TPM News

In a letter today, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) urged the acting attorney general to fire voting rights section chief John Tanner. Citing Tanner's remarks earlier this month that "minorities don't become elderly the way white people do: They die first," Obama wrote that "Through his inexcusable comments, Mr. Tanner has clearly demonstrated that he possesses neither the character nor the judgment to be heading the Voting Rights Section." He concluded: "For that reason, I respectfully request that you remove him from his position."

Tanner made the comments as justification for his decision to overrule Justice Department staff attorneys and approve a Georgia voter ID law that was subsequently halted by a federal appeals court. Tanner made the novel argument that such laws actually discriminate against whites.

Things are only getting worse for Tanner. In a couple weeks, he'll appear before the House Judiciary Committee, where he'll get to explain personally to its 78 year-old African-American chairman that minorities don't "become elderly." He'll also have to explain why he took the unprecedented step of publicly assuring officials in Columbus, Ohio that there had been no discrimination against African-Americans in the allocation of voting machines for the 2004 election. The fact that African-Americans had to wait in long lines deep into the night, he said, was due to "the tendency" for "white voters to cast ballots in the morning" and "for black voters to cast ballots in the afternoon."

This is second time this month that Obama has come out hard against a controversial figure from the Civil Rights Division. Earlier, he joined with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) in blocking the nomination of Hans von Spakovsky to the Federal Election Commission.

Obama's letter is below.

Read More →

The State Department is floating the idea that Blackwater's Iraq contract should be allowed to expire in May. But Blackwater clearly doesn't want that to happen. And it's seeking some new blood to reignite the spark that's gone out of their relationship.

Via R.J. Hillhouse's excellent contractor blog, it seems that Blackwater is investing in a new head of Iraq contracts. Yesterday, Blackwater posted a job opening for a regional coordinator on State's Worldwide Protective Services Contract, the official title for State contractor services on Iraq. Perhaps Blackwater just wants to have a good caretaker during its final months in Baghdad. Or maybe, as Hillhouse writes, it's "a sign that Blackwater is not planning on leaving Iraq anytime soon."

The job will operate out of Blackwater's Moyock, North Carolina offices. Interested applicants should be able to work "in a busy office environment" that's "subject to frequent interruptions" (which may or may not include FBI agents executing search warrants).

"Polling...showed public confidence in the judicial system increasing from 6% to 25%." No, that's not the Gonzales bounce; those confidence levels, a measure of Iraqi sentiment, were provided by the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction as signs of progress. Now, Iraqis are only twice as likely to prefer their fate be determined by a coin toss rather than by a jury of their peers. (ABC's The Blotter)

I guess we shouldn't be surprised. Back when Alberto Gonzales was Attorney General, he oversaw the investigation by the Inspector General into leaked information about warrantless wiretapping that spawned the now-infamous New York Times' article. But several witnesses in that investigation were also witness against Gonzales in an investigation into the legality of the wiretapping program itself (an investigation that Bush curtailed last year). Gonzales took no apparent steps to recuse himself. (Huffington Post)

Carol Lam speaks! The former U.S. Attorney has ended a notable silence to speak with her alma mater about the firestorm surrounding her very public firing this past December. (Stanford Lawyer)

Read More →

As expected, the Senate intelligence committee has passed its surveillance bill. Also as expected, retroactive legal immunity for telecommunications companies complying with President Bush's warrantless surveillance program is part of the bill. Not exactly as expected: it won't be the FISA Court that determines who complied with the program. It will be the attorney general:

The Senate bill would direct civil courts to dismiss lawsuits against telecommunications companies if the attorney general certifies that the company rendered assistance between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 17, 2007, in response to a written request authorized by the president, to help detect or prevent an attack on the United States.

Suits also would be dismissed if the attorney general certifies that a company named in the case provided no assistance to the government. The public record would not reflect which certification was given to the court.

So you'll never know, if the Senate bill becomes law, if your phone company gave any communications material when the National Security Agency came calling without a warrant. Prediction: as of January 2009, Michael Mukasey can have any sinecure he likes with the telecom company of his choice. (Well, maybe not Qwest.)

In addition to the telecom provision, the bill also doesn't give the FISA Court any up-front role in foreign-targeted surveillance, unlike the Dems' now-stalled Restore Act in the House. It seems from this early report that the bill's major difference with the Protect America Act is that the FISA Court will have a larger role in reviewing the government's so-called minimization procedures -- that is, how NSA analysts redact identifying information of U.S. persons caught up in the surveillance web. For this, remarked Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chairman of the intelligence committee, "FISA has a much larger role now."

Read More →

Tim Starks of Congressional Quarterly reports that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) plans to bring the Senate's surveillance bill up for floor debate in mid-November. That's despite the hold that Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) plans to place on the measure -- something first reported by Election Central's Greg Sargent.

The Senate intelligence committee is still marking up the bill behind closed doors, according to staffers. A joint statement from committee leaders Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Kit Bond (R-MO) will follow when the mark-up concludes, but that may not occur today.

As for the bill's early support, here's Starks (not available online):

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., praised Rockefeller and Bond's efforts to put together a bipartisan bill, but added that "I have concerns" about the legislation. She offered no specifics.

Asked if he was comfortable with the legislation, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., would only say, "I'll be doing some stuff in markup."

Bond said "we'll see" if other Republicans line up to support the legislation, noting that senators are "as independent as hogs on ice."

Starks also reports that Reid and whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) want to see the legal documentation the White House gave to the committee about warrantless surveillance before casting their votes.

Of course, they closed with the hookers.

Two of the prostitutes who serviced Duke Cunningham and Brent Wilkes during their 2003 trip to Hawaii wrapped up the prosecution's case, and now it's Wilkes' turn. How much of a case he'll put on is entirely unclear. His lawyer Mark Geragos has threatened to call Cunningham himself to testify, but who knows if he'll follow through? It's also unclear whether Geragos will try to get other lawmakers to testify about their relationship with Wilkes -- as part of his defense that his gifts to Cunningham were just the way Washington worked for a defense contractor.

Both of the prostitutes told the same story: Wilkes' nephew brought them into the hotel suite. And from there:

"They asked us if we wanted to get naked and get into the Jacuzzi," [Donna] Rozetta said.

"What did you do," prosecutor [Phillip] Halpern asked.

"We got naked and got in the Jacuzzi," Rozetta replied.

The Jacuzzi calls to mind another hot tub moment in the Cunningham saga.

After Cunningham fed Rozetta some grapes, there was an argument over who got which hooker. Wilkes, much to Cunningham's dismay, claimed the blond, named Tammy McFadden. Or as McFadden testified, "The one I ended up with was the one who was running the show."

And even though he wasn't paying, Cunningham apparently felt that he'd "got the short end of the straw." And indeed, Cunningham did ask for a different prostitute the next night. But Rozetta seems to have been none too impressed with Cunningham herself -- she identified him in the courtroom as the one with "heavy jowls and a puffy face."

But the real star yesterday for prosecutors was Wilkes' nephew Joel Combs, who was Wilkes' right hand man. Combs and Mitchell Wade, Wilkes' onetime colleague and then competitor, really comprise the foundation of the government's case. Earlier this week, Wade detailed about how all those gifts he gave to Cunningham really were bribes.

Read More →

Michael Mukasey sought to assure senators (and seems to have been successful) that there'd be no repeat of the U.S. attorney firings scandal on his watch.

So, now that Mukasey's hearings are done, what do the fired U.S. attorneys think about Alberto Gonzales' replacement?

Former U.S.A. for New Mexico David Iglesias, for one, is pleased. "It appears to me that he gets it," he told me. "He understands the necessity for having an independent attorney general and an independent Department of Justice." Iglesias added that he liked "the fact that he's a former federal prosecutor. He understands that you have to build an absolute firewall from politics."

I'd "really be surprised if my colleagues hold different views from this," he added.

Sen. Chuck Schumer's (D-NY) been paying attention to the Don Siegelman case, and today he asked Michael Mukasey to take a look at whether Karl Rove had been instrumental in kick-starting the prosecution.

Mukasey replied that those sorts of issues should be heard first on Siegelman's appeal, which is ongoing. So Schumer took the consolation prize of asking Mukasey to look into it after the appeal. Mukasey agreed.

Mukasey also agreed to look at a study by two university professors (first reported here, by the way) that found an overwhelming tendency for Bush's Justice Department to pursue Democrats over Republicans. (More on that here.) In early May, Democrats asked the Department's inspector general to investigate the study's findings; but there's been no indication such an analysis ever took place.

Mukasey has firmly established that he's against torture -- yesterday he even compared it to the Holocaust (see also here).

But what exactly does that mean? Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) asked Mukasey if he thought waterboarding was Constitutional. "If waterboarding is torture... torture is not Constitutional," he replied.

Whitehouse wasn't satisfied. "That is a massive hedge.... It either is or it isn't." Doesn't Mukasey have an opinion on whether waterboarding is torture? He went on to describe the technique, which involves using a wet rag to make the detainee feel like he's drowning. Mukasey replied with the same answer: "If it amounts to torture, then it is not Constitutional."

I'm very disappointed," Whitehouse said, adding that Mukasey's reply had been "purely semantic."

"Sorry," replied Mukasey.

While Mukasey doesn't think there's an inherent presidential right to torture -- which he said is explicitly prohibited by the Constitution -- that's not to say he doesn't take a broad interpretation of the president's Article II authority. Reiterating an answer he gave yesterday, he told Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) that the president, for example, can authorize surveillance outside the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Feingold challenged Mukasey on exactly what he's saying. Was Mukasey arguing that any activity to "safeguard against a national security threat" would justify violating a statute? After some legal argumentation, Mukasey replied, essentially, that going outside a statute is an extreme step, and implied that he'll take steps to ensure that "push doesn't come to shove" between presidential authority and statutory limitation. But he left the door open for at least some nebulous presidential power that trumps congressional attempts at limitation. John Yoo might have a bad headache, but his skull is probably intact.