TPM News

The latest edition of The New Republic takes a look at Sen. Ted Stevens' (R-AK) "twisted genius for getting what he wants" and the political atmosphere that has let him get away with it for so long.

The key to the most senior Republican senator's success seems to be his tactical use of his extreme temper. In conversations with Alaska locals, I've heard that the legend of Stevens' temper dates back to the death of his wife in 1978 when the couple's plane crashed landing at the Anchorage airport. TNR fleshes out how Stevens' first response to the tragic incident was to lash out at Sen. Mike Gravel (D-AK), grumbling that if it weren't for Gravel, he and his wife wouldn't have needed to rush to a meeting over a piece of legislation Gravel was trying to block.

His accusation became more specific in what a former Senate aide who was present calls "one of the most horrifying moments in the modern Senate." According to the aide (the story was also chronicled by The Washington Post at the time), Stevens hobbled into a Senate committee hearing a couple of months later on crutches and in bandages. With Gravel present, Stevens raised the topic of his reason for flying that fateful day. "I don't want to get personal about it," he told the stunned audience, "but I think if that bill had passed, I might have a wife sitting at home when I get home tonight, too."

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The U.S. attorney office in Los Angeles just can't seem to muster the manpower needed to investigate senior Republican appropriator Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA). In fact, it seems that the Justice Department is handicapping itself.

The veteran prosecutor who'd been heading up the Lewis case has been forced into retirement, The Los Angeles Daily Journal reported yesterday (not available online). It knocks the investigation, already stalled, further off course.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that budget shortages and the departure of top prosecutors from the office had caused the investigation to slow down since last fall. But the Journal noted that the interim U.S. attorney George Cardona (the prior U.S.A. Debra Yang left last year under questionable circumstances) had tapped veteran prosecutor Michael Emmick in June to "jump-start" the investigation.

So much for that.

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A federal judge struck down the FBI's authority to issue national security letters in lieu of court-approved warrants when seeking information from telecommunications firms. Not content merely with a decision that peels back some of the farthest reaches of the Patriot Act, the residing judge also bashed Congress for passing a law that had potential to become, "the legislative equivalent of breaking and entering, with an ominous free pass to the hijacking of constitutional values." (Associated Press)

One more, and it's a whole frame. A ninth Justice Department official has resigned. Peter Keisler ran the administration's fight over detainee rights at Guantanamo. He plans to spend some time with the family, but Bush is already pursuing his nomination to the D.C. Court of Appeals. (Associated Press)

The terrorist watch list, which determines who can and cannot flight in this country, is riddled with inconsistent entries and has a high error rate in identifying security threats. It seems not being able to trust the accuracy of the list might undermine the value of having a monitoring list in the first place; the Justice Department's Inspector General is beginning to agree. (Washington Post)

Get ready for a House-on-Senate battle royale over earmarks. That's because the House has managed to cut the list of earmarks in half in the latest draft of appropriations bill. But the Senate, who helped pass the earmark reform bill this year, thinks it has done its good deed for the year; their numbers of earmarks hasn't changed substantially from last year. (The Hill)

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We've been writing for a while about the difficulty of getting clear and consistent measurements about security in Iraq. The Government Accountability Office stated this week that there hasn't been a measurable decline in attacks on civilians over the course of the surge, something that General David Petraeus' command sharply disputes. Making matters more complicated, the Pentagon's quarterly Iraq reports have recently taken to revising its earlier estimates of sectarian killings without indicating what prompted the change. The statistical confusion is likely to play a prominent role in Petraeus' Congressional testimony next week.

So it's significant that Petraeus gave a subtly defiant interview to the Boston Globe's Charles Sennott. Petraeus, true to form, attaches qualifiers and caveats to his assessments, but he hits his main points hard: his is a "solid plan" that is achieving results, from the pacification of Anbar province to the increased capability of Iraqi Army and police forces that "hold" neighborhoods in Baghdad. He implies that the Sunni tribal turn against al-Qaeda is a turn for "reconciliation" with the Shiite-led Iraqi government, something that his subordinate commanders have doubted.

Unlike his interview last weekend with the Australian, though, he cites no statistics about overall declines in casualties. Instead, he pointedly states that "what our troopers have achieved is measurable and important." It's a loaded statement, implying that to question the statistics distributed by Multinational Forces-Iraq is to criticize the troops on the ground. That's something the GAO took great care not to do in its report this week, writing that the troops have "performed courageously under dangerous and difficult circumstances."

Something else to look for: Petraeus appears to anticipate a question about whether all or most of Baghdad has, in fact, been made secure. (He told the Australian that sectarian violence was down 75 percent in the capitol.)

As we have demonstrated through the employment of the forces that we have, we do not necessarily have to secure every part of Baghdad at once -- this can and has been done in stages. As the security situation in an area improves, forces are required to hold the gains that we have made. Over time some of those forces can be local police units working with the Iraqi Army and Coalition Forces in Joint Security Stations.

That sounds like Petraeus is conceding that Baghdad remains, at least in parts, unsecured. He's never explicitly said otherwise, and he would understandably resist being expected to solve the capitol's problems in less than a year. Indeed, to me and to other reporters, he's discussed how the Iraqis need to come to terms with an "acceptable" level of violence: after all, no city of 7 million can be completely secure. But expect Congress to grill him on what he's actually saying about the levels of security throughout Baghdad -- and how he measures it.

The New Hampshire phone jamming caper lives on!

In a letter to House oversight committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) today, Rep. Paul Hodes (D-NH) asks that the committee investigate. Not only is there evidence that the White House might have been involved in the jamming, Hodes writes, but there's evidence that Justice Department officials interfered in the prosecution. He wants the committee to "determine if a politically motivated plot did in fact obstruct justice in this case, and if so to take such steps as may be reasonable." You can read his letter here. Democrats had earlier requested that the Senate Judiciary Committee probe the matter.

Three guilty pleas and one conviction have resulted from investigation of the scheme, where Republicans conspired to jam Democratic phone lines on Election Day, 2002.

The last time we checked in on Rep. Don Young's (R-AK) extra-Constitutional Coconut Road earmark, Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL) had just written the House Transportation Committee asking that it back local officials who want to spend the $10 million on its original purpose -- rather than on the interchange popular only with an out-of-state real estate developer.

That appears likely to happen. A spokesman for the ranking Republican member on the committee Rep. John Mica (R-FL) said he supports allowing local authorities to use the money for the widening of Interstate 75 rather than Coconut Road, though how the process would play out is not entirely clear.

"I think however it is addressed going forward here, [Mica] would certainly want to do his best to make sure that it is done properly and technically correctly," said spokesman Justin Harclerode.

The letter is waiting for chairman Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) to take a look, but his spokesman said he will likely let committee Republicans handle the issue.

"I don't know what course of action we are going to take, but generally we defer to the minority party on [these requests]," said spokesman Jim Berard. "This was something that was inserted when the Republicans were in the majority, it was a Republican request and usually these are handled by the individual party."

Berard also mentioned that Young -- who is a member of the committee -- will likely join in on the discussions because he is the original author of the earmark.

Former Washington D.C. police chief Charles Ramsey, the lead police expert on the Jones commission, knows all about community suspicion of the boys in blue. Yet, he told Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the distrust he saw directed at the Iraqi National Police was stunning. Maybe that shouldn't be surprising: corrupt and brutal, and responsive to an Interior Ministry that the commission describes as a "11-story powder keg of factions," the 25,000 member force, Ramsey disclosed, is a stunning 85 percent Shiite and only 13 percent Sunni.

The commission recommends disbanding the Iraqi National Police and reconfiguring it under the Interior Ministry. But commission members didn't really address how any improvement in the police force is possible absent a drastic overhaul in the Interior Ministry, which the Maliki government rejected today. Of course, the ministry is the way it is because Shiites and Sunnis remain unreconciled, so we're back to the central problem of sectarian reconciliation. Until that's magically fixed, it looks like you occupy a country with the Iraqi National Police you have, not the Iraqi National Police you might want or wish to have at a later time.

In this morning's testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the independent commission on Iraqi security forces led by retired General James Jones expressed a great deal of confidence in the Iraqi Army's growing combat capabilities and far less on those of the local police and National Police units.

But Jones wanted to make a broader point as well, one that doesn't directly relate to the state of the Iraqi security forces. Citing the "tactical successes" of the surge, Jones said, it's possible to start moving toward reduced combat missions for U.S. forces in 2008.

It's somewhat beyond the commission's purview, which had to do only with the conditions of the Iraqi military and police. But Jones said the "observable progress" of the Iraqi Army led to "some options" for U.S. forces in Iraq by early 2008, especially due to the (dubious) reduction in violence as the result of the surge. Specifically, the U.S. should -- however slowly -- begin to transition into a "strategic overwatch" role, protecting Iraqi borders and major infrastructure. Even though the Iraqi police face tremendous difficulties and the army won't be ready to act independently for at least a year, the U.S.'s "force footprint should be justified to represent an expeditionary capability and to combat the permanent-force image of an occupying power," Jones testified.

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The FBI rounded up 11 New Jersey officials today, including two mayors (both Dems), a county undersheriff, a city council staffer, one current and one former councilmen, and five school board members, in a bribery scheme involving roofing and insurance contracts.

The FBI set up an elaborate sting to catch the civil servants accused of accepting $150,500 in bribes.

The FBI set up an undercover insurance brokerage company that included undercover agents and two cooperating witnesses, one of whom had previously operated a roofing business, according to a statement released today by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The school board members allegedly took bribes from the cooperating witnesses, and the probe widened when school board members directed the cooperating witnesses to officials in north Jersey, authorities said.

They, in turn, directed investigators to other public officials, authorities said.

The battle to clear Rep. John Doolittle's (R-CA) name continues! The latest combatants were a pair of Doolittle aides who testified before a grand jury Wednesday.

Doolittle's deputy chief of staff Dan Blankenburg had this upbeat takeaway from the experience:

"This morning I testified before the federal grand jury.... Overall, it was a very uneventful experience. I was questioned primarily about the operations of our office. To me, the process represents a necessary and promising step toward the truth."

It seems that Blankenburg is working for the right man. Doolittle responded to the news that half a dozen of his former aides had been contacted by investigators by saying, "I'm glad."

Note: Here's our rundown of Doolittle's entanglements with ex-super lobbyist and current inmate Jack Abramoff.