TPM News

Yup, here we go again. Beat that drum!

Right on cue, Bush made a statement from the Oval Office this morning to deliver a simple message to House Democrats: if they do not immediately fold and pass the Senate's version of the surveillance bill, then they are jeopardizing "the lives of countless Americans." Because "at this moment, somewhere in the world, terrorists are planning new attacks on our country." House Dems want more time to negotiate the differences between the House and Senate bills, so they've asked for an extension to the administration's sweeping Protect America Act, which passed in an alarmist panic back in August.

But no. That is unacceptable. The only possible course of action is to embrace the Senate bill, a "good bill":

Unfortunately, the House has failed to pass a good bill. And now House leaders say they want still more time to reach agreement with the Senate on a final bill. They make this claim even though it is clear that the Senate bill, the bill passed last night, has significant bipartisan support in the House.

Congress has had over six months to discuss and deliberate. The time for debate is over. I will not accept any temporary extension....

The House's failure to pass the bipartisan Senate bill would jeopardize the security of our citizens. As Director McConnell has told me, without this law, our ability to prevent new attacks will be weakened. And it will become harder for us to uncover terrorist plots. We must not allow this to happen. It is time for Congress to ensure the flow of vital intelligence is not disrupted. It is time for Congress to pass a law that provides a long-term foundation to protect our country. And they must do so immediately.

The maverick reform candidate John McCain claims on the campaign trail that Jack Abramoff and "his lobbyist cronies" have felt the impact of his efforts to combat the lobbying industry. But campaign finance filings show that McCain accepted more than $100,000 from employees of Abramoff's old firm, Greenberg Traurig. McCain has also accepted more than $400,000 from lobbying firms and 59 of his "bundlers" are lobbyists. (Huffington Post)

The trial procedures for Guantanamo Bay detainees that Congress approved in 2006 may prevent defense attorneys from mounting a fair and adequate defense of their clients. Civilian lawyers for the detainees are not allowed to have private meetings with the defendants, will not be allowed to share classified information with their clients, and must turn over all of their mail and notes to the military. The Bush administration has also stated that evidence obtained through torture will not be permissible, but evidence secured through "cruel, inhuman, and degrading" treatment will be allowed. (Washington Post)

The Bush administration has decided to cut over $193 million in funding for UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. According to the Better World Campaign, because U.S. funding for the UN is already low these cuts will bring the total unpaid for peacekeeping next year to more than $600 million. President Bush, appropriately enough, is scheduled to visit Africa beginning this Friday. (ABC's "The Blotter)

Read More →

“Some people around here get cold feet when threatened by the administration,” is how Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) put it.

Yesterday, the Senate enthusiastically endorsed the Administration's wireless wiretapping program (and voted to stop the 40 or so lawsuits against the telecoms for cooperating with it). Now the question becomes whether members of the House will stand by their bill, which contains stronger court oversight of the spying and does not contain retroactive immunity for the telecoms.

The early signs from the House leadership have been that they will strongly oppose the Senate version. The chairmen of the two relevant committees, House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers (D-MI) and House intel committee Chair Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), both say they oppose the Senate bill. Conyers has said outright that he opposes such immunity, while Reyes says he needs more time to review the documents from the program "to make a determination." The House leadership has been making similar noises.

But it will indeed be a battle. The administration has put the pressure on any way it can. It's threatened to veto any bill that does not grant retroactive immunity to the telecoms. It is refusing to agree to any further extension of the Protect America Act -- which, after last month's 15-day extension is set to lapse this Friday -- and is revving up for another round of excoriating Democrats for attempting to extend that deadline while simultaneously warning what a calamity it will be if the bill does lapse.

And, as in August, when both houses passed the administration's sweeping Protect America Act, a group of moderate Democrats in the House are set to bolt. From The Los Angeles Times:

Senior congressional aides said there was no clear path to a compromise on the issue. But a series of recent defections by moderate Democrats in the House raises prospects that the White House position -- or something close to it -- eventually may prevail....

Reluctant to be portrayed as depriving the government of a key tool in the war on terrorism, 21 members of a bloc of moderate House Democrats signed a letter endorsing the Senate approach. Senior Democratic aides said those defections suggested there might be enough support in the House to pass the Senate bill.


The back channel negotiations have already begun. And as no one seems to be able to tell what might happen next, we'll just have to wait and see.

Some sharp words from Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI):

“The Senate passage of this FISA bill, while not surprising, is extremely disappointing. The Senate missed a golden opportunity to pass a bill that would give our intelligence officials the tools they need to go after suspected terrorists while also safeguarding the privacy of law-abiding Americans. Instead the Senate, with the help of too many Democrats, is yet again giving the administration sweeping new powers – and letting it off the hook for its illegal wiretapping program. I hope that our House colleagues will hold a stronger line, and refuse to accept the deeply flawed Senate bill. The calls from Americans tired of having their rights and their Constitution trampled on by this administration are only growing louder. Congress should stand up for the American people, and the Constitution, by opposing such a badly flawed bill.”

On a final 68-29 vote, the Senate just easily passed the surveillance bill with retroactive immunity for the telecoms intact. Once again, a large number of Dems crossed over.

Since most of the amendments that sought to add civil liberty protections to the bill were voted down, the bill that's emerging from the Senate is only a slight improvement of the administration's Protect America Act. As CQ reported this morning:

According to most experts and advocacy groups, the bill would only slightly rein in the new powers granted to the administration in the temporary law (PL 110-55).

The new bill would authorize the president to conduct warrantless surveillance of foreign targets even when they are communicating with someone in the United States.


Among the Dems voting for the bill were Sens. Jim Webb (D-VA), Kent Conrad (D-ND), Max Baucus (D-MT), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Evan Bayh (D-IN), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Bob Casey (D-PA), Ken Salazar (D-CO), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Mary Landrieu (D-LA). Note: both Whitehouse and Baucus voted for the Dodd/Feingold amendment.

So now it's on to see what will happen in negotiations with the House.

Following through on his earlier threat, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), along with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), wrote to the Justice Department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility today to request that he investigate the Department's authorization of waterboarding.

Such an investigation, like a similar ongoing probe into the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, would focus on the circumstances surrounding the Department lawyers' advice (were they clearly just doing the bidding of the White House?) and whether they followed DoJ rules and standards in coming to that conclusion. It's up to the inspector general and OPR whether to launch the probe, however. The senators also asked that the results of any probe be made public.

Read More →

Signaling the fight ahead when lawmakers get together to sort out the differences between the Senate and House surveillance bills, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) wrote White House counsel Fred Fielding today to deliver two messages: 1) from what he's seen of the documents relating to the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, there's no reason to grant the telecoms retroactive immunity (he prefers the term "amnesty"), and 2) Congress needs to know more before it can be expected to consider granting that amnesty.

The administration suddenly gave Conyers, along with a limited number of members of his committee and the full House intelligence committee, access to documents relating to the program late last month. It was obviously part of the administration's drive to secure immunity for the telecoms. But Conyers says that hasn't worked for him:

...review and consideration of the documents and briefings provided so far leads me to conclude that there is no basis for the broad telecommunications company amnesty provisions advocated by the Administration and contained in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) bill being considered today in the Senate, and that these materials raise more questions than they answer on the issue of amnesty for telecommunications providers.


Beyond that, Conyers asks a list of questions about the scope and success of the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, along with a slew of documents related to the program that he hasn't seen. Chief among the documents Conyers wants to see is the October, 2001 memo from John Yoo in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel that originally authorized the warrantless wiretapping program.

Read More →

Speaking to a conference call of reporters this afternoon, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) said that, reflecting on the string of defeats in the Senate today, he thought the House was the best hope for stripping retroactive immunity from the final surveillance bill.

"We've lost every single battle we had on this bill [in the Senate].... We're not getting anywhere at all" he said. "The question now is can the House do better." After the bill passes in the Senate, as is expected late today or tomorrow, the bill would head to a conference. There, conferees from both houses will try to hash out the significant differences between the House and Senate versions, the issue of retroactive immunity chief among them.

However, Dodd said, if the final bill emerging from that powwow does contain retroactive immunity, he said he'd "absolutely" filibuster that bill; he'd use "whatever vehicles we can" to stop it.

The Senate had "just sanctioned" the "single largest invasion of privacy in the history of the country," he said. When asked why he thought so many Dem senators had crossed over, he replied: "Unfortunately, those who are advocating this notion that you have to give up liberties in order to be more secure are apparently prevailing. They seem to be convincing people that you're at risk politically or we're at risk as a nation if we don't give up rights."

Update: And right on cue, here's Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) saying that he can't support retroactive immunity.

The feds are probing whether Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) was on the take from execs at the oil company Veco. One focus in particular has been whether CEO Bill Allen paid for Stevens to jack up his Alaska home and another floor. Allen, cooperating with investigators, even taped phone conversations with Stevens. That much is clear.

But there's another angle to the investigation which seems to center on Stevens' possible use of earmarks to stuff his buddies' pockets. One of those earmarks that's getting a lot of attention is a $1.6 million appropriation Stevens made in 2005 to the Alaska SeaLife Center for it to buy property partially owned by Trevor McCabe, a former aide and close associate of Stevens. McCabe is also tied up in another area of investigation with Stevens' son Ben.

According to this detailed blow-by-blow account of the deal by The Anchorage Daily News, an aide from Stevens' office and a lobbyist teamed up in order to make sure that McCabe and his partners got their money. They had some trouble finding the right organization to close the deal. The City of Seward, where the property is located, was eventually ruled out, because the requisite public oversight would prove too hairy -- it wasn't a sure thing. That's why the funds made their way to the SeaLife Center, a marine research center and tourist attraction that's grown up on $50 million in public money.

As the ADN summarizes the deal:

The backdoor arrangement described in the documents appeared to assure that a money-losing real estate venture by the partners would be bailed out by U.S. taxpayers without any need for the earmark itself to be explicit about its intent. As passed into law, the public language of the legislation only spoke vaguely about "various acquisitions."


The FBI is digging on this, along with the inspector generals from the Interior and Commerce departments.

The Senate is very close to wrapping its work on the bill today.

Part of the agreement between the parties was a cloture vote before moving on to the final vote. That passed easily, with only 29 Dems voting against. The final vote on the bill is expected later today.

Update: Here's the final tally.

TPMLivewire