Representatives Henry Waxman and Dennis Kucinich have asked Hunt Oil, a Texas company whose CEO has close ties to President Bush, to turn over all Iraq-related communication with the U.S. government. Huntâs recent oil deal with the Kurds (which al-Maliki's oil minister has called âillegalâ) has raised suspicion in Washington about whether Hunt acted on inside information. Kucinich is also concerned that the presidentâs friend, Ray Hunt, "may have undermined; U.S. national policy of working toward the passage of an oil revenue sharing plan." (Dallas Morning News)
Michael Mukassey is the $28 million dollar man. Since the U.S. Marshals Service began protecting him in the early 1990s, the cost to taxpayers has been $10,000 a day. Marshals Service employees have filed a grievance that complains about being overworked and being used for personal service such as carrying groceries and golf clubs, and taking out the trash. (Washington Post)
Poor telecoms. The three major telecommunications companies have refused to disclose what their role was (or even if they had a role) in the government's warrantless wiretapping program. The justification is that the companies don't want to step into a battle between surveillance by the executive branch and Congressional oversight. Meanwhile, the firms are facing a barrage of lawsuits, and the government isn't worry about providing much assistance beyond retroactive immunity. (NY Times)
Fare thee well, J. Scott Jennings. The former Rove adviser is moving on to greener pastures: Peritus Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. (Politico)
Just in time for this week's Senate intelligence committee's fight over telecom immunity: Verizon disclosed to three Democratic lawmakers that it turned over subscriber information, such as IP addresses or phone records, to the FBI in emergency situations more than 720 times. In making such warrant-free demands of Verizon -- and surely other telecommunications companies -- the FBI wanted not just information on whom the target of its investigation contacted, but also the people whom the contacts contacted.
That's called "community of interest" information. Last month, The New York Timesreported that the FBI has suspended seeking such data pending an inspector general's investigation into the use of national security letters. Verizon did not comply with the community-of-interest request, but only because it doesn't store such information. Presumably other telecom providers -- who did not respond to Congressional requests for details about their compliance with the FBI -- do. (Verizon would only discuss what it disclosed to the FBI, not anything having to do with warrantless NSA surveillance. And the relationship between those agencies' surveillance programs is still a big unknown.) Quick, has anyone you know emailed anyone who's called Pakistan lately?
These warrant-free disclosures concerned not just potential terrorism, but also child-predator and kidnapping cases -- what The Washington Post calls "a range of investigations." Lawyers for AT&T and Verizon told House Democrats John Dingell (D-MI), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Bart Stupak (D-MI) that they typically comply with the emergency requests expeditiously, trusting that the FBI is acting legally:
AT&T and Verizon both argued that the onus should not be on the companies to determine whether the government has lawfully requested customer records. To do so in emergency cases would "slow lawful efforts to protect the public," wrote Randal S. Milch, senior vice president of legal and external affairs for Verizon Business, a subsidiary of Verizon Communications.
"Public officials, not private businessmen, must ultimately be responsible for whether the legal judgments underlying authorized surveillance activities turn out to be right or wrong -- legally or politically," wrote Wayne Watts, AT&T's senior executive vice president and general counsel. "Telecommunications carriers have a part to play in guarding against official abuses, but it is necessarily a modest one."
You can read Verizon's letter to the three Democrats here (pdf). AT&T's is here (pdf), and a third, from Qwest, is here (pdf).
Expect oversight of FBI national security letter and exigent letter requests to play a large role in tomorrow's confirmation hearing for Attorney General-designee Michael Mukasey. And that's not all: on Thursday the Senate intelligence committee will mark up -- in secret, says the ACLU -- its version of FISA reform. Civil liberties groups already fear that the Senate bill contains retroactive telecom immunity. We'll soon see whether Verizon's disclosures give senators pause.
Joseph Nacchio, the former CEO of Qwest Communications, delivered a pair of twin bombshells last week, when he asserted in a court filing that the National Security Agency had approached Qwest six months before 9/11 about participating in a legally dubious program, and that after the company declined, the administration yanked hundreds of millions in government contracts.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers' (D-MI) eyebrows are firmly in the raised position. So today he wrote Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and senior Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein, who both testified before his committee last month, to inquire: "I ask that you provide the Committee with an immediate briefing on the facts behind these recent revelations, and that you then provide us with any documents concerning the nature and scope of these pre-9/11 activities and the legal basis for conducting them."
Questions about possible retaliation against Nacchio after he refused to participate -- including not only the loss of contracts, but also federal prosecution (he was convicted earlier this year of insider trading charges) -- are, one assumes, to follow.
Earlier this month, The Washington Postreported on an Air Force procurement official, Charles Riechers, who received $16,788 from a defense intelligence contractor while he was awaiting Senate confirmation. The Air Force defended Riechers' arrangement with the company, although a contracting-law expert told the paper it was "seriously questionable."
The second-highest ranking member of the Air Forceâs procurement office was found dead of an apparent suicide at his Virginia home Sunday, Air Force and police officials said today.
The official, Charles D. Riechers, 47, came under scrutiny by the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month after the Air Force arranged for him to be paid $13,400 a month by a private contractor, Commonwealth Research Institute, while he awaited review from the White House of his appointment as principal deputy assistant secretary for acquisition. He was appointed to the job in January. ...
The Air Force has disputed The Postâs portrayal of Mr. Riechersâs role and said in a statement today that he was âemployed in a scientific and engineering technical assistance capacity to the Air Force and made recommendations that were instrumental in engineering our acquisition transformation and continuing the Air Forceâs modernization of our aging fleet.â
Specifically, the Air Force said that Mr. Riechers, a retired Air Force officer and master navigator, provided technical advice on several programs including converting commercial aircraft to military using and modernizing the C-130 transport plane. Loren Thompson, an expert on the military at The Lexington Institute said it was unclear whether Mr. Riechersâs suicide had anything to do with the inquiry. However, he said that Mr. Riechersâs death would cast a further shadow over the Pentagonâs beleaguered procurement system.
A long, twilight struggle between Dick Cheney and the forces of evil is the subject of an impressive new Frontlinedocumentary, "Cheney's Law," airing tomorrow on PBS. In the balance? The nation's legal traditions over interrogations, detentions, surveillance and every other liberty-security tradeoff made since the Cold War.
Here's a sneak preview:
Readers of Barton Gellman and Jo Becker's Cheney series, "Angler," will be familiar with a lot of this material. The battles fought by Cheney and his longtime legal counsel, David Addington, to expand unilateral executive authority over warmaking functions is the principal thrust of the narrative. But seeing many of the participants tell their stories on camera makes for compelling and vivid journalism. In particular, the documentary devotes a lot of time to Jack Goldsmith, the former Office of Legal Counsel chief who clashed sharply with Addington over interrogations and surveillance. Seeing Goldsmith's frustration, seriousness and occasional anguish adds a layer of complexity to the story that print can't often capture. It's a shame that neither Cheney nor Addington consented to interviews.
But that's not to say that Frontline doesn't advance the story.
Blackwater's Erik Prince is all over television these days, making the rounds on Late Edition, 60 Minutes and, tonight, Charlie Rose. His line is that Blackwater is a responsible security firm operating under duly constituted legal authority in Iraq. The trouble, as always, is Nisour Square, where Blackwater guards, apparently believing they were under attack, killed 17 Iraqi civilians. In particular: were Blackwater guards even fired on by Iraqis?
The U.S. military and the Iraqi government say no. In fact, the U.S. unit on the scene says that Blackwater fired on Iraqis as they ran from the square. But Blackwater says its convoys came under "complex attack" -- first from a nearby car bomb that put the convoy on notice, and then from small arms fire. It was a line that Prince reiterated in his television appearances. "At least three of our armored vehicles were hit by small arms fire incoming," Prince told Wolf Blitzer yesterday. "There was definitely incoming small arms fire from insurgents."
Both eyewitness accounts and an Iraqi investigation -- reliant on videotape, interviews and other unspecified investigative methods -- have discounted the idea that Iraqis fired on Blackwater. Prince was pressed on the forensic evidence on the scene: the spent rounds that reportedly match Blackwater weapons, and not Iraqi ones. (If the small arms fire came from insurgents, chances are you would find Kalashnikov rounds littering the square, and Blackwater guards aren't known to fire the inferior, non-U.S. weapon.)
His reply? It would probably take a "battalion" to thoroughly secure the square sufficiently for a thorough forensic search, so "the jury's still out." He told 60 Minutes' Lara Logan that neither the U.S. military nor the Iraqis performed a "C.S.I."-like investigation.
CBS news highlighted some of Sen. Ted Stevens' (R-AK) greatest pork hits this weekend-- including $1 million to promote salmon baby food and $500,000 to paint a jet like a flying fish.
The airplane project was sponsored by the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, a non-profit set up by Stevens and originally run by his son and former aide. The board hands out tens of millions in grants to promote the Alaska seafood industry.
Stevens' press secretary, Aaron Saunders, tells KTVA-CBS 11 News the senator is, "dismayed CBS ignored the facts."
" ...we never said the salmon baby food project was designed to promote Alaska salmon. Furthermore, we emphasized that these funds were not allocated for the development of salmon-flavored baby foods, as it appeared in the story. It was to be used to explore the many health benefits of omega 3s, which certainly could help children across America, not just in Alaska," [Saunders said].
Stevens' office apparently had no comment on the half million for the Alaska Airlines salmon paint job.
Now we're getting somewhere. On Friday, Mitchell Wade took the stand.
He's the government's star witness in its case against Brent Wilkes, a defense contractor who says that the hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts he gave to Cunningham weren't bribes: Wade's an admittedly dirty defense contractor who admits that all those giftswere intended as bribes.
It was a simple set-up, Wade testified. Once he found out that the secret to Wilkes' success as a contractor was Cunningham, he decided to get himself a piece. And sure enough, it worked. The downside? Keeping a congressman on the hook meant you had to spend time with the guy. From The San Diego Union-Tribune:
Joseph Nacchio, the former CEO of Quest Communications, claimed in a court filing last week that the NSA approached his company six months before September 11th about participating in the government's secretive warrantless wiretapping program. Nacchio says the government withdrew hundreds of millions in contracts after Quest refused to cooperate. And, as Threat Level points out, Quest wasn't the only telecom targeted by the new Bush administration; AT&T had budgeted for an NSA room with full access to customer records also before 9/11. (Washington Post, Wired)
This should make you nervous. An unidentified CIA legal official, despite his reputation for being a hardliner, quit in protest over the administration's use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques against detainees. (Harper's)
It must be fun trying to skirt new lobbying reform regulation. This week The Washington Post has an article on the convolutions necessary to ensure that lobbyists can still give favors to their favorite lawmakers. Case in point: lobbyists are buying tickets to charity balls, having the charity invite a lawmaker for them, as well as guarantee the company and the lawmaker are seated together. Subtle. (Washington Post)
Blackwater's once-reclusive Erik Prince has launched a PR offensive, bringing the press to the private-security firm's Moyock, N.C. compound and showing up on TV chat shows. (More on that in a moment.) The strategy is clear enough: Prince wants to debunk Blackwater's image as out-of-control mercenaries in the wake of the Nisour Square shootings. And that's because Prince is prepping his company for even more lucrative contracts than the billion dollars Blackwater has received from the U.S. government since 9/11. As The Wall Street Journalreports today, Prince is looking to take on the biggest defense contractors in the country.
According to the Blackwater founder and CEO, private security -- guarding U.S. personnel in war-torn countries, as Blackwater does in Iraq -- shouldn't be what defines the company. "We see the security market diminishing," he told the paper. Instead, Blackwater wants to grow its training and logistics work, placing Blackwater in the center of what the WSJ terms "missions to which the [U.S. military] won't commit American forces." For example, Blackwater recently outbid Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and Raytheon for a five-year, $15 billion contract to "fight terrorists with drug ties." Get ready to see a lot of Blackwater in Colombia.
Signs of Blackwater's expansion -- even amidst the Nisour Square controversy -- are evident, the paper reports:
The company has a fleet of 40 aircraft, including small turboprop cargo planes that can land on runways too small or rough for the Air Force. The company's aviation unit has done repeat business with the Defense Department in Central Asia, flying small loads of cargo between bases.
Also in the North Carolina compound: an armored-car production line that Mr. Prince says will be able to build 1,000 of the brutish-looking Grizzly vehicles a year. The project arose out of a need for Blackwater to protect its security convoys in Iraq. Drawing on Mr. Prince's family history in the automotive industry, Blackwater made sure that the vehicles are legal to drive on U.S. highways.
Mr. Prince bought a 183-foot civilian vessel that Blackwater has modified for potential paramilitary use. Mr. Prince sees the ship as a possible step into worlds such as search-and-rescue, peacekeeping and maritime training.
It's not clear whether Blackwater would seek, or get, private-security roles in its Defense Department contracts akin to those it has from the State Department in Iraq. Nor is it clear how exactly Blackwater managed to beat such established defense giants for the narco-terrorism contract.
But it is looking more like Blackwater might actually be kicked out of Iraq. For the first time since the shootings on September 16, U.S. and Iraqi officials are seriously negotiating the company's expulsion. Evidently, Prince is preparing for such a loss by fighting Blackwater's reputation in the court of public opinion -- and then laying the ground for much, much bigger things.