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Just part of the Bush administration economic stimulus plan: big business for companies insuring federal workers. From The New York Times:

When Al Qaeda attacked the United States in 2001, Wright & Company was insuring about 17,000 federal employees against the legal hazards of their work. Today, that total has nearly doubled to 32,000, Wright executives say, spurred in part by a spate of lawsuits, investigations and criminal prosecutions related to mistreatment of detainees from Iraq to Guantánamo Bay, an immigration crackdown and other aftershocks of 9/11. The insurance is popular with F.B.I. agents, Secret Service officers, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement workers as well as C.I.A. officers.

“The things that help us are any negative events related to the federal government, and there have been plenty,” said Bryan B. Lewis, Wright’s president and chief executive, who holds a security clearance that allows him to discuss his clients’ secret business.

Yes, times are good.

One of the latest to draw on his policy is Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA official who ordered the destruction of the torture tapes. He's used it to pay for heavy-hitter Bob Bennett, the Times reports, though how long that's going to last him, nobody knows (Bennett charges up to $900 per hour). He's covered for up to $200,000 in fees to represent him against Congress' probe, and $100,000 in fees for the criminal probe.

We know what President Bush thinks of the National Intelligence Estimate which inconveniently concluded "with high confidence" that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. As he put it, the intelligence community sometimes comes to conclusions "separate from what I may or may not want."

But John Bolton has a way of striking to the heart of the issue. From The Jerusalem Post:

The 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate, as well as the skewed reporting around it, is a sign of the "illegitimate politicization" of the American intelligence establishment, according to former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton....

"I know the people who wrote this intelligence estimate," Bolton continued. "They are not from our intelligence community. They're from our State Department. It was a highly politicized document written by people who had a very clear policy objective."

Hypocritical as it might seem for a former Bush administration official to decry "politicization" of the government, Bolton is actually quite canny in his phrasing here. His problem is with "illegitimate" politicization, not politicization in general. That's because, as he explains, "in our system, constitutional legitimacy flows from the president, who was elected, through his officials."

It's official! The EPA-California greenhouse gas affair has matured into the promised knock-down-drag-out fight it showed promise to become. That's right, barely a month into it, and we've already got an assertion of executive privilege.

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, we know, is no shrinking violet. He has chutzpah in deep reserve. He showed that by denying California's petition to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks over the reportedly universal objection of his staff and with sure knowledge that his move would ultimately be reversed in court. His explanation? The Bush administration already has a comprehensive policy. So California's meddling is not welcome.

Immediately after his decision, Johnson was set upon by two Californians with subpoena power: Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Senate environmental committee, and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), who chairs the House oversight committee. They demanded documents -- documents that will reportedly show EPA staff advising Johnson he had to grant the waiver. But those documents have been a long time coming.

On Friday, Boxer's committee got their first batch. But... many of the pages were completely blank. The AP reports that "everything except the titles was omitted from 16 pages of a 43-page Power Point presentation" included in the documents (one of the slides reportedly reads "EPA likely to lose suit" -- I'm guessing that's one of the whited-out ones).

The reason, EPA associate administrator Christopher P. Bliley wrote, was that the "EPA has identified an important Executive Branch confidentiality interest in a number of these documents" -- code for executive privilege. Or executive privilege of a sort. Boxer and her staff could visit the EPA and see the complete unredacted documents, but they couldn't keep copies of them.

Bliley gave three reasons for invoking that privilege (you can read his letter in full here). The first is a familiar one: a supposed "chilling effect" that would result from disclosing internal deliberations "in a broad setting." But the second reason is one I haven't seen before. It deserves to be quoted in full:

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The U.S. military asserts that attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq that involve Iranian bombs have sharply declined (sub. req.) and that the influx of Iranian weapons has also waned. Rear Adm. Gregory Smith asserted that "the number of signature weapons that had come from Iran and had been used against coalition and Iraqi forces are down dramatically except for this short uptick in the EFPs in the early part of January," yet these remarks were preceded by allegations from Gen. David Petraeus last week that EFP attacks had risen by a factor of two or three recently. (Wall Street Journal)

For approximately one week, Canada placed the U.S. on a “torture watch list.” But as a result of complaints from the U.S., Canada’s foreign minister has conceded that his nation “wrongly” included “some of our closest allies.” The U.S. Ambassador to Canada argued that it was “offensive for us to be on the same list with countries like Iran and China,” but Amnesty International noted that Canada’s primary concern should “should not be” whether it is “embarrassing allies.” (Think Progress, BBC News)

For the fourth time in fewer than three years, the highest ranking editor or the publisher of the Los Angeles Times has been forced out for taking a stand against newsroom job and budget cuts. The paper’s top editor, James O’Shea, resisted calls by publisher, David Hiller to cut the news budget by $4 million. (New York Times)

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We spent a good deal of time in the 2006 elections tracking the activity of third party groups on the right, groups with anonymous names like the Economic Freedom Fund. Funded by the most part by millionaire home-builder (and former Swift Boat patron) Bob Perry, the groups swooped in to attack Dem candidates throughout the country, airing radio, TV, and print ads and calling hundreds of thousands of voters with push polls.

But Perry only gave about $9 million to such groups that year. Freedom's Watch, with its close White House connections and network of Bob Perrys, is a whole new breed.

The group aims to raise and spend approximately $250 million for the 2008 cycle, a vast amount of money they apparently plan to use not only on the presidential election, but to greater effect in numerous House and Senate races throughout the country, where six figures can go a long way.

To review the White House connections: the group is headed by Bradley Blakeman, a former Bush White House official, Mel Sembler, a millionaire former Bush admbassador to Italy, and Ari Fleischer, who serves as the group's spokesman. Much of its support so far has come from Sembler and casino magnate and billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the sixth richest person in the world. (The group intends to "broaden its base" as time goes on, Fleischer says.) The group got off the ground with a $15 million effort to support the president's surge strategy in August, but it's sticking around for the long haul.

The Washington Post headlines its takeout on the group "A Conservative Answer to MoveOn." To which the founder responds:

Wes Boyd, who co-founded with his wife in their home in Berkeley, Calif., said the two groups are fundamentally different because his liberal organization was set up outside the influence of Democratic Party operatives and is funded primarily by small-dollar donors around the country.

Freedom's Watch, on the other hand, is "doing attack ads by Beltway operatives, financed by billionaires, at the request of the White House," Boyd said by e-mail. "MoveOn helps millions of real people get engaged and be heard and is solely funded by these same people."

Whether Freedom's Watch is the right's MoveOn or not -- and at least for now the comparison is silly -- they're sure to be a major factor in the elections this year. A special election in December showed how:

Adelson personally wrote an $80,000 check to Freedom's Watch on Dec. 7... just four days before the election that gave Republican Robert Latta the House seat representing the district around Bowling Green. Behind a blood-red foreground, the group's ad showed Latinos hurrying under fences and being frisked by police as a narrator accused Democratic candidate Robin Weirauch and "liberals in Congress" of supporting free health care for illegal immigrants....

After Latta won, the DCCC chairman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), issued a memo warning fellow Democrats about the new independent group gunning for them. Van Hollen's campaign committee has $31 million, compared with $2.3 million for the Republicans' committee, but he is deeply concerned that independent groups on the right are now engaged in congressional races while liberal groups are focused on the presidential race.

When it comes to political money, "there's a whole other universe out there," Van Hollen said he told Democrats. "Don't get lulled into a false sense of security."

They say everything is bigger in Texas. And sure enough, if you've ever seen a bigger legal mess than the case of Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina, we'd love to hear about it.

Last June, the Medinas' house burned down in a fire that spread to two other houses, causing a total of about $900,000 in damages. Investigators suspected arson when they found an accelerant in the Medinas’ garage where the fire started. And the discovery that the house had been in foreclosure a year earlier deepened their suspicion. Medina and his wife gave conflicting accounts of the judge’s whereabouts at the time of the fire.

So Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal (R) duly convened a grand jury to examine the evidence. After deliberating three months past the scheduled end of its term, the jurors told prosecutor Vic Wisner on Thursday to prepare the indictments.

Wisner refused.

According to jury foreman Bob Ryan, “He slammed the door and left.” Later, Wisner thought better of that and agreed to prepare the indictments.

Medina was charged with tampering with or falsifying evidence, and his wife with arson, both felonies. Arson carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison; tampering with an investigation, a maximum of 10 years. They were set free on bail—$20,000 for Mrs. Medina and $5,000 for the judge.

The next day, Rosenthal dismissed the charges.

Ryan, who’s served as foreman on grand juries at least four times, was not happy: “This is ludicrous.... Mr. Rosenthal never put his head in the door and heard one word of testimony.”

Both Ryan and the assistant foreman, Jeffrey Dorrell, alleged that the jury was given to understand, before hearing any evidence, that the case had no merit.

“It was theater of the absurd,” observed Dorrell. "We knew before we handed the indictment down that the district attorney was going to refuse to prosecute, but we did it anyway.”

Ryan is considering reconvening the grand jury next week.

To add to the mess, the two have risked breaking a law that mandates the secrecy of grand jury proceedings; both say they haven't actually crossed the line.

But late Friday, Medina’s attorney, Terry Yates, filed a motion asking for a hearing to determine whether Ryan and Dorrell acted illegally. (If held in contempt, the pair could be fined $500 and given 30 days in jail.)

Yates accused them of indicting Medina in order to embarrass Rosenthal: “They've made a mockery of the entire process... This is crazy. This is mind-boggling, what this grand jury has done. This is more than a runaway grand jury. This is a grand jury speeding away in a Lamborghini.”

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South Carolina already had the reputation as a key forum for dirty campaign tricks before 2000. It was, after all, the home of Lee Atwater. But 2000, with its variety of smears distributed by push polls, faxes, fliers, and emails, cemented it.

But you got South Carolina all wrong, Tucker Eskew, George W. Bush's campaign spokesman in 2000, wants you to know. In this interview shot for the forthcoming documentary on Atwater, Boogie Man, Eskew, an Atwater protege, objects to the idea that racist smears work there:

It's "an insult" and "unfair to suggest that a state like South Carolina is a bunch of rubes because of our past," he says. So why would the Bush campaign have gotten involved in something like that? The McCain illegitimate black baby smear was "just some crazy rumor that some one person may have spread." And as for the impact, maybe "a few hundred people" may have been affected -- a "few rubes." Certainly not the payoff that a campaign genius like Karl Rove (another Atwater protege) would waste time with.

From the necessarily spotty reporting on what really happened in 2000, however, it's apparent that the rubes were out in force that year, distributing fliers about McCain's "Negro child" and running phone banks to push that and other rumors. So far, this election seems very tame by comparison.

On the one hand, Mike Huckabee really is in a bind.

Common Sense Issues is calling millions of voters and telling them that John McCain wants to allow experiments on unborn babies and that Fred Thompson supports partial-birth abortion. He can't do anything to stop it. And in a deft bit of spin, he says the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law is at fault -- so it's John McCain's fault that Huckabee can't stop the group from smearing McCain.

He's criticized the calls, said he "wished they would stop," and now has gone so far as to tell NPR, "I personally wish all of this were outlawed." (He didn't mention that the calls actually are illegal under state law in South Carolina.)

On the other hand, from what the group has disclosed, it's apparent that most, if not all, of its major donors also support Huckabee.

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"You can take me out of the system, but that's like taking a bucket of water out of the ocean." Here's Allen Raymond, the New Hampshire phone jammer, talking about How to Rig An Election with Jon Stewart last night:

For those who missed it, here's my vote for the most memorable excerpt from the book.

Raymond has also been blogging over at TPMCafe this week.

From The Washington Post:

Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) testified yesterday that an FBI agent cursed at him and told him that "this is going to be the worst day of your life," just before agents searched his Louisiana home as part of the investigation that led to corruption charges against him.

At one point during the tense interview at his house in August 2005, Jefferson said, an FBI agent followed him to the bathroom. "I told him, 'Are you going to the bathroom with me?' " Jefferson said in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. "He said, 'Yes.' "

Minutes later, another agent informed Jefferson that $100,000 he had accepted from a government informant -- allegedly used to bribe the vice president of Nigeria -- had been supplied by the FBI. Leaning forward, the agent yelled, "Where is my [expletive] money?" Jefferson testified.

(The Hill helpfully fills in the expletive.) Jefferson didn't reply, "in the freezer." Instead, he says, he refused to answer any more questions at that point.