TPM News

The gang's all here!

Really, can you have a botched cover-up without Alberto Gonzales involved? And how can there be a torture scandal without David Addington's great big mug?

The New York Times reports today that Gonzales and Addington were among the White House lawyers (Harriet Miers was also among them) who advised the CIA on what to do with the torture tapes. What's not entirely clear, however, is what they advised to the CIA to do.

The story up until now had been at least somewhat simple. White House and Justice Department lawyers had been unanimous in their advice: do not destroy the tapes. But those in the camp of Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA operations chief who gave the order to destroy the tapes, have said that the White House's advice wasn't unequivocal ("They never told us 'Hell, no'"). For lack of any clear directives or advice from on high, Rodriguez had them destroyed.

But now the story gets murkier:

One former senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the matter said there had been “vigorous sentiment” among some top White House officials to destroy the tapes. The former official did not specify which White House officials took this position, but he said that some believed in 2005 that any disclosure of the tapes could have been particularly damaging after revelations a year earlier of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Some other officials assert that no one at the White House advocated destroying the tapes. Those officials acknowledged, however, that no White House lawyer gave a direct order to preserve the tapes or advised that destroying them would be illegal.

The Times can't hope to sort all this out, only reporting that there are "conflicting accounts." Thankfully, Newsweek has reported that there is "an extensive paper—or e-mail—trail" of all this back and forth. So at least investigators have that going for them (of course, it depends on who's investigating).

And to add to the murk, ass-saving, and back-biting, the Times reports that the CIA lawyers who gave Rodriguez the legal green light didn't really mean it to be the green light. After he was given written advice by two lawyers, Steven Hermes and Robert Eatinger, that "he had the authority to destroy the tapes and that the destruction would violate no laws," he went ahead. But:

Current and former officials said the two lawyers informed the C.I.A.’s top lawyer, John A. Rizzo, about the legal advice they had provided. But officials said Mr. Rodriguez did not inform either Mr. Rizzo or Porter J. Goss, the C.I.A. director, before he sent the cable to destroy the tapes.

“There was an expectation on the part of those providing legal guidance that additional bases would be touched,” said one government official with knowledge of the matter. “That didn’t happen.”

Robert S. Bennett, a lawyer for Mr. Rodriguez, insisted that his client had done nothing wrong and suggested that Mr. Rodriguez had been authorized to order the destruction of the tapes. “He had a green light to destroy them,” Mr. Bennett said.

So to sum up: after three years of apparently contradictory and equivocal advice from both the CIA and top levels of the government, Rodriguez finally destroyed the tapes after receiving legal advice that he could. But the lawyers who told him that say he should have touched "additional bases" before he did. And none of this explains why the CIA and the administration kept the tapes secret for three years, possibly criminally obstructing multiple investigations.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson is a man who values loyalty.

Back in 2006, he aired his philosophy for awarding HUD contracts:

"Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president? Logic says they don't get the contract. That's the way I believe."

Of course, things have unraveled for Jackson since then. A Congressional investigation and inspector general probe launched in the wake of his comments. And now a federal grand jury is investigating whether he lied to investigators when he told them that he doesn't "touch contracts."

Evidence is mounting that Jackson did indeed touch contracts -- in particular, contracts for his friends and, the National Journal reports today, companies that owe him large sums of money.

And here's where loyalty comes back into play. Late last month, a senior HUD official abruptly resigned from his post, effective January 4th. The official, Orlando Cabrera, gave no other explanation than that he was leaving to "spend time with my wife and kids."

Today's Journal gives a good idea of why he might have left:

Orlando Cabrera, the outgoing assistant secretary for public and Indian housing, was among those questioned. When contacted by National Journal, Cabrera acknowledged that investigators had interviewed him. "I have been questioned as a witness," he said, "and I have been told that I am not a target of the investigation." Cabrera and Jackson are not on speaking terms. HUD insiders say that the secretary was angry with Cabrera for speaking to investigators and considers him "a snitch."

Read More →

We may finally get some answers about how Rep. Don Young (R-AK) managed to change the text of a bill after it was passed by Congress in order to benefit a major campaign contributor.

In a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) today, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) called for the creation of a select committee comprised of both representatives and senators to investigate the miraculous change to the 2005 transportation bill.

To review the circumstances of Young's extra-Constitutional wizardry: Young, then the chairman of the House transportation committee, inserted a $10 million earmark to widen I-75 in Florida's Collier and Lee Counties in the 2005 bill. The project was supported by local officials. That was the version passed by Congress. But because of Young's unique position, he was able to make a crucial change: the bill later signed by the President had different language, directing the $10 million to an I-75 interchange at Coconut Road. That project had been opposed by local officials, but aggressively backed by real estate mogul Daniel Aronoff, who'd thrown a $40,000 fundraiser for Young that year.

This August, we plowed into the 800-page 2005 bill to see whether there had been any other substantial changes. We found that out of approximately 6,370 earmarks, Young's had been the only to undergo such a change. It's unclear how Young managed that feat, and he's refused to answer reporter's questions about it.

Back in September, the non-partisan watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense filed a complaint with the House ethics committtee about the change. But as expected, the infamously inert committee has done nothing.

Currently pending on the floor of the Senate is a bill that offers a number of corrections to the 2005 bill; among them is a measure that would undo Young's change, freeing up the $10 million for the original interchange project which local officials wanted. It's unclear who authored that provision.

But today, Sen. Coburn (R-OK) said that he'd object to the passage of any bill that corrects the Cocount Road language without a "full and open investigation":

Read More →

If you thought Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) was going to let the berries in his state go unresearched and the vistas of alternative uses for salmon unexplored just because he's under federal investigation for past earmarks (among other things), then you thought wrong. Roll Call (sub. req.) reports that Stevens pulled down $88 million in earmarks in this year's omnibus spending bill. Among them:

According to a preliminary review of the bill, Stevens is listed as inserting 17 earmarks into the bill, worth more than $25 million. The earmarks would cover a variety of projects, including $824,000 for alternative salmon products, $975,000 for berry research, $332,000 for “new crop opportunities,” $133,000 for native plant commercialization, $700,000 for the Mountain View revitalization project in Anchorage and $7.5 million for the Denali Commission to undertake transportation infrastructure projects in the state.

Unfortunately, there appears to be no earmark this year to create another Salmon-30-Salmon (see above).

Maybe his last letter got lost in the mail?

In a bit of epistolary throat-clearing, House oversight committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) wrote Attorney General Michael Mukasey today to reiterate his request two weeks ago. The White House has arbitrarily blocked former Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald from turning over records of his interviews during the Valerie Plame leak investigation of White House officials, including the President, Waxman wrote then, but it's your call, Mikey, not theirs, on whether to fork it over. Apparently Waxman got no response.

Waxman adds helpfully in his letter today (which you can read below) that since Scooter Libby has dropped his appeal, "there remains no further pending litigation associated with the Fitzgerald investigation."

He concludes: "I urge you to cooperate with Congress’ investigation into these unanswered questions."

Read More →

And the judicial branch enters the fray.

Much to the administration's chagrin, Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. has ordered a hearing on the CIA's destruction of the torture tapes for this Friday at 11 AM.

Back in 2005, Kennedy, a Clinton appointee, had ordered the Bush administration to safeguard "all evidence and information regarding the torture, mistreatment, and abuse of detainees now at the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay."

After news of the CIA tapes broke, lawyers in the case, who represent 12 detainees at Guantanamo, asked for a hearing on the issue. The administration, predictably, argued against having one.

The administration's trump card is that Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the Al-Qaeda members whose brutal interrogations were videotaped in 2002, were being held in CIA black sites overseas -- not in Guantanamo. The existence of the CIA's black sites weren't publicly known until later that year (around the same time the tapes were destroyed), so the judge and the detainees' lawyers didn't know about them when the order came down.

But apparently the judge doesn't consider this a closed issue.

The Brent Wilkes quest for vindication continues!

A judge refused Monday to grant a new trial for an ex-Poway defense contractor convicted of bribing disgraced ex-Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham in order to land more than $80 million in government contracts.

U.S. District Judge Larry Burns told the attorney for Brent Wilkes that even though someone from the prosecution team leaked a grand jury indictment to reporters two weeks before it was issued, there was no prejudice to the defendant during his trial....

Burns told defense attorney Mark Geragos that only four of the 15 sworn jurors had read anything about the case, and all of it was after Wilkes was indicted....

"You've been bamboozled. I've been bamboozled. Mr. Wilkes has been bamboozled," Geragos told the judge.

The bamboozling is far from over. Wilkes will appeal, he says, and will face trial in the new year for allegedy bribing his buddy Dusty Foggo, the former #3 at the CIA.

Senator and presidential contender Chris Dodd's (D-CT) threat to filibuster a bill giving immunity to telecom companies that helped the government surveil Americans prevailed Monday, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to postpone the vote on the measure until after the winter recess. The bill would have freed telecoms like AT&T and Verizon from 40-odd lawsuits pending against them in federal court. (Washington Post)

Mike Huckabee, author of the 1988 book Kids Who Kill: Confronting Our Culture of Violence, is facing new scrutiny over allegations that one of his sons was “involved in the hanging of a stray dog at a Boy Scout camp in 1998.” At the time, many people called for an investigation of the incident but the director of Arkansas's state police told Newsweek that then Governor Huckabee's chief of staff and personal lawyer pressured him to write a letter officially denying the local prosecutor's request. (Newsweek)

During his leadership of Bain Capital, Mitt Romney helped investors utilize shell companies in two offshore tax havens to avoid paying their share of U.S. taxes. While the candidate received no personal tax benefits, his tax scheme, which included opening a company in Bermuda that had no office or staff, helped attract billions more investment dollars and increased his personal profits. (LA Times)

Read More →

Abu Zubaydah was:

A) A high-ranking Al Qaeda operative who largely confounded U.S. interrogators with his literary and tactical genius until they submitted him to waterboarding and other forms of torture. After that, he provided key information that likely preempted future attacks.

B) A low-ranking and mentally ill Al Qaeda operative who provided valuable information under gentle questioning, but whose confessions made under torture were useless. Much of the threat information he provided was "crap."

A is the CIA's version (and the President's). B is the FBI's. And in today's Washington Post, Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus walk through the competing profiles. Zubaydah, remember, was one of the two detainees whose interrogations appeared on the destroyed CIA tapes.

It's clear off the bat that the version of events provided by John Kiriakou, the former CIA agent who launched something like a PR blitz last week, is not quite right. In his telling, Zubaydah held out until waterboarded; after only 35 seconds of that, he gave in and "from that day on, he answered every question."

By contrast, both CIA and FBI agents tell the Post that he provided valuable information before he was waterboarded. And there wasn't just one session: "Instead, [other former and current officials] said, harsh tactics used on him at a secret detention facility in Thailand went on for weeks or, depending on the account, even months."

And then you get to the real discrepancies.

A CIA agent says that Zubaydah was a "wily adversary" under questioning who seemed "very selective in what he protected and what he gave up."

Retired FBI agent Daniel Coleman, "who led an examination of documents after Abu Zubaida's capture in early 2002 and worked on the case," responded that Zubaydah was talking before he was waterboarded, but the CIA agents couldn't believe that he knew so little.

Coleman, in fact, emerges as an effective foil to Kiriakou (who, incidentally, participated in the capture of Zubaydah but wasn't present during the torture) in the piece. Coleman says that Zubaydah was a "safehouse keeper" for Al Qaeda who had suffered a serious head injury years earlier.

Zubaydah's mental instability was manifest in his diary, Coleman says, which was "written in three distinct personalities -- one younger, one older and one the same age as Abu Zubaida. The book was full of flowery and philosophical meanderings, and made little mention of terrorism or al-Qaeda."

Former CIA Director George Tenet, by contrast, writes in his book that Zubaydah used a "sophisticated literary device to express himself" in the diary.

And you get the impression that Tenet's reading is typical of the way the CIA agents tended to see Zubaydah:

Coleman said reports of Abu Zubaida's statements during his early, traditional interrogation were "consistent with who he was and what he would possibly know." He and other officials said that materials seized from Abu Zubaida's house and other locations, including names, telephone numbers and computer laptops, provided crucial information about al-Qaeda and its network.

But, Coleman and other law enforcement officials said, CIA officials concluded to the contrary that Abu Zubaida was a major player, and they saw any lack of information as evidence that he was resisting interrogation. Much of the threat information provided by Abu Zubaida, Coleman said, "was crap."

"There's an agency mind-set that there was always some sort of golden apple out there, but there just isn't, especially with guys like him," Coleman said.

Note: This tidbit reported by Newsweek last week seems worth noting here:

[The interrogation of Zubaydah] sparked an internal battle within the U.S. intelligence community after FBI agents angrily protested the aggressive methods that were used. In addition to waterboarding, Zubaydah was subjected to sleep deprivation and bombarded with blaring rock music by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. One agent was so offended he threatened to arrest the CIA interrogators, according to two former government officials directly familiar with the dispute.

Update: Here's Ron Suskind, the author of The One Percent Doctrine and who first reported what FBI agents were saying about Zubaydah, talking to Salon last year.

The White House may have lost a battle, but they have not lost the war.

For nearly two years, D.C. watchdogs Judicial Watch and Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington have been battling in court for Secret Service records of visits to the Bush White House and the Vice President's Office. The first request was for Jack Abramoff's visits, but they also set out to discover how often his associates and various conservative religious leaders had visited. Did they know what they were in for?

Over time, the White House has tried various legal theories to block the release. There was the imposing "mosaic theory," whereby seemingly innocuous information, such as visits to the White House, could prove a national security threat when combined with other seemingly innocuous information. And there was the Vice President's secret agreement with the Secret Service that even though the Secret Service makes and keeps the visitor records, they're not really Secret Service records (even though they'd been treated that way in the past), they're White House records, and thus not subject to FOIA. Oh, and there was the Vice President's order to destroy the records. And on and on.

Today, CREW had a good day in court, with a federal judge deciding that the secret agreement was bunk and that the Secret Service records really were public records. And there was also a partial victory. The judge denied CREW's motion to declare that the Secret Service could not destroy its White House visitor records once it had transferred copies to the White House; but because the judge said the records are public records, the White House now cannot destroy them without the say-so of the National Archives and Records Administration. And when you want to destroy documents, you really don't want any red tape, do you?

Read More →