TPM News

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) confirms this morning's Wall Street Journal story that the administration has changed its tune. From Roll Call (sub. req.):

The Bush administration is “now in a position where they want to talk about a possible compromise” on stalled electronic spying legislation, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters today.

“I think, frankly, they were surprised” that House Democratic leaders were able to pass their preferred version of the bill, which would reauthorize and update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, just before lawmakers left for the two-week spring recess, he said.

Hoyer said he has been in conversations with administration officials and with House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), all of whom have indicated that they are ready to reach a compromise.

From Roll Call (sub. req.):

The House of Representatives and the Justice Department are in negotiations over new protocols and procedures for law enforcement searches of Congressional offices — talks that began in the wake of the controversial May 2006 raid on Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) Capitol Hill office.

An appeals court has ruled that raid was unconstitutional and the Supreme Court on Monday refused a Justice Department request to reconsider that ruling.

According to House General Counsel Irv Nathan, discussions between the House and DOJ are in “preliminary” stages, but “we have put forward concrete proposals.” Nathan said the goal of the discussions — led by his office and by Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher — is to produce “either a set of procedures, a memorandum of understanding or perhaps legislation, that would make clear the rules for law enforcement actions in Congressional offices.” Nathan would not set a timetable for the talks, but said he hoped a resolution could be reached this year.

As we've often noted here, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has frequently gotten into trouble for making statements that were either impolitic or, well, not true. And last week, in his zeal to demonstrate the unreasonableness of liberal critics, he made a statement that was both.

Speaking at Furman University, he said (pdf):

We had a bill go into the Senate. It was debated vigorously. There were some who said we shouldn't have an Intelligence Community. Some have that point of view. Some say the President of the United States violated the process, spied on Americans, should be impeached and should go to jail. I mean, this is democracy, you can say anything you want to say. That was the argument made. The vote was 68 to 29. It's a bill we can live with. It's the right bill.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) is not happy. Sure, many senators -- particularly Feingold and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) -- objected to key aspects of the legislation, including the provision granting retroactive immunity to the telecoms. But the debate was nothing like McConnell describes. And Feingold writes in a letter to McConnell today that he ought to either back up his statement or "issue an immediate correction and an apology."

Feingold concludes:

While all sides of this debate deserve to be heard, to falsely attribute statements to United States Senators serves only to mislead the American people. It also undermines your credibility and that of the position of Director of National Intelligence.

We put a call in to McConnell's office to see what the response is. We'll let you know when we hear back.

You can see Feingold's letter here or read it below.

Update: As Spencer reported over at The Washington Independent last month, McConnell was similarly glib in criticizing those who disagree with him at a talk at Johns Hopkins.

Read More →

When Rush Limbaugh launched his "Operation Chaos" plan which urged Republicans to register as Democrats so that they could vote for Hillary Clinton in Mississippi, he may not have realized the extent of the chaos he was causing. Party-switchers in Mississippi who voted in the presidential primary last week - an unusually high number - will not be allowed to cast ballots in an important congressional contest this week. (Politico)

The U.S. military has struggled throughout the Iraq war to contain blogs, especially those written by soldiers. A 2006 report for the Joint Special Operations University - "Blogs and Military Information Strategy" - proposed that ""hiring a block of bloggers to verbally attack a specific person or promote a specific message may be worth considering." But the plan also conceded that "on the other hand, such operations can have a blowback effect, as witnessed by the public reaction following revelations that the U.S. military had paid journalists to publish stories in the Iraqi press under their own names." (Wired)

The book is now officially closed on the investigation into the CIA leak that outed the identity of agent Valerie Plame. The price tag: $2.58 million, according to the Government Accountability Office. The extensive 45-month investigation by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald involved many prime players of the Bush Administration and the State Department, including I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff who was convicted of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI. (AP)

Read More →

OK, things were said. Patriotism was impugned, fear was mongered, attack ads were run. But that doesn't mean we can't work something out, does it?

The administration is ready to talk turkey, reports The Wall Street Journal. But if the administration "has signaled to Democratic lawmakers it is open to negotiation" about the surveillance bill, it's not entirely clear just yet where the administration is willing to give.

The centerpiece of negotiations, of course, will be whether telecoms will receive retroactive immunity for their participation in the administration's warrantless wiretapping program. Though a number of Senate Dems crossed over to support that, the House has managed to hold firm, twice passing a bill without retroactive immunity. Some Dems are floating "a pared-back version of immunity," such as limiting immunity to certain aspects of the program or capping possible damages. Talks about other aspects of the legislation, for instance concerning judicial oversight of surveillance, might come more easily.

But the reason for the White House's new tack is pretty clear: they used every weapon at their disposal -- presidential statements and press conferences, alarming letters and public appearances by the director of national intelligence and attorney general, time pressures created by the lapsing of legislation or a Congressional recess -- and none of it worked. The House, after all that, still passed a bill a world away from what the administration was pushing for. It was, as the Journal points out, a strikingly different outcome from August, when the White House's squeeze play worked to perfection.

The difference? Well, a number of things. But one thing in particular is the fact that Dems no longer trust the administration's point man, DNI Mike McConnell. From today's Los Angeles Times:

On the eve of a House vote on controversial wiretapping legislation last month, the nation's intelligence director, J. Michael McConnell, convened a secret weekend meeting in northern Virginia with members of the House Intelligence Committee.

The two-day session was designed to promote a calmer atmosphere for discussing an array of intelligence issues, including the nation's eavesdropping laws. But participants said the event ended with a series of acrimonious exchanges.

Democrats accused McConnell of making exaggerated claims and of doing the bidding of the Bush administration, according to officials who attended the event. McConnell bristled at the Democrats' charges, and chastised members of the committee for failing to defend the intelligence community amid a barrage of bad press.

As a wise man once said, "Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."

Earlier this month, we published an excerpt from Eric Lichtblau's new book, Bush's Law, in which Lichtblau wrote that when he'd approached Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), then the ranking member of the House intelligence committee, about the administration's then-still-secret warrantless wiretapping program, she'd shushed him and told him that The New York Times did the right thing by not publishing the story in 2004.

In a post at TPMCafe today, Harman doesn't dispute Lichtblau's telling of the interaction, but does dispute that her position on the program underwent "a dramatic transformation," as Lichtblau writes, after Lichtblau and James Risen of the Times broke the story under the headline "Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts" in December of 2005.

Before the story broke, she writes, she had no clue that "the Administration was violating FISA." She writes that the gang of eight had been briefed on "an NSA effort to track al Qaeda communications using unique access points inside the US telecommunications infrastructure," but that they'd been told nothing about warrantless wiretapping. Her "first inkling that the program was in not compliance with FISA but was conducted pursuant to claims of “inherent” executive power," she writes, came after the story broke, when she was free to consult her staff.

So what does Lichtblau think of this? Well, we'll be interviewing him tomorrow about his book and we'll pop the question.

The Washington Post had an update this weekend on the criminal investigation of Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), whose reports of waste and fraud in Iraq have caused the administration regular headaches. The Post broke word last December that Bowen was the focus of a number of investigations, the most serious of which was a probe by the FBI. Congress Daily first broke word that Bowen was under investigation by the FBI.

Now the grand jury is mostly focused on whether Bowen and his deputy Ginger Cruz (a wiccan who has allegedly spooked staff with threats of hexes) illegally viewed staff emails, the Post reports. There seems to be no dispute that Bowen and Cruz actually viewed the staff emails. Where there's a difference of opinion is why:

"Bowen and Cruz were looking at e-mails to find out who was loyal and who was not," said a former SIGIR official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

Berenson said senior officials reviewed employee e-mails "as part of an authorized internal investigation into possible press leaks. SIGIR policy permits such e-mail reviews and all employees are notified, regularly reminded and trained on these policies."

Roll Call reports (sub. req.) that the court has rebuffed the Justice Department's request for an appeal of last summer's decision.

That decision by the D.C. Court of Appeals in Rep. William Jefferson's (D-LA) case found that Constitutional protections meant that the feds could only search a Congressional office if the lawmaker was consulted. The lawmaker would also have the right to review materials. So instead of the feds raiding an office and taking material relevant to the investigation, the court suggested that FBI agents could lock down the office, and then allow the lawmaker to set aside Constitutionally protected documents. A judge would decide whether the records could be taken.

Because of the apparent strength of the feds' case against Jefferson, the decision is not likely to strike much of a blow there. But prosecutors and watchdogs were dismayed with a ruling that was a definite blow to public corruption prosecutions in general. As CREW's Melanie Sloan put it, "If I were Ted Stevens, and I had some evidence of wrongdoing, I'd be putting it in my Congressional office, because the court basically just issued a blanket cover against searches.... It's such a help to any corrupt members of Congress, since it offers so much more protection than was previously offered."

The Justice Department had argued in its request for an appeal that the decision "'threatens to complicate numerous ongoing and future investigations' and hinder the ability to use electronic surveillance" as a means of investigating lawmakers.

Rep. Rick Renzi's (R-AZ) lawyers have already signaled that the decision will play a role in their defense. And you can be sure that it will play a role in every prosecution of a lawmaker from here on out. Does the decision mean that prosecutors can't use wiretaps against lawmakers? Does it mean that the feds can't speak to legislative aides?

Yup, more quality time with the family it is. From the AP:

The Bush administration's top housing official, under criminal investigation and intense pressure from Democratic critics, announced Monday he is quitting.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson said his resignation will take effect on April 18....

The HUD chief made no direct mention of [the criminal investigation] in his resignation statement. Explaining his move, he said: "There comes a time when one must attend more diligently to personal and family matters. Now is such a time for me."

He did not take questions or elaborate on the family reasons he cited for the decision. The group assembled to hear Jackson's statement applauded and he left the room.

His resignation letter to the president was similarly brief.

Update: Here's Jackson's statement this morning in full:

On April 18th, I will step down as Secretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

There comes a time when one must attend more diligently to personal and family matters.

Now is such a time for me.

I have devoted more than 30 years of my life to improving housing opportunities for all Americans regardless of income, skin color or spoken accent. My life’s work has been to build better communities that families are proud to call home.

Seven years ago, President Bush gave me an extraordinary opportunity to serve HUD and the nation. As the son of a lead smelter and nurse-midwife, and as the last of 12 children, never did I imagine I’d serve America in such a way.

I am truly grateful for the opportunity.

During my time here, I have sought to make America a better place to live, work and raise a family. We have helped families keep their homes. We have transformed public housing. We have reduced chronic homelessness. And, we have preserved affordable housing and increased minority homeownership.

We have done this together. I take great pride in working alongside some of the most dedicated civil servants in America. The hardworking people at HUD make a difference in the lives of thousands of Americans daily.

Marcia and I want to thank you for the many acts of kindness we have received over the last seven years.

May God bless you and may God continue to bless America.

Murat Kurnaz, a German resident, was captured in Pakistan in 2001 as a suspected terrorist and imprisoned for two months at a U.S. base in Afghanistan. Kurnaz insists that he was hung from a ceiling for five days and was checked periodically by doctors who determined that the torture could continue. Kurnaz, who was eventually freed (the U.S. military gave no reason why) also alleges that he was systematically tortured again in 2005. (Washington Post)

Within hours of its launch, the Bush administration's eavesdropping plan that the NSA implemented in October 2001, generated protests and sharp legal debate. Eric Lichtblau's new book, Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice, also reveals that within 12 hours of the program's launch, FBI technicians "stumbled" upon it, creating a "firestorm of anxiety." (New York Times)

In 2003, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) co-sponsored a law that would limit the role of money in politics by expanding the federal matching system for presidential candidates. But in 2006 and 2007, he refused to add his name to similar laws. (Boston Globe)

A report by Albany County District Attorney P. David Soares reveals that Darren Dopp, Spitzer's former communications director, has provided strong evidence that former Governor Eliot Spitzer (D-NY) directly ordered him ("in a profanity-laced exchange" ) to give reporters records on Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno's use of state aircraft. Soares believes that had Spitzer not resigned, he could have been indicted. (AP)

Read More →