It's amazing what happens when a former Justice Department official sits behind a microphone.
Earlier this week, six veterans of the Civil Rights Division's voting rights section wrote the Senate Rules Committee to urge that they reject Hans von Spakovsky's nomination as a commissioner at the Federal Election Commission. The reason, they wrote, was that von Spakovsky had been "the point person for undermining the Civil Rights Division's mandate to protect voting rights" when he worked at the Justice Department.
Von Spakovsky, they wrote, had been instrumental in overruling career attorneys who objected to voter ID laws -- such as the infamous case of Georgia's 2005 law, which was ultimately blocked by a federal appeals court, likened by the judge to a Jim Crow-era poll tax.
But in his testimony before the panel yesterday, von Spakovsky said they had it all wrong. He was merely one counsel among many there, and when he was asked his opinion, he gave it; he was not "a decision maker." He nevertheless defended the division's stances, even though, he argued, they weren't his decisions to make. Here is under questioning by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) about the Georgia voter ID law:
Joe Rich, the former chief of the voting rights section, and one of the former section employees who wrote the committee about von Spakovsky, told me that von Spakovsky's minimization of his own role was laughable: "He was the de facto chief of the section."
One example in particular drove this home, Rich said.
The US department of justice is preparing to open a corruption investigation into the arms company BAE, the Guardian has learned. It would cover the alleged Â£1bn arms deal payments to Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia.
Washington sources familiar with the thinking of senior officials at the justice department said yesterday it was "99% certain" that a criminal inquiry would be opened under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Such an investigation would have potentially seismic consequences for BAE, which is trying to take over US arms companies and make the Pentagon its biggest customer.
Those "seismic consequences" would be sure to extend to the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. After all, Tony Blair scotched a British investigation of the payments for just that reason. One wonders if the Bush administration might do the same.
Here's Spencer's piece from earlier this week on the alleged payments to Bandar.
General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is the man everyone's watching. Petraeus has a deserved reputation for clarity and honesty, something I've observed firsthand on two occasions I've had to interview him. His status assessment on the surge, slated to be delivered to congress in September, will be a political milestone for how Washington views the war, and so there's no shortage of speculation about what message Petraeus will deliver. If it's anything like his interviewwith USA Today, though, expect his briefing to accentuate the positive.
On a day when the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra threatened to reignite sectarian chaos, Petraeus gave a curious description of Baghdad to the paper:
If you drive around Baghdad, you'll find astonishing signs of normalcy in perhaps half to two-thirds of the city. â¦ In fact, the car bomb numbers have come down fairly steadily as well until just a couple of days ago, and we'll see if we can get those coming down again. â¦
There's a real vibrancy in certain parts of Iraq, and in others obviously there is continued fighting and a sectarian cycle of violence underway. Obviously, there is damage, a need to â¦ help them stitch back the fabric of society that was torn during the height of the sectarian violence.
When I was in Baghdad in March, I saw normalcy myself, but I also saw a police force infiltrated with Shiite militias and a city teeming with tension. His interview came right as Baghdad instituted a total vehicular curfew, a number of Sunni mosques were bombedin retaliation for Samarra, and Iraq waits to see how bad the fallout from the attack will be. If that wasn't enough, the Pentagon's latest quarterly report on Iraq shows no decrease in violence, despite the arrival of Petraeus as commander and a 30,000-troop reinforcement. Suggesting that the "vibrancy" of certain parts of Iraq is as significant as this larger picture risks diminishing Petraeus's hard-won credibility for the first time in his career.
Someone is trying to scrub voter fraud kingpin Thor Hearne's wikipedia entry of mentions of the American Center for Voting Rights, the organziation he used to push the cause over the past two years. (Slate, The Brad Blog)
Scooter Libby heads to court today to try to forestall his 2 1/2-year prison term in the Plame case. Patrick Fitzgerald wants him put in jail immediately. (AP)
The FBI has let its agents know that they should review all personal data collected from Americans in terrorism investigations before it is uploaded into FBI databases. So you can sleep easy now. (AP)
Stop the presses: enhanced powers given to the FBI to obtain communications or financial data in national security investigations without judicial approval... has been repeatedly abused!
In March, the Justice Department's inspector general, Glenn Fine, disclosed 22 cases of misconduct in agents' use of National Security Letters, a power given under the Patriot Act allowing the FBI to in effect subpoena e-mail, telephone and financial records from third parties -- like internet service providers -- entirely in secret. NSL's, as they're known, are only supposed to be used in terrorism cases, and only when agents are able to provide "specific and articulable" reasons tying the subject of the data to a terrorism investigation.
Fine discovered the FBI had been using NSL's to circumvent the more cumbersome process of obtaining warrants, relying on NSLs in non-terrorism cases or under circumstances where they didn't meet the "specific and articulable" threshold. That, however, was on a relatively limited scale -- 22 cases out of a sample of 293 -- although Fine noted that between 2002 and 2006, the FBI issued a staggering 19,000 NSL's. Today, the Washington Post finds that the March report only scratches the surface:
An internal FBI audit has found that the bureau potentially violated the law or agency rules more than 1,000 times while collecting data about domestic phone calls, e-mails and financial transactions in recent years, far more than was documented in a Justice Department report in March that ignited bipartisan congressional criticism.
The new audit covers just 10 percent of the bureau's national security investigations since 2002, and so the mistakes in the FBI's domestic surveillance efforts probably number several thousand, bureau officials said in interviews. The earlier report found 22 violations in a much smaller sampling.
When the story broke in March, embattled FBI Director Robert Mueller promised the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was acting expeditiously to fix the problem.
According to the Post, the audit has so far turned up no evidence of intentional wrongdoing. Instead, its found that the FBI has been less than rigorous in ensuring that agents understand that NSLs are supposed to be used only in terrorism-related emergencies, and carry with them a strict limit on how long collected information may be retained. Once again, the FBI is promising that it'll put enhanced safeguards into place, and now has a "clear plan" to do so:
Of the more than 1,000 violations uncovered by the new audit, about 700 involved telephone companies and other communications firms providing information that exceeded what the FBI's national security letters had sought. But rather than destroying the unsolicited data, agents in some instances issued new National Security Letters to ensure that they could keep the mistakenly provided information. Officials cited as an example the retention of an extra month's phone records, beyond the period specified by the agents.
Case agents are now told that they must identify mistakenly produced information and isolate it from investigative files. "Human errors will inevitably occur with third parties, but we now have a clear plan with clear lines of responsibility to ensure errant information that is mistakenly produced will be caught as it is produced and before it is added to any FBI database," (FBI General Counsel Valerie) Caproni said.
The FBI should conclude its audit in the next few weeks. That should give Mueller enough time to prepare for his next round of hat-in-hand testimony.
Here's Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Arlen Specter (R-PA) on the floor of the Senate today making an offer to the White House for a compromise:
The standing offer from the White House is that congressional investigators interview White House aides about the U.S. attorney firings behind closed doors, with no oath or no transcript. Democrats have rejected that, and today the chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees issued subpoenas for former White House counsel Harriet Miers and Karl Rove's former top aide Sara Taylor.
Specter said that he'd spoken to the current White House counsel Fred Fielding today about the subpoenas for Taylor and Miers. Specter went on to muse about a possible compromise. He'd prefer that there be a public hearing and that the hearing be under oath, but said that's not necessary, given that it's a crime to lie to investigators, even if it's not under oath. But Specter said there needs to be a transcript -- otherwise it would be much more difficult to hold an aide to account for lying.
So if the White House offers to hand over Taylor and Miers for private interviews with a transcript (but no oath), Specter would agree. And given that a court battle between Congress and the White House is likely to drag on for months upon months, you can bet that Democrats would give such a deal serious consideration.
But before any of that happens, the White House has to give ground -- something they haven't done since Congress started knocking on the door in March. Will the subpoenas change that?
In Lurita Doan's defense, she has trouble with tense sometimes. That's why members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform think she planned to punish her employees at the General Services Administration for cooperating with investigators, not because she actually planned to sanction anyone.
Lurita Doan explained her grammatical shortfalls in her testimony today. But Democrats on the committee had a hard time buying it. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) took her to task on her tense mincing over a statement Doan made about GSA employees that had cooperated with the Office of Special Council in its investigation into her conduct. When pushed, Doan claimed she meant to invoke the "hortatory subjuctive" when she said:
Until extensive rehabilitation of their performance occurs, they will not be getting promoted and will not be getting bonuses or special awards or anything of that nature.
Son of a Latin teacher, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) disagreed. He called her statement the common "future" tense. He also spotted a connection between her grammatical defense and an accusation that she encouraged her employees to help out Republican Congressional races. At a presentation given by Karl Roves' deputy she asked her GSA employess: "How can we help our candidates?"
Here's the video of Yarmuth, Sarbanes and the hortatory subjunctive:
Update: For those at home who aren't ace grammarians, the hortatory subjunctive of Doan's phrase would read:
Until extensive rehabilitation of their performance occurs, let's not promote and not give them bonuses or special awards or anything of that nature.
Update: Here's much more from Doan's testimony today.
Late Update: TPM Reader lampwick weighs in below in the comments:
As the son of the mother of a Latin teacher, I feel bound to point out that the subjunctive is a mood, not a tense. The subjunctive is used for hypotheticals and certain types of commands. The most commonly used mood is the indicative, used for statements of fact. Thus 'will' is the future indicative; 'let us do what Rove says' would be the subjunctive; present subjunctive, in fact.
Today the head of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) told Lurita Doan, chief of the government's procurement agency, that she ought to step down.
Doan was back in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform today where Democrats wanted to know why she gave the Office of Special Counsel information that seemed to contradict what she first told the committee under oath in March.
The Office of Special Counsel questioned Doan over a possible violation of the Hatch Act about a month after she faced the House Oversight Committee. In a letter to the president released yesterday, Special Counsel Scott Bloch said his findings show that Doan should be punished to the fullest extent possible, which would mean being fired.
The Hatch Act violation stems from a comment she made to her employees about helping Republican congressional candidates. Doan made the comment, according to General Services Administration employees present, at a January 26 meeting at the GSA where Karl Rove's deputy Scott Jennings put on a slideshow showing key House and Senate races coming up in the 2008 election cycle.
In March, Doan had little memory of the meeting, but when she spoke with the Office of Special Counsel she recalled many more details. She also made disparaging comments about GSA employees who cooperated in the investigation, calling them poor performers. She also implied that she'd be sure they would not receive promotions or bonuses in the future.
The fight between Congress and the White House over testimony from White House aides over the U.S. attorney firings has officially entered its second stage. The first stage, a stalemate punctuated by threats of subpoenas, lasted three months. The second stage is likely to last much longer.
We noted the subpoenas to Karl Rove's former aide Sara Taylor and former White House counsel Harriet Miers earlier today. You can see the subpoena for Miers here.
Also among the subpoenas issued this morning were subpoenas from the House and Senate judiciary committees to the White House for "all documents in the possession, custody or control of the White House" that relate to the U.S. attorney firings. You can see the two letters to White House counsel Fred Fielding from the committee chairmen today below.
As CNN reports, the subpoenas are likely to lead to a long fight:
Two Democratic congressional sources say they decided not to subpoena Rove because they are building their case by talking to and gathering information from lower level witnesses and officials, before they get to the more senior, more important witnesses.
"We want to build up and get documents to have basis to ask questions of Rove," one of the sources said. "It's the way you do it in any investigation."
Having said that, the source said the reality is that this will end up in a constitutional showdown and they will never get a chance to talk to any of the White House witnesses.
The documents aren't likely to be any easier to obtain. In both of their letters to White House counsel Fred Fielding today (see below), the chairmen excoriate the White House for stonewalling their investigations for three months. Fiedling has not wavered from his initial offer of interviews with Karl Rove and other aides only in private with no oath or transcript, an offer that also included an offer to turn over external emails -- emails between White House staffers and others outside the White House.
Both chairmen remind Fielding of that earlier offer, but Fielding has said before that the White House won't turn over anything unless it is part of a package deal, which would include Congress agreeing to the closed door, no transcript interviews -- something the chairmen refuse to do.
Update: Here's Laura's post from last month on the murky aftermath when a subpoena is contested.
Technically, if the showdown between the White House and Congress is not resolved, the matter could end up with House and Senate contempt citations and a session in federal court.
Congressional officials knowledgeable about the probe painted a dark picture of what the Democratic-led committees might do if the White House refuses to comply.
One option, these officials said, are votes in committee and on the House and Senate floors on contempt citations against any subjects of the subpoenas who don't comply. Another, according to one aide, is a subpoena for White House Counsel Fred Fielding, compelling him to testify publicly about the Bush administration's reasons if the subpoenas are ignored. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the White House, Miers and Taylor had not yet responded to the subpoenas.