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Whatever you may think of this morning's New York Times and Washington Post stories, they turn on whether John McCain did legislative favors for Vicki Iseman, the lobbyist with whom McCain denies having had a romantic relationship.

And McCain was keen to hit back hard on that account at his news conference this morning. When one reporter asked him about one of the key details in the Times piece -- that McCain, then the chairman of the Senate commerce committee, had written a letter to the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of one of Iseman's clients -- he responded:

On the "letters" to the FCC. Interestingly, this was brought up in the year 2000 by The New York Times. I wrote a letter because the FCC, which usually makes a decision within 400 days, had gone almost 800 days. In the letter, I said I’m not telling you how to make a decision, I’m just telling you that you should move forward and make a decision on this issue. And I believe that was appropriate. And the former chairman of the FCC at the time in 2000 said that was more than an appropriate role for me to play as chairman of the oversight committee.

While it's true that the letter did not request a particular decision (more about that below), it's not true that the FCC chairman saw no issue with the letter.

As The Boston Globe reported way back in 2000, William Kennard, the FCC chair at the time, had immediately objected to McCain's December 10, 1999 letter, replying four days later that it was "highly unusual" and that he was "concerned" at what effect McCain's letter might have on the decision process.

An earlier letter from McCain on the issue in November had not brought a similar rebuke. And McCain frequently wrote letters to the FCC requesting that it act on particular issues. But the December letter was remarkable for its insistence and call for each of the five commissioners to explain why they hadn't come to a decision.

McCain's comments today also skirted the issue of whether Iseman had sent information to his office for help in drafting the letter, as the Times reports, and elides discussion of the letter's effect. Iseman represented Paxson Communications, which was pushing for the FCC decision because it would have cleared the way for Paxson to buy a Pittsburgh television station. The lengthy statement out from McCain's campaign states that no one from Iseman's lobbying firm or Paxson "personally asked" McCain to send the letter to the FCC.

But as the Times reported way back in 2000, it was no secret on the commission what outcome McCain was seeking. And on a 3-2 vote only days after his December letter, the commission approved the deal. Opponents of the sale cried foul, pointing in particular to the $20,000 Paxson and its lobbyists had contributed to McCain.

Update: You can see the exchange of letters between McCain and Kennard here.

Later Update: The McCain camp now says McCain wasn't referring to Kennard, who actually received the letter, but to a different former FCC chairman.

The trial for representative William Jefferson (D-LA), scheduled to begin next week, will likely be delayed by Jefferson's recent challenge to the judge's refusal to dismiss numerous bribery-related charges. Jefferson alleges that the Grand Jury that indicted him last year was presented with tainted evidence. (Times Picayune)

The unfolding financial scandal at the National Republican Congressional Committee continues to shake up the NRCC's officers. Treasurer Christopher Parana (who had replaced Christopher Ward in 2007) now is being replaced by Keith Davis. The NRCC's spokesperson explained that "we thought it was prudent during this transition period to bring in an extremely experiences [sic] and highly respected longtime expert." (Politico)

After Trent Lott (R-MS) announced his resignation from the Senate last fall, he denied that his decision had anything to do with the indictment - which came two days after the announcement - of his brother-in-law Richard "Dickie" Scruggs for allegedly attempting to illegally influence a Mississippi judge. Now federal investigators are looking into whether Lott played a role (sub. req.) in both that case and a separate one in which Scruggs allegedly tried to influence a different state judge "by promising that Mr. Lott would recommend Judge Delaughter for a seat on the federal bench." (Wall Street Journal)

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This John McCain does not need.

While he's busy this morning responding to this morning's New York Times story, the AP reports that the head of the Federal Elections Commission is questioning whether McCain will be allowed to drop out of the public financing system.

The reason, of course, stems from McCain's too-clever-by-half $4 million bank loan in December. We outlined the deal on Monday.

To review briefly: in December, McCain, who'd earlier opted in to the public financing system, needed cash. The FEC had already certified that he was owed $5.8 million in public matching funds -- but he wouldn't be getting that money until March. And he didn't want to absolutely commit yet to using that system, because it would limit his campaign to spending only $54 million through the end of August. And FEC rules say that using public matching funds as collateral locks a candidate into the system.

So McCain struck a deal with the bank: he promised to only commit to using the system if he lost the primary. If he won, he would opt out of the program, and he'd be more than able to pay the bank back, because the funds would come flowing. McCain's lawyers were evidently very pleased with the canniness of this arrangement.

If you're confused by this, don't worry: so, apparently, is FEC Chairman David Mason. McCain officially notified the FEC earlier this month that he was no longer in the public financing system for the primary. Now Mason has responded with a letter saying essentially, not so fast. It looks like you used the public matching funds as collateral.

Update: You can read the letter here.

If the FEC ultimately decided that McCain could not opt out of the system, the consequences would be severe for him. He'd be limited to spending $54 million through August -- meaning that the Democratic nominee would be able to outspend him several times over.

But there's a major catch, of course. The FEC can't take any official action, because it's still shut down over the deadlock in the Senate. The FEC needs four commissioners to act; it currently only has two.

So all the FEC can do for now is send inquiries. But if by some miracle the impasse in the Senate were broken, it could mean trouble for McCain.

It's official: staging a car crash is not the best election strategy. Not only did Gary Dodds lose the Democratic primary for New Hampshire's 1st District Congressional seat, but he's been convicted for the stunt. From the AP:

A jury convicted Gary Dodds of falsifying evidence, causing a false public alarm and leaving the scene of the April 2006 crash. He showed no emotion as the verdicts were returned on the first day of deliberations after a 15-day trial.

Dodds, 43, claims he injured his head in a crash on the Spaulding Turnpike and nearly drowned in a river before being rescued 27 hours later from the snowy woods. Prosecutors say he spent part of that time soaking his feet in cold water to make it appear he spent the night outdoors, all to boost his faltering campaign.

"He had a story that he was going to stick to," County Attorney Thomas Velardi said during closing arguments Friday. "It would've been a heroic story. It would've been a great story — all the people who hadn't heard of him before ... really would've known who he was."

I'm still not clear on how getting into a one-car accident and then going missing for a day, and then being discovered wet and shivering makes for a "heroic story." But in any case, staging it is a crime.

No real surprise here. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) voted against a bill in the Senate that would have confined the CIA to interrogations outlined in the Army Field Manual -- that means no ambiguity about the use of waterboarding or other "enhanced interrogation" techniques. We explained his position at length here.

The President has threatened to veto the bill, and because sometime swing votes like McCain, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) oppose it, a veto override vote in the Senate seems certain to fail. Today, McCain told reporters that Bush should veto the bill and said he's banking on the consistency of his position on the issue of torture overriding the subtlety of his stance. From the AP:

"I think I can show my record is clear. I said there should be additional techniques allowed to other agencies of government as long as they were not" torture.

"I was on the record as saying that they could use additional techniques as long as they were not cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment," McCain said. "So the vote was in keeping with my clear record of saying that they could have additional techniques, but those techniques could not violate" international rules against torture.

Of course, that's the administration's position, too: we don't "torture."

Interestingly, McCain also took the opportunity to outline a real difference between himself and the president: he says that if he were elected president, he wouldn't use signing statements -- those statements Bush has tacked on to a number of important bills (including McCain's anti-torture amendment) that essentially say, "NOT." As McCain put it: "If I disagree with a law that's passed, I'll veto it."

As we noted Monday, a Swiss bank convinced a California judge to issue an order blocking access to The New York Times makes clear this morning that it was a ham-handed and probably unconstitutional move.

Ham-handed because even though the injunction was sweeping in its scope (disabling access to the domain name), it will certainly not accomplish its goal, which was to restrict dissemination of the documents. Not only have dozens of mirror sites cropped up to host the documents, but the publicity from the move has also increased scrutiny on the bank, Julius Baer, and heightened WikiLeaks' supporters' resolve. Update: And the site is still available via its IP address. The documents allegedly show the bank's efforts to set up shell entities to hide money. And as for the unconstitutional part:

Judge [Jeffrey] White’s order disabling the entire site “is clearly not constitutional,” said David Ardia, the director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School. “There is no justification under the First Amendment for shutting down an entire Web site.”

The narrower order [also issued by the judge], forbidding the dissemination of the disputed documents, is a more classic prior restraint on publication. Such orders are disfavored under the First Amendment and almost never survive appellate scrutiny.

When I asked Julian Assange, a member of WikiLeaks' advisory board and its investigations editor, whether WikiLeaks plans to contest the injunction in court, he replied by email, "Bloody oath we will."

He said that WikiLeaks, which relies on pro bono representation, was currently in talks with a number of lawyers and organizations for possible representation. As Wired reported, the site was caught by surprise late last week, receiving "notice only a few hours before the case went to a judge who accepted the agreement between Dynadot [WikiLeaks' domain registrar] and the bank."

My inquiries to Julius Baer's attorneys about possible future actions were forwarded to a spokesman for the bank in Switzerland, who replied "We have always sought to act in the best interests of our clients and shall continue to do so."

At this point, it's not even controversial to say that the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay are a sham. The current chief judge there has written that the military tribunals have “credibility problems." And the former chief prosecutor, after resigning, publicly criticized the system as "deeply politicized."

Now that former prosecutor, Col. Morris Davis, has given more evidence of that politicization in an interview with The Nation after the six Gitmo detainees were charged. Davis says that in an August, 2005 meeting with William Haynes, then the Pentagon's general counsel, Haynes seemed to completely discount the possibility of the military tribunals acquitting any of the detainees. Now, of course, Haynes has been installed as the official overseeing the whole process, both the prosecutors and the defense. From The Nation:

"[Haynes] said these trials will be the Nuremberg of our time," recalled Davis, referring to the Nazi tribunals in 1945, considered the model of procedural rights in the prosecution of war crimes. In response, Davis said he noted that at Nuremberg there had been some acquittals, something that had lent great credibility to the proceedings.

"I said to him that if we come up short and there are some acquittals in our cases, it will at least validate the process," Davis continued. "At which point, [Haynes's] eyes got wide and he said, 'Wait a minute, we can't have acquittals. If we've been holding these guys for so long, how can we explain letting them get off? We can't have acquittals, we've got to have convictions.'"

Davis submitted his resignation on October 4, 2007, just hours after he was informed that Haynes had been put above him in the commissions' chain of command. "Everyone has opinions," Davis says. "But when he was put above me, his opinions became orders."

Back in December, the Defense Department blocked Davis from testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It's becoming increasingly clear why.

As a result of the Secure America Act, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is constructing an 18-foot steel and concrete wall at the Texas-Mexico border that will pass through the backyards of family homes (whose owners face condemnation lawsuits if they protest) but will stop short of the River Bend Resort and golf course. The fence will resume at the other side of the resort. A similarly proposed border wall will bypass the property of Dallas billionaire and friend of President Bush, Ray Hunt. DHS has failed to provide answers about how it decided where to build the border fence but the Texas Observer has learned that SBInet - private consortium of contractors led by Boeing Co. - is making almost all of the decisions. (Texas Observer, Think Progress)

A closely watched Iraqi trial of high-ranking Shiite officials (accused of running militias that killed and kidnapped hundreds of Sunnis) is regarded as a test for Iraq's judicial system, but it is already an embarrassment. Before the trial started, one judge was removed because he allegedly agreed to find the defendants not guilty, and on the fist day a key witness failed to appear - perhaps because of pervasive witness intimidation. (New York Times)

Pentagon Prosecutors have challenged a military court's decision that grants Osama Bin Laden's driver (Salim Ahmed Hamdan) the right to send written questions to alleged al Qaeda detainees held at Camp 7 in Guantanamo Bay. The defense asserts that answers to their questions will determine what defense witnesses they need to call, but a military commissions spokesperson says that prosecutors believe that access to detainees in camp 7 raise ``a lot of complicated issues.'' (Miami Herald)

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You remember former CIA official Jose Rodriguez. He's the guy at the center of the criminal investigation into the destruction of the CIA's torture tapes. The videotapes, you'll remember, documented interrogation techniques authorized by Justice Department lawyers and the White House on two detainees. CIA interrogators (and possibly contractors) waterboarded the two detainees and possibly exposed them to a range of other techniques, such as inducing hypothermia. The investigation is not focusing on the use of those techniques, though. The focus is the destruction of the tapes.

But back to Rodriguez. The line from White House and senior CIA officials has been that they repeatedly advised against destroying the tapes. Rodriguez (via his lawyer) says that advice was never unequivocal. The New York Times has a story today exploring that breach between Rodriguez, who ran the CIA's clandestine service, and the leadership.

The story goes something like this: Porter Goss, then the director of the CIA, was viewed as something of a buffoon by the career officers. They didn't like the crew he brought in (like his #3 Dusty Foggo, who was subsequently indicted for taking bribes from Brent Wilkes), and they didn't like the way he ran the place. So Rodriguez pretty much ran things the way he thought they ought to be run in his division. And when the issue of whether to destroy those tapes arose again in late 2005, he did what he thought was right. He saw the tapes as "a sort of time bomb that, if leaked, threatened irreparable damage to the United States’ image in the Muslim world, his friends say, and posed physical and legal risks to C.I.A. officers on them."

And Goss... did nothing. The Times reports that there is "no record of any reprimand or punishment" in Rodriguez's personnel file at the agency. Because:

People close to Mr. Goss, who knew from his Congressional years how explosive accusations of cover-up could be, insist he told Mr. Rodriguez the tapes should be preserved.

But if Mr. Goss believed Mr. Rodriguez had disobeyed him, why did he not punish the clandestine service chief? One former C.I.A. official said White House officials had complained about the news media firestorm that accompanied the departure of [two CIA officials who'd resigned] a year earlier, and Mr. Goss felt he could not risk another blowup.

And of course the administration kept the whole thing quiet for more than two years until the Times blew the whistle. Too bad there's never a convenient time for "another blowup."

Even if Brent Wilkes can breathe a sigh of relief that he did not get the 25-year sentence that prosecutors were gunning for, it was far from a good day.

The judge sent Wilkes to prison immediately, because he could not be trusted to remain free while his appeal of the verdict was pending. That's because, Judge Larry Burns wrote in his order (which you can read here), he "doubts Mr. Wilkes trustworthiness."

For one thing, he lied on the stand when he said he didn't bribe Cunningham, the judge wrote. And when he claimed not to have had anything to do with getting Cunningham a prostitute in Hawaii, "his testimony was utterly unbelievable and thoroughly contradicted by the weight of the evidence."

What's more, Judge Burns concluded that Wilkes had lied when he'd claimed that he was too broke to be able to afford a lawyer. Based on that representation, Burns had assigned him public defenders. "The Court finds Mr. Wilkes materially misrepresented his financial condition in an improper effort to obtain legal representation at the expense of the taxpayer."

So it's off to jail Brent Wilkes goes.