TPM News

Over the course of the federal probe in Alaska, it's become clear that oil services company Veco dabbled in shady dealings -- some connected to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) and his son Ben, a former state senator. Two top executives, who've pled guilty to bribing state lawmakers, have also played general contractor for Sen. Stevens and doled out $240,000 in "consulting" fees to his son. Veco has contributed more than $70,000 to Stevens' campaigns over the years (making the company his second largest donor), and $25,000 more to his political action committee.

But what has Veco fetched in return?

As easy as it has been to document Alaska lawmakers who've fed their campaign funds and lined their pockets with Veco money, it's less obvious how the company has directly benefited in return. Here's a glimpse at what Sen. Stevens has done directly for the company. Back in 2003 The Los Angeles Times ran a story about family ties amongst lawmakers and corporations (via Nexis):

VECO had helped build a $70-million pipeline for Pakistan, but the government was slow to pay. As it happened, Pakistan desperately needed congressional help on a trade issue, and Ted Stevens was positioned to block the necessary legislation. Before long, Pakistan's representatives in Washington concluded that their trade bill would go nowhere until Pakistan settled with VECO and its partners. Pakistan agreed to arbitration. The bill sailed through.

Read More →

There are about 200 Foreign Service Officers in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. How many of them do you figure are fluent in Arabic? The question was posed in today's State Department press briefing, and here's the answer:

Question: How may Arabic speakers with 3/3 levels of proficiency are currently serving at Embassy Baghdad?

Answer: We currently have ten Foreign Service Officers (including the Ambassador) at Embassy Baghdad at or above the 3 reading / 3 speaking level in Arabic. An additional five personnel at Embassy Baghdad have tested at or above the 3 level in speaking. A 3/3 indicates a general professional fluency level.


Good to know that one of them is Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Crocker sent a cable to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on May 31 complaining that the Embassy does "not have the Department's best people."

And the federal investigation into Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) continues to gain steam:

Former Capitol Hill aides to Sen. Ted Stevens are being questioned by the FBI as part of an investigation into the senator's relationship with a wealthy contractor.

A lawyer close to the case, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still under way, confirmed the FBI had recently questioned former Stevens aides about Bill Allen, a contractor who has pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska legislators.

CIA general counsel designate John A Rizzo wasn't willing to say much during an open session before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence today, but he did make one major admission: he had not objected to the Department of Justice’s controversial August 1, 2002 memorandum defining torture as equivalent to “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”... except when he did, albeit two years later.

Not that he thought his 2002 decision was wrong: “I did not, certainly, object,” Rizzo told Senator J. Rockefeller. “My reaction was it was an aggressively expansive reading but I cannot say I had any specific objections to any specific parts of it.” However, Rizzo added that he “did agree” with the Justice Department’s 2004 revision of the definition of torture – which overrode the very 2002 memorandum to which Rizzo didn’t “specifically object.”

Several senators were distressed and confused by Rizzo’s subsequent embrace of DoJ’s 2004 revision on the definition of torture. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) implied that Rizzo had told Levin in private that he had in fact defended the 2002 memo’s extreme definition of torture. “Did you not tell me that you thought that was a reasonable statement?” Sen. Levin asked. “If I did Senator, I meant to put it in a different context,” Rizzo replied.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked Rizzo if he now thought he should have objected in 2002 to what Rizzo himself called the DoJ’s “overbroad” definition of torture. “I honestly can’t say I should have objected at the time,” Rizzo said. Sen. Wyden said he found Rizzo’s statement “unfortunate.”

When a Justice Department official asked eight U.S. attorneys for their resignations last December, most of them went quietly (initially at least), agreeing to resign on relatively short notice and with no public fuss. But one U.S. attorney, Carol Lam in San Diego, had contentious private exchanges with Department officials about her end date.

An email released to Congress last week shows just how heated those discussions got. When Lam delayed announcing her date of resignation -- wanting more time to tend to several high profile cases, the expanded Duke Cunningham investigation among them --, Justice Department officials prepared to have the president fire her immediately.

The email was amongst those (pdf) released by the Justice Department to Congress last week. Writing to William Kelley, an attorney in the White House counsel's office, Kyle Sampson, Alberto Gonzales' former chief of staff and the orchestrator of the U.S. attorney firings, wrote:

FYI – our USA in SD is refusing to resign (though we’ve given her until 5pm eastern); recommendation that she be removed immediately should be over to you by the end of the day.


The January 16th email was written just as the U.S. attorney firings controversy was beginning to simmer. On January 12th, The San Diego Union-Tribune first reported Lam's firing. The next day, the paper quoted the head of the San Diego FBI office as saying "I guarantee politics is involved” in Lam's firing. And on January 16th, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) made her way to the Senate floor to announce her concern and suspicion about the U.S. attorney firings (which had just become public).

If Lam had not announced her resignation that day, apparently, the Justice Department would have moved to have her fired -- something that can only occur by presidential order. Lam, however, gave in and announced on January 16th that she would be stepping down February 15th.

The announcement followed a number of apparently acrimonious discussions Lam had with Michael Elston, the chief of staff to the deputy attorney general. As Lam detailed in written testimony to Congress, Elston had warned Lam since early January that her requests for more time based on "case-related considerations" was "'not being received positively'" at the Department. He told Lam to “stop thinking in terms of the cases in the office," that she had to depart in "a matter of weeks, not months," and that "these instructions were 'coming from the very highest levels of the government.'"

The email released last week shows just how close the "highest levels of the government" came to firing Lam when she insisted on an "orderly transition" (her words) for pending investigations.

It's clear that the Justice Department was in a hurry to have Lam and the other fired U.S. attorneys step down. What's not clear is why.

Read More →

If you're a CEO looking to help preserve fish habitats and catch a 60 pound salmon in one weekend, Bob Penney is your man.

He is also old friends with Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK). The Anchorage Daily News reported this weekend that Penney testified before a grand jury in Alaska a few weeks ago as part of the ongoing federal inquiry into corruption in the state.

Penney is a fresh face in the probe that has grabbed Stevens, and had already touched the senator's son, Ben Stevens; several other state lawmakers; and two top oil services executives at Veco, both of whom have pled guilty to federal corruption charges.

The longtime Alaskan entrepreneur is known for founding the Ted Stevens Kenai River Classic over ten years ago to help protect the sports-fishing river that is home to a wild salmon run. The weekend event now draws politicians from as far away as Washington and executives from donors like Veco, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Shell.

Read More →

Across the Atlantic, stories continue to churn around the U.K. defense giant BAE Systems' alleged payment of $2 billion in kickbacks over 20 years to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi Ambassador to the United States, in a massive U.K.-Saudi arms deal in the 1980s. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's panel on bribery is scheduled today to inquire why the British government abruptly ended its Serious Fraud Office inquiry into BAE last year. And if that doesn't provide enough grist for the story mill, later this month -- and probably this week -- U.K. Attorney General Lord Goldsmith will try to explain to parliament his role in the BAE scandal.

So why the comparative silence over here? After all, from 1983 to 2005 -- during the period in which he allegedly received BAE's bribes -- Bandar was one of the most powerful individuals in Washington. And it was Riggs Bank, the collapsed, CIA-tied Washington financial powerhouse, where BAE allegedly sent money to Bandar, despite the sale proceeding from London and Riyadh. Finally, BAE is trying to purchase Armor Holdings, a leading U.S. defense firm that produces vehicle armor for Humvees and Strykers, putting a company allegedly involved in bribery in the regulatory crosshairs.

For starters, it's not clear that the Justice Department in fact has opened an investigation into BAE. The U.K.'s Serious Fraud Office has reportedly accused BAE of bribery in six countries, which should be enough to prompt an inquiry into whether BAE is in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a law banning companies that pay bribes from the U.S. market. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that an investigation has begun, but the Guardian reported yesterday only that the Justice Department is "on the verge" of investigating BAE. (DoJ hasn't clarified matters to TPMmuckraker.) What's more, even if the Justice Department does investigate BAE, that's no guarantee that it can bring a case against the company -- and thereby reveal details about Bandar's role in the scandal.

Read More →

As the Anchorage Daily News reported yesterday, a federal grand jury has been investigating Sen. Ted Stevens' (R-AK) ties to the corrupt Alaskan oil company, Veco. Both the former CEO and vice president have pled guilty to corruption charges.

But just as surprising as the fact of the investigation is the location of it: far away from Alaska, in Washington, D.C.

The heavy lifting in the probe so far has been done by a grand jury in Anchorage, Alaska. That investigation has resulted in a number of guilty pleas by executives and indictments of state lawmakers.

But the existence of the second grand jury raises the question of why prosecutors split the investigation. ADN went to the experts and came up with a number of theories:

Legal experts in corruption cases said that while it's unusual for prosecutors to use grand juries in separate jurisdictions in an investigation, they may have sound reasons. The experts also cautioned that even though prosecutors may be presenting evidence to a grand jury, that doesn't mean crimes have been committed.

Paul Butler, a law professor at George Washington University and a former federal attorney who prosecuted a U.S. senator and several FBI agents, said it could simply be a matter of convenience for witnesses.

Jules Epstein, a law professor at the Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Del., and a criminal defense lawyer, said the grand juries could be investigating separate, unlinked crimes.

Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, said prosecutors might bring a case against a popular elected official in Washington to avoid being "home-courted."


Given that witnesses in the probe have been flying out from Alaska to testify, I think it's fair to discount the "convenience" explanation.

But that prosecutors might have chosen D.C. as the venue to make their case against Stevens -- and perhaps his son, Ben, a former state senator, who's been implicated in charging documents -- makes a whole lot of sense. There's simply not a more powerful figure in Alaska (or perhaps in the history of Alaskan politics) than Sen. Stevens, who's served in the Senate since 1968, and who even, back in 1958, played a role in shepherding Alaska to statehood while working at the Interior Department.

Read More →

Four years after the invasion, five months after the surge began and one day into a new anti-al-Qaeda offensive in Diyala Province, and Iraq is "at risk" of becoming a failed state, according to an index compiled by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund For Peace.

A ranking list of what the two organizations specify as the criteria for failed statehood -- factionalized elites, refugees and displaced persons, the delegitimation of the state, external intervention and eight others -- place Iraq as the second-most state at risk of failure. That's ahead of such failed-state perennials as Somalia, the Ivory Coast, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The only state considered worse off than Iraq is Sudan, where the Khartoum government is pursuing a genocide in Darfur. Perhaps as ominous: Afghanistan is number eight on the failed-state index.

Read More →

Welcome back to the heady nine months after 9/11, when the Bush administration feverishly debated what constituted acceptable treatment for al-Qaeda detainees. After a nearly six-year cycle of impunity, scandal and retrenchment, the CIA is again seeking guidance from the White House and the Justice Department about the legality of a detention and interrogation regime with which it has grown increasingly uncomfortable. And a congressional nomination hearing this afternoon for the agency's proposed top lawyer should give senators insight into what the new rules for interrogation will be.

Many within the CIA, for years, have been uncomfortable with the guidance it received from the Justice Department about interrogations. In August 2002, the Office of Legal Counsel famously ruled that nothing short of "organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" constituted torture, thereby blessing as legal interrogation techniques -- like waterboarding, which simulates drowning -- that fall short of that redefined standard. The worry within CIA was that, inevitably, word of the agency's expanded interrogations would leak out, prompting an Abu Ghraib-style outrage and leaving CIA interrogators vulnerable to prosecution by the very Justice Department that initially blessed the new regime. That fear compounded in late 2004, when the OLC revised its definition of torture without clearly defining it, further troubling CIA interrogators.

Nor has the White House resolved the confusion.

Read More →

TPMLivewire