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With the parade of administration officials who've testified about waterboarding in the past several weeks -- that it was once legal, but is not anymore (though it could be found legal again); that it may "feel like" torture, but that doesn't mean it is torture; that as the U.S. practices it, it bears no relation to the technique used by the Spanish Inquisition (it's more in line with the Khmer Rouge way of doing things) -- you can be excused for feeling more than a little confused.

And you may have despaired of ever seeing a clear, unequivocal exchange on the topic with a government official. Like this one from today's hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, with Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency:

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) asked, "General, do you believe that waterboarding is consistent with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions?"

After pausing a moment to think, Maples replied, "No, sir, I don’t."

"Do you think it’s humane?" Levin asked.

"No, sir, I think it would go beyond that bound."

Later, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), apparently uncomfortable with the deceptive simplicity of that exchange, added some much needed context, pointing out that CIA interrogators had waterboarded detainees "only three times," and that they had done so before the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the Geneva Conventions must apply.

Sen. Ted Stevens' (R-AK) problems continue to multiply. The Democratic mayor of Anchorage Mark Begich will throw his hat in the ring today, and initial polls already show him leading.

From Stevens, you can expect much of what voters have been hearing from Rep. Don Young (R-AK): repeated reminders of how much pork the legendary earmarker has brought back to the state -- and how many millions are still to come.

As a kind of preview of those tributes to the earmark, the senators' office has released a galvanizing series of videos titled "What Are Earmarks?"

To Stevens, the virtue of the earmark is incontestable. In this video, for instance, Stevens proclaims that "I don't think the President was looking at Alaska when he said he wanted to reduce [earmarks by] 50%." Surely not!

Of course, Alaska is long the reigning and undisputed champion of the earmark. A database of this year's spending bills by Taxpayers for Common Sense showed that Alaska (even with two of its three lawmakers under investigation) led the states in earmark spending per capita. $346,073,350 in earmarks for 683,478 residents put that per capita spending at $506.34 -- drubbing the second highest spending state per capita, Hawaii, more than two to one.

You can understand Uncle Ted's chagrin that Alaskans would even consider biting the hand that feeds them.

Why bother? From The Washington Post:

After promising last year to search its computers for tens of thousands of e-mails sent by White House officials, the Republican National Committee has informed a House committee that it no longer plans to retrieve the communications by restoring computer backup tapes, the panel's chairman said yesterday.

The move increases the likelihood that an untold number of RNC e-mails dealing with official White House business during the first term of the Bush administration -- including many sent or received by former presidential adviser Karl Rove -- will never be recovered, said House Democrats and public records advocates.

As we reported Monday, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies launched a national ad campaign lambasting House Democrats for not passing the Senate surveillance bill, which comes complete with retroactive immunity for the telecoms.

As of Friday, the group, which claims to be non-partisan, boasted a number of Democrats on their board of advisors. Those were: Donna Brazile, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY), Rep. Jim Marshall, and former Georgia governor Zell Miller. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), listed as a Democrat on the site, is one of five "distinguished advisors."

Since the group launched the ads, Brazile, Schumer, Engel and Marshall have all resigned from the group. Zell Miller, well, he spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Our call and email to Sen. Lieberman's spokesman were unreturned.

In her statement, Brazile said that no one from the group had consulted her about its activities "in years." And that the once "bi-partisan organization" had, "due to the influence of their funders... morphed into a radical right wing organization that is doing the dirty work for the Bush Administration and Congressional Republicans."

TPM alum Spencer Ackerman, reporting on the resignations over at The Washington Independent this morning, cites Democratic sources as saying that Marshall was "appalled" by the ad.

Schumer also said that he hadn't been consulted about the group's activities and that he regretted the "partisan agenda that the organization has pursued." His full statement is below.

Brian Wise, the group's spokesman, said that he was "sorry that the senator feels that way," but that the ads are "not political ads, they're issue based ads." The ad, which you can see here, ran nationally, with a slightly different version airing in local markets targeting 15 House Dems. Those ads ended by encouraging viewers to contact their representative and urge them to convince the House leadership to bring the Senate bill to a vote -- because "the law that lets intelligence agencies intercept Al Qaeda communications" has expired, "crippling" surveillance. They will run throughout the week, Wise said.

Wise has refused to reveal the donors behind the ad, which was run by a 501(c)(4) affiliate group simply called Defense of Democracies. Wise told me yesterday that group was formed last week. When I asked if telecommunication companies had put up the money (Democratic officials estimate the buy to be in the millions), he laughed, then conceded that he didn't know who had. "To my knowledge, we've never been associated with the telecom industry." He added "we have no interest in any outcome other than national security."

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Wikileaks just got some legal backup.

The ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a motion last night to intervene in the case. The two groups are seeking to roll back a federal California judge's sweeping order earlier this month that blocked access to The order came as a result of a Swiss bank's complaint that the site was distributing confidential documents that allegedly show shell accounts used to hide assets.

A lawyer for the ACLU and EFF said that shutting down the site was a case of "burning down the house to roast the pig." It's wrong, the groups argue, that the public has lost access to all of the documents that wikileaks has to offer (well, at least through -- a number of mirror sites have sprung up to counter the order).

The groups are seeking to intervene in the case on behalf of themselves, the Project on Government Oversight, a D.C. watchdog, and Jordan McCorkle, a student at the University of Texas who uses wikileaks on a regular basis.

Update: Public Citizen and the California First Amendment Coalition have also sought to intervene in the case.

Update: A group of journalism organizations has also sought to file an amicus brief on Wikileaks' behalf. Those organizations are: the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Associated Press, the Citizen Media Law Project, E.W. Scripps, Gannett, Hearst, The Los Angeles Times, the National Newspaper Association, the Newspaper Association of America, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.

The Marine Corps has ordered Franz Gayl, a retired Marine officer and civilian science adviser, to halt work on his scathing report about "gross mismanagement" in the Marine Corps' delay in producing and delivering Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to soldiers in Iraq. It's not that the Corp officials can't handle the truth, rather Gayl's inquiry has moved "beyond its initial purpose." (USA Today)

Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald issued a grand jury subpoena to the White House during the Libby-Plame investigation in order to obtain insight into the internal dynamics of the Bush-Cheney White House. It now appears that the prosecutor did not get all of the e-mail requested. Testimony from a former White House computer expert, Steven McDevitt, revealed yesterday that all e-mail from Cheney's office was missing for the week of Sept. 30, 2003, to Oct. 6, 2003 - the "opening days of the Justice Department's probe into whether anyone at the White House leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame." (AP)

For the first time since becoming a captive of the U.S. in secret detention and then at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Zubaydah has met with two attorneys who will now represent him. The lawyers, Joseph Margulies and Brent Mickum, will challenge their new client's status as an "enemy combatant" through a federal appeals process. (Miami Herald)

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I don't know how the administration can be expected to successfully fear-monger with articles like this being written. It's not helpful.

Ever since the Protect America Act lapsed a little more than a week ago, the administration has been emphasizing the grave danger the country is in. Sure, experts and Democrats say that surveillance of terrorist groups authorized under the lapsed law should continue unabated. But don't listen to them.

The administration delivered what should have been the coup de grâce on Friday, when the director of national intelligence informed Congress that the feared consequence of the law's lapse was already upon us. "We have lost intelligence information this past week as a direct result of the uncertainty created by Congress' failure to act," they wrote, underlining the sentence to add that needed emphasis. Telecoms weren't cooperating with wiretap requests out of that "uncertainty." Unfortunately, the troublesome telecom apparently quickly became certain, because those administration officials had to announce that the dark hour was over only "hours later."

The New York Times sheds some much needed light on the situation this morning. The most crucial revelation is this:

Theoretically, intelligence officials would have to revert to older — and, they say, more cumbersome — legal standards if they were now to stumble onto a new terrorist group that was not covered by a previous wiretapping order. But that has not happened since the surveillance law expired, administration officials said.

This is crucial because the administration's direst warnings have had to do with being unable to wiretap new targets. But apparently the powers granted by the Protect America Act were so sweeping that after a week, the NSA hasn't run into that problem yet.

The apparent "uncertainty" which the administration hyped last week for one telecom had hinged on a legal issue: "whether the government could expand existing wiretapping orders to include new phone numbers or e-mail addresses in surveillance of the same targets covered by the original orders," the Times reports. That issue has been resolved. And an anonymous "lawyer in the telecommunications industry" tells the Times that he's "seen little practical effect on the industry’s surveillance operations since the law expired."

BUT that doesn't mean Democrats and Americans should not be afraid: administration officials "emphasized that the uncertainty of the legal landscape threatened to disrupt future operations."

You can be sure that you'll be hearing about every bump on the road until the administration gets its precious retroactive immunity for the telecoms.

From the AP:

A computer expert who worked at the White House provided the first inside look at its e-mail system Tuesday, calling it a "primitive" setup that created a "high" risk that data would be lost.

Steven McDevitt's written statements placed on the public record at a congressional hearing asserted that a study by White House technical staff in October 2005 turned up an estimated 1,000 days on which e-mail was missing....

McDevitt's statements detailed shortcomings that he said have plagued the White House e-mail system for six years. He declared that:

_The White House had no complete inventory of e-mail files.

_There was no automatic system to ensure that e-mails were archived and preserved.

_Until mid-2005 the e-mail system had serious security flaws, in which "everyone" on the White House computer network had access to e-mail. McDevitt wrote that the "potential impact" of the security flaw was that there was no way to verify that retained data had not been modified.

You can see McDevitt's full answers here (pdf).

Remember that as The Washington Post outlined last month, the Bush Administration managed to dismantle the Clinton Administration's email archive system without replacing it with anything at all.

Yesterday we brought you Karl Rove's expansive denial of Republican lawyer Dana Jill Simpson's testimony to Congress and comments to 60 Minutes.

Simpson responded last night on MSNBC's Dan Abrams show: "Since Karl Rove has said that and he feels so good saying that, what I want him to do is go and swear before the United States Congress and swear what he's saying is true."

Simpson also responded to accusations from the Alabama Republican Party that Simpson had never worked for the party and no one had ever heard of her. She said that phone records would show conversations with party officials in Alabama and Washington, D.C. in 2002 and 2006.

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Don Siegelman case in October, Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL) produced phone records showing that Simpson had spoken with William Canary, a Republican operative, on the day in 2002 that she said Canary had told her on a conference call that his wife and another U.S. attorney would "take care" of Siegelman.

You've heard from President Bush over and over and over and over again about the imminent danger the country is in. And you've heard from the director of national intelligence and attorney general about how the telecoms are quaking over the uncertainty created by not securing retroactive immunity.

Yesterday, four former top national security officials put forward a different line in a letter to Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell. The officials -- Richard Clarke (former head of counterterrorism at the National Security Council), Rand Beers (former Senior Director for Combating Terrorism at the National Security Council), Lt. Gen. Don Kerrick (former Deputy National Security Advisor), and Suzanne Spaulding (former assistant general counsel at the CIA) -- all worked with McConnell in the past. McConnell led the National Security Agency from 1992 through 1996. The letter was distributed today by the National Security Network.

McConnell and the administration, they wrote, was distorting the truth about surveillance capabilities after the lapse of the Protect America Act. The country is not "at greater risk," they write. "The intelligence community currently has the tools it needs to acquire surveillance of new targets and methods of communication."

And they're also not buying the administration line on how crucial it is that the telecoms be granted retroactive immunity for cooperating with the administration's warrantless wiretapping program:

Telecommunications companies will continue to cooperate with lawful government requests, particularly since FISA orders legally compel cooperation with the government. Again, it is unclear to us that the immunity debate will affect our surveillance capabilities....

The Administration has made it clear it believes this entire debate hinges on liability protection. As previously stated, it is unclear that liability protection would significantly improve our surveillance capabilities. It is wrong to make this one issue an immovable impediment to Congress passing strong legislation to protect the American people.

You can read the entire letter below.

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