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Defense Nominee's Business Ties Raise Concerns "In the 14 years since he left government, former CIA director Robert M. Gates has jetted cross-country to advise 10 different companies, assessing issues as varied as Saudi oil drilling, mutual fund performance and restaurant sales at Romano's Macaroni Grill. . . .

"[A]s Gates awaits Senate confirmation as President Bush's secretary of Defense, ethics watchdogs worry about the revolving door between government and private business that allowed Gates to align himself with defense contractors, investment houses and a global drilling company involved with Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer, Halliburton Co.

"Companies with which Gates has been affiliated have secured hefty no-bid Pentagon contracts, and "you have to wonder if these companies will continue to get around bidding requirements once Gates is secretary," said Alex Knott, political director of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based watchdog group." (LATimes)

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As we wait for the Democratic players to take the field of the 110th Congress, we're going to take a closer look at the senior lawmakers whose positions put them at the forefront of investigations into the Bush administration.

They're trading cards of a sort. Collect them all! Today we start with two Democratic Senate lions, Carl Levin (MI) and Patrick Leahy (VT).

Player: Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) Position: Chair, Armed Services; Chair, Homeland Security and Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations

At hearings, Levin's reading glasses live on the very tip of his nose, and it's over those frames he looks at witnesses as he asks them question after withering question, in a style Congressional Quarterly has described as "both unfailingly polite and utterly relentless."

Despite nearly 30 years in office Levin's command of national security issues has not dulled, nor has his zeal for oversight. He's respected as a leading thinker among Democrats, and doesn't shy away from a fight, although he gets along well with both Democratic and Republican colleagues. During Bush's presidency he has taken issue with the Iraq war, the treatment of detainees, and the Pentagon's in-house intelligence operations.

Odds favor Levin taking an early and commanding role overseeing the execution of the Iraq war from his Armed Services chair.

In addition, Levin will be running the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations -- a modest workhorse that's technically under the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, but in practice operates on its own. For the most part, the panel eschews political probes in favor of deep investigations into financial crimes. It has the distinction of being the only panel which can issue subpoenas (at the order of the chair) without a committee vote, I'm told, although that doesn't have much impact on its activities.

Player: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) Position: Chair, Judiciary Leahy's white hair and soft voice belie the tenaciousness with which he latches onto an issue or a witness, and doesn't let go. (Remember, he's the only senator who has earned the distinction of having Dick Cheney tell him publicly to go fuck himself.)

A former prosecutor, Leahy approaches issues with an organized and commanding knowledge of the facts. And he keeps his staff roster stocked with sharp investigative counsel. During the Bush years, he has been a point man for Democrats in challenging the White House on the NSA domestic surveillance program, detainee treatment, the Patriot Act and national security letters, and presidential signing statements. He has also shown an interest in civil rights and voting rights enforcement issues.

Leahy has an active request with the administration for documents showing Bush's approval of torture and the CIA's "black sites" program. Expect Leahy to push on war profiteering, also.

What happens to a celebration deferred?

Last year, Congress had planned a triumphant national "day of celebration" upon the return of our armed services following their victories in Iraq and Afghanistan this year. A provision in the 2006 National Defense Authorization Bill set aside $20 million for our generation's V-I Day. (For those wondering, success would be determined by presidential proclamation.)

Alas, the ticker tape orders have been postponed. With our troops mired in mideast violence, Senate Republicans added a line to the 2007 defense authorization bill to extend the measure through next year. Because, you know, all our troops are coming home then.

(Note: We somehow missed this catch in The New York Times last month, but we owe the reminder to this month's Harper's Magazine.)

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's (R) presidential ambitions take a hit in The Boston Globe today:

Even as Romney travels the country, vowing to curb the flood of low-skilled illegal immigrants into the United States, some of those workers maintain his own yard, cutting grass, pruning shrubs, and mulching trees.

For "a decade," the paper found, "the governor has used a landscaping company that relies heavily on workers like these, illegal Guatemalan immigrants, to maintain the grounds surrounding his pink Colonial house on Marsh Street in Belmont."

Romney -- who speaks frequently on immigration -- never inquired about the workers' status, the Globe reports, only offering up the occasional "buenos dias" to the toiling workers. There's no direct evidence that Romney knew they were illegal.

Any comment, Mr. Romney?

Asked by a reporter yesterday about his use of Community Lawn Service with a Heart [the lawncare company], Romney, who was hosting the Republican Governors Association conference in Miami, said, "Aw, geez," and walked away.

Several hours later, his spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, provided the Globe with a statement saying that the governor knows nothing about the immigration status of the landscaping workers, and that his dealings were with [Ricardo] Saenz [the owner of the company], who is a legal immigrant from Colombia.

Perhaps even worse is Saenz's reaction to the Globe's inquiries:

Saenz said he met Romney through the Mormon Church and said Romney has used his company's services for a decade. Saenz said Romney never asked him if his workers are legal immigrants.

"He doesn't have to ask," Saenz said. "I'm a company."

Saenz asserted that all the workers he used were in the United States legally. Told by reporters that his employees said they were in this country illegally, Saenz responded: "What you've heard is not my problem."

AP reports:

House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi has chosen a Border-Patrol-agent-turned-congressman to take over the House Intelligence Committee, according to congressional aides.

The two aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they considered it an internal party issue, confirmed that Democratic leaders are contacting congressional and other political officials to tell them Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, will be the new chairman of the committee when Democrats take control in January.

When the Justice Department's Inspector General decided recently to investigate his department's use of intelligence provided by the NSA's domestic eavesdropping program, some wondered if it will be an aggressive attempt to get answers or part of an administration whitewash.

There's no doubt the administration has tried to keep the program under wraps, even as calls for information about its operations mount. But the war over the NSA program is far from over, and demands for answers are only going to increase in the new year, from all sides: at least three other executive-branch reviews into the NSA program have already been attempted or completed, scores of federal lawsuits have been filed, over a dozen administrative attacks have been launched by public groups, and congressional investigators are priming their subpoena powers.

Which efforts will likely shed light on the dark recesses of the secret program? Here's how we handicap the many assaults on the NSA's domestic spying:

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Remember the dust-up in Las Vegas between then-Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-NV) and a cocktail waitress who said he assaulted her drunkenly in a parking garage in the middle of the night?

Gibbons was elected governor of Nevada. And now the police say they've found no evidence to support the charges of battery made by Chrissy Mazzeo, the waitress.

Security of Electronic Voting Is Condemned "Paperless electronic voting machines used throughout the Washington region and much of the country 'cannot be made secure,' according to draft recommendations issued this week by a federal agency that advises the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

"The assessment by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, one of the government's premier research centers, is the most sweeping condemnation of such voting systems by a federal agency.

"In a report hailed by critics of electronic voting, NIST said that voting systems should allow election officials to recount ballots independently from a voting machine's software. The recommendations endorse 'optical-scan' systems in which voters mark paper ballots that are read by a computer and electronic systems that print a paper summary of each ballot, which voters review and elections officials save for recounts." (WaPo)

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We hear that the state's audit team has concluded their examination of Tuesday's mock vote, and attributed any discrepancies that cropped up during the exercise to human error.

On Tuesday, the state's "mock vote" -- its first run of tests on electronic voting machines in Florida's Sarasota County -- unexpectedly handed five extra votes to Democrat Christine Jennings, out of 251 ballots cast. At the time, Florida Division of Elections officials predicted they were the result of human error. After monitoring video of the votes they reaffirmed that belief, deciding that all five votes were the result of mistakes by election officials doing the voting.

On Friday, the audit moves on to its second phase, a similar run of tests on five machines that were actually used on Election Day.

Meanwhile, Jennings' legal contest of the election results is on hold pending the state's audit. If the process concludes without discovering any system errors, Jennings' camp would have to convince the state judge to allow them to run independent tests. Jennings' lawyer has strongly criticized the audit as insufficient.

More later.

Update: Jennings has added ES&S to their lawsuit challenging the election results, a step necessary to force the company to grant access to the machines' "source code," the company's software embedded in each machine.

It's one month before the Democrats take control of Congress. Do you know where your defense team is?

Evidence is mounting that corporate defense attorneys are expecting a billable-hour bonanza to result from congressional Democrats' investigative zeal. As we noted yesterday, Democratic subpoena power is good news for corporate counsel's earning power.

Law firm Dickstein Shapiro achieved quite a coup by snapping up the GOP's two top investigative lawyers from the House Energy and Commerce Committee. (TPMm Reader MV uncharitably notes, "I don't see how being an investigative lawyer for this Congress looks good on a resume.") As the press release announces, the men "will focus their practices on government investigations."

And at Wilmer Hale, prospective corporate clients are being urged to start planning now: "For companies and industries that may find themselves in the spotlight some months down the road, it would be prudent to begin planning early so that they can be ready to make their cases most cogently and effectively should the time come."