TPM News

To the Tongolese: I'm sorry.

I'm sorry for writing on Friday that you're not a member of the Iraq coalition. Sure, the Congressional Research Service said you had pulled out. But according to this Pentagon quasi-press release today, you deployed 55 members of your Tonga Defense Services last month to guard MNF-I headquarters in the Baghdad International Airport complex. It's not exactly a combat mission, but still, this is a huge contribution: Tonga, a South Pacific island nation with a population of under 120,000, has only 450 men under arms.

Says Pacific Command chief Admiral Tim Keating:

Keating, who observed the Tongan troops during a Khaanquest training exercise earlier this summer in Mongolia, said he has no doubt of their capabilities. “They’re very tough,” he said. “They’re not just very good; they’re first class.”

My apologies, Tonga -- and, yes, to President Bush as well.

Right off the heels of Iraq's intended expulsion of private-security giant Blackwater, House Oversight Committee chairman Henry Waxman vows -- what else? -- to investigate:

“The controversy over Blackwater is an unfortunate demonstration of the perils of excessive reliance on private security contractors. The Oversight Committee will be holding hearings to understand what has happened and the extent of the damage to U.S. security interests.”

For more on Blackwater, see the Brookings Institution's P.W. Singer, one of the foremost scholars of the private-military revolution, blogging over at TPMm pal Noah Shachtman's Danger Room.

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Back in April, Scott Bloch, the head of the Office of Special Counsel, announced that his office would "leave no stone unturned" in pursuing White House malfeasance. In fact, a special task force was assembled to handle all of Karl Rove's alleged dirty doings.

Problem is, Bloch apparently forged ahead without actually having the money to fund the task force. And as Justin reports over at The Blotter, it's not looking like he'll be able to land that extra $3 million. So some of those stones might just have to stay right where they are.

Without a last-minute infusion of nearly $3 million, the special task force may be unable to pay its staff and buy the kind of technical equipment it needs to investigate allegations that White House political operatives may have improperly injected politics into government activities, according to Jim Mitchell, spokesman for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel....

The cost of the task force for 2008 would be $2.89 million, according to OSC estimates. But Bloch started the probe long after he submitted his 2008 budget request. And now he's having a hard time convincing those holding the nation's purse strings to loosen up and give him some last-minute extra funding.

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So why was Thomas Kontogiannis, who's pled guilty to helping bribe Duke Cunningham, staying at a five-star Greek resort? Because the government told him to, prosecutors say. From The North County Times:

A federal judge allowed a New York man who has admitted bribing former North County U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham to remain free on bond, after an Assistant U.S. Attorney said at a hearing this morning that the man's recent trip to Greece was at the direction of federal agents.

U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns had called the hearing to learn whether the man, Thomas Kontogiannis, had traveled overseas without permission. Any such trip requires prior approval because Kontogiannis pleaded guilty earlier this year on a money laundering charge.

At today's hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Forge said the trip was made at the government's behest.

"My understanding is that everything Mr. Kontogiannis did was not just 'with permission,' but at the direction of agents and other representatives of the government," Forge said.

Stranger and stranger.

Welcome to the worst week of Admiral Mike McConnell's life.

Before the week is out, the director of national intelligence will appear before the House judiciary and intelligence committees to defend the Protect America Act -- August's McConnell-pushed relaxation of restrictions on surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Even before the act passed, prominent Democrats vowed to roll back FISA changes that many on the left consider ill-advised, including the abandonment of individualized suspicion.

McConnell once enjoyed a sterling reputation as a non-partisan defense professional. That's all over, thanks to a string of events in the past couple months.

House Democrats believe McConnell negotiated with them on the Protect America Act in bad faith, reaching an agreement with them on a FISA compromise just before the August recess, only to see McConnell fall silent as the White House scotched it. (McConnell denies any such deal existed.) Then, in an interview with the El Paso Times, McConnell chastised Congress for allegedly revealing classified information during the surveillance debate -- only to go on to do so himself. (For good measure, he added that "some Americans are going to die" because of loose Congressional lips.) Perhaps most egregiously, McConnell told the Senate Government Affairs Committee last week -- completely contrary to the facts -- that the Protect America Act was responsible for the apprehension of three German terrorist suspects earlier this month, and then waited two days to retract his false statement.

All this was enough to prompt the former top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Jane Harman (D-CA), to remark, "Jane to Mike: Please stop. You're undermining the authorities of your office."

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Bush threw an unexpected change-up in his announcement this morning. Towards the end of his remarks about his nomination of Michael Mukasey as attorney general, he also said that outgoing Justice Department official Peter Keisler would serve as the acting attorney general until Mukasey is confirmed.

The administration had said that Solicitor General Paul Clement would serve as the acting attorney general. But Keisler, who announced his retirement from the Department two weeks ago, will apparently stick around in his stead.

That's a move likely to provoke Democrats, who had been signaling that they'd block Keisler's pending nomination to the D.C. Court of Appeals. Keisler was first nominated in last year and was renominated this year. Only this May, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) warned that Keisler's nomination was "controversial." As a result, Keisler will now be in the odd position as acting attorney general of having to deal with the Democrats who are holding up his still-pending nomination.

Among the strikes against Keisler for Democrats was the fact that he's a co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society. He also "oversaw the Bush administration's lengthy legal fight over the rights of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay."

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Within the hour, Thomas Kontogiannis is scheduled to go before U.S. District Judge Larry Burns in San Diego and explain why his recent Greek vacation doesn't violate the terms of his $1.5 million bond, under which he had to surrender his passport. But that's not the only new Tommy K-related morsel. On Friday, Burns ruled that attorneys for former ADCS chairman Brent Wilkes will get to review the sealed addenda to Kontogiannis' guilty plea. From the ruling:

1. The government shall disclose to defense counsel any sealed written addenda to the plea agreement of defendant Thomas Kontogiannis, case no. 07CR423-LAB, which addenda shall remain under seal. 2. The only persons to whom defense counsel may disclose, directly or indirectly, the contents or substance of any written addenda are John Michael, Brent Wilkes, and investigators or other agents assisting in the preparation of defendants’ defense.

What, we can't see? Shucks. Wilkes will stand trial next year for bribery and fraud related to the Randy "Duke" Cunningham corruption case. Kontogiannis has pleaded guilty to related charges and is cooperating with the government.

Muck accusations are flying the other way up in Alaska these days. A lawyer for former state Rep. Vic Kohring (R-AK) said the FBI had another former lawmaker who was secretly cooperating in the ongoing Veco probe pressure Kohring into pleading guilty to bribery.

From the AP:

Investigators normally are prohibited from contacting defendants once they have a lawyer.

Kohring has pleaded not guilty to bribery and extortion charges despite what defense lawyer John Henry Browne contended was persistent pressure from the Justice Department to change the plea.

That pressure culminated recently, Browne said, when Kohring's former aide received a call from an aide in state Sen. Fred Dyson's office. The message, Browne said, was to take a plea deal.

It was only last week that Browne learned Dyson had been working with investigators since 2006. Details about the cooperation emerged in a related trial and showed that Dyson helped prosecutors persuade oil contractor Bill Allen to cooperate in the overarching investigation.

In July, Kohring's lawyers asked to push back his corruption trial for three months because it was going to take them that long to get through the mountain of physical and digital evidence the FBI collected against Kohring. The trial is slated to start on October 22.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the man who will preside over Michael Mukasey's confirmation hearing, signals hard that Mukasey's not going anywhere until the committee gets the information it's been seeking on the U.S. attorney firings and the administration's warrantless wiretapping program. A statement just out:

“The Judiciary Committee will approach consideration of the nomination of an Attorney General in a serious and deliberate fashion. The Administration took months determining that a change in leadership was needed at the Department of Justice and then the President spent several weeks before making a nomination. Our focus now will be on securing the relevant information we need so we can proceed to schedule fair and thorough hearings. Cooperation from the White House will be essential in determining that schedule.

“The next Attorney General needs to be someone who can begin the process of restoring the Department of Justice to its proper mission. I am hopeful that once we obtain the information we need and we have had the opportunity to consider the nomination, we will be able to make progress in this regard.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), by contrast, sounds upbeat in his statement.

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Following a Baghdad shootout yesterday that left at least nine civilians dead, security-contractor giant Blackwater will no longer be permitted to operate in Iraq, according to the Iraqi Interior Ministry.

The Interior Ministry's decision is likely to be a source of friction between the U.S. Embassy and Iraq. Not only does Blackwater guard many important U.S. officials there, but the embassy is unlikely to want a precedent established that allows the Iraqi government to kick out U.S. contractors for excessive use of force.

Yesterday's incident involved an insurgent attack on a State Department convoy in the Sunni neighborhood of Mansour in western Baghdad. Blackwater personnel guarding the motorcade returned fire -- "to defend themselves," according to a State Department official quoted by The Washington Post. A Post reporter on the scene in Mansour witnessed Blackwater's Little Bird helicopters "firing into the streets." Almost immediately, an Interior Ministry spokesman said the company's license to operate in Iraq would be revoked.

However, it's unclear how the Interior Ministry would expel Blackwater. Unlike other private U.S. security firms in Iraq, as of May, Blackwater hadn't registered with the Iraqi government to operate in Iraq. The Coalition Provisional Authority -- the now-defunct occupational government -- issued a decree in 2004 (pdf) immunizing security contractors from Iraqi prosecution and placing their operations under the jurisdiction of U.S. authorities.

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