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Enter the lobbyists! The News Press reports that a lawyer who represents the lobbying firm that originally pushed for the Coconut Road interchange is continuing the effort. In a recent letter, the lawyer, Patrick Reilly, argues that the locally unpopular $10 million project ought to stay the way it is, Constitution be damned.

Reilly's working on behalf of the Potomac Partners, the D.C. firm hired by real estate mogul Daniel Aronoff to secure the funding for the Florida project. Aronoff also wisely helped raise Rep. Don Young (R-AK) $40,000 in 2005. His combined efforts paid off.

Interestingly, Reilly doesn't dispute in his letter that the earmark's language was changed after Congress passed the 2005 transportation bill.

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According to a Senate source who requested anonymity, Admiral Mike McConnell was "inaccurate" in his account last week of a FISA Court ruling necessitating a delay in spying on Iraqi insurgents who kidnapped U.S. troops.

Last week, we reported that a different government source disputed McConnell's account. McConnell told the House intelligence committee that a probable-cause determination for the insurgents under an emergency FISA warrant -- in which surveillance is allowed to occur for 72 hours before judicial review -- resulted in a 12-hour lag before the spying took place. McConnell placed the blame for the delay on the shoulders of a still-secret FISA Court ruling this spring. But the earlier government source told us that the delay was more accurately attributed to overly bureaucratic procedures put in place by the Justice Department for getting the emergency warrants.

The Senate source goes farther than the government source did. The Senate source would not specify McConnell's inaccuracy, citing classification restrictions, but according to the source, both Democrats and Republicans are frustrated over McConnell's abridged citation of the insurgent-kidnapping episode. Democrats believe McConnell isn't being truthful, and Republicans want to air the matter further in order to help make the Protect America Act amending FISA permanent. "Both sides are not able to be articulate on this subject," the source says, adding only that the actual event at issue is "complicated."

In that case, advantage McConnell. Tomorrow morning, he goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it'll be interesting to see whether he repeats the claim. It probably helps him that former Justice Department FISA official James Baker won't testify on the same panel as he does. (Baker will testify on a second panel, as administration officials don't speak on the same Judiciary panels as non-officials.) Last week, before the House intelligence committee, Baker said it would take only one phone call to secure an emergency FISA warrant of the sort that McConnell said took 12 hours in the case of the insurgent kidnapping. Were Baker and McConnell appearing side by side, it might be easier to get to the bottom of the kidnapping episode -- even in open session.

This weekend The Washington Post followed up on the Office of Special Counsel's investigation into Rachel Palouse, the young US attorney from Minnesota whose management style caused three top prosecutors to resign to lower-level posts in protest.

News broke last week that the independent Office of Special Counsel was looking into Paulose for how she "mishandled classified information, retaliated against those who crossed her, and made racist remarks about a support staff employee," the Post reports.

The story also notes that those in the office she heads still do not like working for her:

In addition, an internal Justice Department audit completed last month said her employees gave her very low marks, alleging that she treats subordinates harshly and lacks the requisite experience for the job, said several sources familiar with the audit. Her performance review was so poor that Kenneth E. Melson, head of the department's Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, took the unusual step of meeting with her in Minnesota several weeks ago, two sources said.

This is the second time someone from the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys had to meet with Paulose in a heated moment. Right before the major staff shake up in her office, the Department of Justice sent a representative to Minnesota to try to mediate a settlement before four top managers quit. It didn't work.

The Iraqi Zapruder has arrived. Only his tape indicts Blackwater rather than absolves it.

Over the weekend, the Iraqi Interior Ministry released details of its investigation into the shooting incident last Sunday involving operatives of the private security firm. In addition to eyewitness testimony, the ministry says it has a videotape of Blackwater guards opening fire on civilians at Baghdad's Nisour Square after a nearby car failed to heed a traffic policeman's order to stop. The tape, recorded by cameras at the nearby National Police Command Center, is the first known documentation of the shooting, which resulted in the deaths of 11 Iraqis and threw gasoline on the explosive issue of legal immunity for U.S. security contractors.

As predicted, Iraqi officials have backed off their demand that the State Department expel Blackwater from Iraq. (Blackwater guards most U.S. civilian potentates, who don't want to see their bodyguards kicked out of Iraq for protecting them.) But the Interior Ministry said it will refer the Blackwater case to Iraqi courts for criminal charges.

That creates another test for U.S.-Iraqi relations: before disbanding in 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority passed an edict, known as Order 17, absolving U.S. security contractors from Iraqi prosecution, thereby depriving Iraq of any ability to rein in security firms accused of lawless behavior. If a Blackwater prosecution goes forward, the U.S. will be acknowledging that Order 17 is annulled, and security firms will be subject to prosecution from an Iraqi legal system that most outside observers acknowledge is, at best, in its infancy. To put the U.S.'s choice starkly, it's this: either accept a kangaroo court or humiliate the U.S.'s alleged partners in the Iraqi government.

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This weekend papers on both coasts took a look at Judge Michael Mukasey's long record on the bench to conclude that the administration picked a fierce, independent judge to replace Gonzales. Mukasey has a record of coming down hard on the guilty, particularly those convicted of white collar crimes. And he has ruled against powerful figures, including the President's uncle. Mukasey also has a conservative perspective. At this point, both papers seem to agree, competence is a step in the right direction. (NY Times, LA Times)

If Mukasey has a strong record of independence and rigid adherence to the law, then expect his treatment of detainees in post-9/11 cases to be a key item of inquiry by Senate Democrats. In particular, The New York Times takes a look at a once-secret transcript from a 2001 trial in which Mukasey showed little interest in claims that a defendant rounded up after 9/11 had been beaten by authorities while in custody. Though a 21 year old Jordanian immigrant terror suspect in his court complained of bruises from a beating while in custody (later medical exams revealed their presence), Mukasey noted, “he looks fine to me” and then ordered that he be held indefinitely. (NY Times)

Exactly where can Blackwater legally operate these days? The private security firm, whose license with the Iraqi government was suspended last week, now has permit problems in the U.S. Two former Blackwater employees have pleaded guilty in Greenville, N.C. to weapons charges and are now assisting in a federal investigation into whether Blackwater failed to obtain permits for dozens of automatic weapons used at its training grounds. The feds also want to know if Blackwater was shipping weapons to Iraq without the required permits. (McClatchy)

Why would Ray Hunt (of Hunt Oil) -- one of the president’s staunchest supporters and a member of the Bush’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board -- sign an oil deal with the Kurds that undermines an oil revenue sharing program central to achieving a peaceful political settlement in Iraq? Paul Krugman argues that Hunt's move signals that the surge has failed. Meanwhile, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is demanding a congressional investigation to see what Bush may have known about the deal and whether Hunt is trading on inside information. (Washington Post, New York Times)

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Who knew having the state help pay for a transatlantic hunting trip could come back to haunt you?

This past Thursday, Virginia's attorney general unsealed indictments against three former top officials from the state's Game and Wildlife Fisheries Agency. William Woodfin Jr., the agency's former director, and former game wardens Michael Caison and Terry Bradbery face a combined five counts of misspending government funds.

Officially, the indictments don’t spell out the circumstances under which the men misused the funds; it only states that the crimes occurred sometime between 2003 and 2004. However, a state audit released in 2005 was highly critical of the general infighting and cronyism amid the department’s top officials. The audit harped on one spending item in particular: an African safari.

Okay, so the department didn’t entirely finance a safari trip to Zimbabwe for Woodfin, Caison and Bradbery. Rather, Dan Hoffler --a former chairman of the department’s oversight board-- paid for most of the trip, suggesting that it would be a learning experience (and Hoffler came along too). But the three men did use state credit cards to pick up a few of the extra costs along the way, such as: rifle bags, digital cameras, four DVD players (always crucial on a hunting trip), and a satellite phone that they used to call their families. All told, Virginia taxpayers ended up footing $11,532 in “trip expenses.”

All three men have expressed through their lawyers that they intend to plead not guilty to the charges. And it's apparent that the 2005 state audit, which was turned over to investigators years ago, is what’s at issue in the indictments. Bradbery’s lawyer told reporters “the state is not out any money whatsoever. This (Africa) trip was approved.” Hoffler, who will not face charges for his role in the affair, admitted to cooperating with the investigation and said he was “extremely disappointed” in the indictments.

In the debate over the surge, there have been a number of questions raised within the government about an important metric for understanding whether the U.S. military's strategy is succeeding -- how Multinational Force-Iraq calculates sectarian violence.

Earlier this month, David Walker of the Government Accountability Office testified that he could not "get comfortable" with General David Petraeus' methodology for determining sectarianism, considering it too inferential to be reliable. His report, echoing objections from senior intelligence officials, instead tabulated the pace of attacks on civilians and found the surge didn't appear to have a significant effect on civilian-targeted violence. However, relying on data interpreted through the MNF-I methodology, Petraeus testified that sectarian violence had fallen in Iraq to mid-2006 levels.

The actual methodology MNF-I employs has remained unknown. Until now.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request I filed two weeks ago, MNF-I has provided TPMmuckraker with its criteria for identifying ethnic and sectarian violence. We've added the methodology to our Document Collection, and you can read it here.

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White House spokeswoman Dana Perino had a hard time with questions about the State Department's use of Blackwater during this afternoon's press briefing:

Q Why do you have to have private contractors who have, on the face of it, a lousy record?

MS. PERINO: Well, I think that there is because -- I think that is because there is a need. I don't know why it was originally set up that way....

More from the briefing below.

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Keep your fingers crossed, Ted. The AP is reporting that a recent decision in the Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) case could make it impossible to tap lawmakers' phones in corruption cases. That's good news for Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), since it was just reported that he was secretly recorded by the FBI while on the phone with former Veco CEO Bill Allen.

The decision, which one watchdog group worried would be a boon for corrupt politicians, dealt with the FBI's raid of Jefferson's Congressional office. The court found the raid unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the Speech or Debate Clause because agents thumbed through protected legislative documents.

And in an appeal of that decision last week, the Justice Department argued that the ruling "'threatens to complicate numerous ongoing and future investigations' and hinder the ability to use electronic surveillance."

The decision is already starting to affect federal investigations. The AP also reported that some members of Congress interpret the ruling as protecting staffers from speaking to the FBI.

In the heat of the summer, it seemed inevitable that the White House and Congress were destined to clash in court over a number of subpoenas, most relating to the U.S. attorney firings investigation. But that's appearing less and less likely.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has been warning since the beginning of the week that the confirmation of Michael Mukasey as attorney general depended on the White House turning over certain "information."

Leahy has been uncharacteristically vague about just what "information" that might be, as the negotiations are ongoing, but there are a number of outstanding requests that Leahy might have in mind. Below is our accounting of where those many requests, along with those from Leahy's House counterpart, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), stand. It's also a reminder of the many loose ends that remain in the U.S. attorney firings probe.

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