Visclosky's largest political contributor. Nothing to see here, folks. (Roll Call)

Read More →

It was a major talking point for Erik Prince at yesterday's Blackwater hearing: Blackwater contractors discharged their weapons during only about one percent of the 16,000 missions they've undertaken since 2005. Relying on his company's statistics, Blackwater owner/CEO pointedly told the House oversight committee that his contractors fired their guns an average of 1.4 times a week, a discharge rate hardly befitting the company's reputation for recklessness.

Prince may have accurately reported his company's weapons-discharge statistics to the committee. But, reports Steve Fainaru in The Washington Post, contract employees for private-security companies in Iraq, including Blackwater, frequently under-report how many often they open fire.

[T]wo former Blackwater security guards said they believed employees fired more often than the company has disclosed. One, a former Blackwater guard who spent nearly three years in Iraq, said his 20-man team averaged "four or five" shootings a week, or several times the rate of 1.4 incidents a week reported by the company. The underreporting of shooting incidents was routine in Iraq, according to this former guard.

"The thing is, even the good companies, how many bad incidents occurred where guys involved didn't say anything, because they didn't want to be questioned, or have any downtime today to have to go over what happened yesterday?" he said. "I'm sure there were some companies that just didn't report anything."

Defense and State Department officials conceded that the terms of most contracts require the security firm to report their shooting incidents, but in practice, few comply. The apparent silence among contractors has led to a lack of understanding by the U.S. about the true rates of contractor violence in Iraq. Last year, for instance, officials with the Army Corps of Engineers grew concerned that their bodyguards from Aegis, a British-run firm, had turned "out of control" because of their high numbers of reported shootings. But a closer look determined that Aegis only appeared trigger-happy because of its high pace of operations and under-reporting by its competitors. Functionally, whether or not contractors tell responsible officials in the State or Defense Departments about their shooting incidents "is up to them," according to an ex-ACE program manager.

Read More →

The senators did their best to wring more information from Jack Goldsmith about the administration's warrantless surveillance program during today's hearing. It was Goldsmith's legal analysis, after all, which led to the Justice Department leadership's revolt in 2004. But it was a mixed result.

Since the beginning of this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee has been seeking documents from the Justice Department and the White House about the legal basis for the program. They're still waiting.

And today, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) tried a more modest tack. He tried to get Goldsmith to say what Constitutional principle had been violated by the program. Goldsmith replied that the executive branch had told him that he couldn't discuss any aspect of his legal analysis. Specter asked again, and Goldsmith again said that he'd been instructed not to.

Goldsmith did manage to add some details, however. He revealed that only four lawyers at the Justice Department were permitted to examine the program -- that's including the attorney general and Goldsmith himself. When asked why the administration had so restricted that access, he said that it was probably because they did not want the legal analysis (that had, until Goldsmith, allowed the program to go forward) scrutinized.

As it was, he said, the basis for the program was "a legal mess" when he took over the Office of Legal Counsel in 2003 -- the "biggest," he said, he'd ever encountered.

Read More →

If the House ethics committee doesn't investigate the Coconut Road earmark that someone slipped in to a 2005 highway bill at the behest of then-transportation chair Rep. Don Young (R-AK), then a watchdog group may file a lawsuit to get to the bottom of it.

The non-partisan Taxpayers for Common Sense called on the House ethics committee to review how $10 million listed for a highway widening project ended up making its way to a project benefiting a developer and major Young campaign contributor after both chambers voted on the bill. But despite the fact that the change seems a blatant violation of House rules, chances are the infamously inert ethics committee won't jump to action.

Watchdog group Public Citizen told The Hill that it would consider taking the matter before a judge if the ethics committee doesn't act.

Read More →

Perhaps it slipped Rep. Darrell Issa's (R-CA) mind when he was detailing Blackwater CEO Erik Prince's Republican bona fides*, but Prince is not only a supporter of Republican candidates. Last summer, he and his wife shelled out $10,000 in contributions for a Green.

It was part of an effort by connected Republicans (lobbyists and millionaire CEOs among them) to recruit Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli to enter the 2006 Senate race. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) was trailing Dem moderate Bob Casey in the polls -- and Romanelli, the scheme went, could take some of those liberal votes away from Casey.

Ultimately Republicans raised more than $150,000 for Romanelli (who once told me, "This is America, money is like air. It's out there. You just have to be tenacious enough to go get it.") in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to get him on the ballot.

*Update: Actually, Prince's Green contributions didn't slip Issa's mind. Or rather, Issa appeared to at least be remotely familiar with them -- which, unfortunately, ended up making him look rather silly. Here's Issa during a second round of questioning:

Read More →