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Why is this man smiling? From the AP:

The State Department says it will renew Blackwater USA's license to protect diplomats in Baghdad for one year, but a final decision about whether the private security company will keep the job is pending.

A top State Department official said that because the FBI is still investigating last year's fatal shooting of Baghdad civilians, there is no reason not to renew the contract when it comes due in May. Blackwater has a five-year deal to provide personal protection for diplomats, which is reauthorized each year.

Iraqis were outraged over a Sept. 16 shooting in which 17 civilians were killed in a Baghdad square. Blackwater said its guards were protecting diplomats under attack before they opened fire, but Iraqi investigators concluded the shooting was unprovoked.

Since the "top State Department official" seems so blithe about the FBI investigation, it's worth recalling that Justice Department faces probably insurmountable obstacles in bringing a prosecution based on the Nisour Square shootings. That's despite the fact that the FBI determined that the guards had indeed opened fire without provocation.

Update: More from Reuters:

"I have requested and received approval to have task order six -- which Blackwater has to provide personal protective services in Baghdad -- renewed ... for one year," the head of diplomatic security, Gregory Starr, told reporters....

Asked whether the Blackwater Baghdad deal could be scrapped if the FBI investigation found wrongdoing, Starr said: "We can terminate contracts at the convenience of the government if we have to."

"I am not going to prejudge what the FBI is going to find in their investigation. I think really, it is complex. I think that the U.S. government needs protective services," he said.

"Essentially I think they do a very good job. The September 16th incident was a tragedy. It has to be investigated carefully," he added.

Hans von Spakovsky's legacy is still being felt down in Florida. From the AP:

Florida can temporarily enforce a law that disqualifies any voter registration where the Social Security or driver license numbers on the application can't be matched with government databases, an appeals court ruled Thursday.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta said a lower court shouldn't have ordered a temporary injunction in December that prevented Florida from enforcing an anti-fraud law that dismissed applications when matches couldn't be made.

As we reported last year, one of Spakovsky's achievements while at the Justice Department was promoting this interpretation of the law: that states ought to reject voter applications if the data did not match driver's license or Social Security records. Civil rights groups, calling the measure "disenfranchisement-by-bureaucracy," sued to halt the law in an attempt to minimize the effect on the 2008 election. A newspaper investigation found that the measure resulted in tens of thousands of voters being rejected, the overwhelming majority of them minorities.

Back in December, a district court agreed with the argument by the groups -- the NAACP, the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, and Southwest Voter Registration Education Project -- that the law ought to be halted from going into effect while the lawsuit was decided. That decision was overturned yesterday.

"Yesterday's ruling by the appellate court represents a setback for all eligible Floridians, particularly voters of color, who wish to register to vote and participate in the upcoming presidential elections," said Elizabeth Westfall of Advancement Project, one of the attorneys for the groups. But Justin Levitt, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that the suit would go on and that "the trial court must now consider whether disenfranchising thousands of eligible citizens because of typos, is consistent with the U.S. Constitution."

More evidence that John Yoo was the most powerful deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's history. The Washington Post reports this morning that when Yoo issued his now-infamous March 14, 2003 memo to the Pentagon, neither Attorney General John Ashcroft, nor his deputy Larry Thompson "were aware."

As Marty Lederman has pointed out, the fact that the memo was issued under Yoo's own name is further indication that this was a back door authorization of interrogation practices.

The Post also sheds light on Yoo's earlier October 23, 2001 legal memo, the one that declared that the Fourth Amendment had "no application to domestic military operations." The memo "focused on the rules governing any deployment of U.S. forces inside the country 'in the event of further large-scale terrorist activities' by al-Qaeda" according to "a Justice Department official." Just what that sort of operation that might have been discussed or how long that memo remained in effect are unclear. In fact, it's unclear whether it might still be relied upon:

Although the memo has not been formally withdrawn, the Justice Department yesterday repudiated the idea that there are no constitutional limits to military searches and seizures in a time of war, saying it depends on "the particular context and circumstances of the search," according to a statement.

All that is clear is that Department officials are insistent that that memo had nothing to do with the warrantless wiretapping program. But as the AP has shown, that appears not to be entirely true.

I believe the appropriate reaction to this is "Hmmmm":

Two weeks after it was revealed that State Department employees were found snooping on five different occasions in the passport files of all three Presidential candidates, a State Department official tells NBC that the top official for Passport Services is being replaced.

The department intends to name a new acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Passport Services to replace Ann Barrett who will be stepping aside.

The official declined to offer an explanation as to why Barrett is being replaced, but the timing comes in the midst of a State Department Inspector General investigation into the passport breaches.

House oversight committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-CA) wants the twenty-something senior executives of AEY, Inc. to appear for a Congressional hearing. You know, just to hang out and chat about how they managed to bag a $300 million contract to provide munitions to Afghan forces, and then allegedly lied about where they were coming from.

But they're not going to come easy, The New York Times reports:

Marc D. Seitles, the lawyer who represents David M. Packouz, the licensed massage therapist who is AEY’s former vice president, said he had sent a letter to Congress saying Mr. Packouz would speak publicly only if he was granted immunity from prosecution.

Mr. Packouz, 25, left AEY last spring and had no contact with the company since, Mr. Seitles said. Without immunity, he said, “I cannot allow my client to testify in this matter, and if he is subpoenaed he will invoke the Fifth Amendment.”

AEY and particularly its president Efraim Diveroli do have a lot to worry about. Federal investigators are digging to see if Diveroli committed a crime by promising in a contract to deliver Hungarian ammo, when he was in fact delivering forty year-old Chinese ammo (itself prohibited). And Government Executive reports today that AEY might have also misrepresented itself as a disadvantaged business, allowing it to pick up much more business.

It seems highly unlikely that Congress would even consider immunity for either Diveroli or Packouz, so either Waxman's planned hearing later this month will be deferred, or the two will spend a lot of time respectfully pleading the Fifth.

The Nation reports in harrowing detail on the rape of Lisa Smith (a pseudonymn), who worked as a paramedic for KBR in southern Iraq. A KBR supervisor told her to shut up about the brutal rape and the camp's military liaison officer also instructed her to keep quiet. (The Nation)

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union to launch an $8 million program to defend at least seven Guantanamo Bay detainees. The two organizations believe that the Pentagon has failed to provide adequate resources to military defense lawyers and that the military tribunal process permits convictions based on “secret evidence, hearsay and confessions derived from torture.” (New York Times)

The chairs of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the oversight and investigations subcommittee want Environmental Protection Agency documents to determine if the the chemical industry has improperly influenced expert review panels convened by the EPA. Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group called it a "landmark investigation" that "has called into question the ethics of the entire industry." (Washington Post)

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No doubt that good news about Iraq has been hard to come by lately for the administration. The failure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's offensive against the Shiite militia of Moqtada al-Sadr in Basra and Baghdad still stings, and the postmortems by The New York Times and Washington Post are not pretty. The Times also reports this morning that "more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen either refused to fight or simply abandoned their posts" during the fighting last week, a toll that features "dozens of officers, including at least two senior field commanders in the battle."

Earlier this week, just after the offensive went kablooey, intelligence officials delivered a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq to Congress. It's a bit of tentative good news amid all the bad. If the administration has its way, however, you'll never see a declassified version of it. Director of National Intelligence Mike "public debate of intelligence issues kills Americans" McConnell will do what he can to ensure that. Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) have begun a push for the administration to release a declassified version of the report, writing a letter earlier this week to McConnell earlier this week (see below).

The general conclusion of the report is evident from the headlines this morning. "Report: Security in Iraq is improving," says the AP. "U.S. Study Finds Progress in Iraq, but Fragile Security and Potential for Terror Attacks," says the Times. A senior administration official tells The Wall Street Journal, "The NIE update confirmed that the surge strategy the president announced in January of last year is working. There's more work to be done, but progress has obviously been made."

And that pretty much seems to be the scope of it. Democrats who have read it are mightily unimpressed and say that it's just part of the broader PR push which will culminate in next week's testimony by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

As Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) puts it, "The stuff that was positive, they emphasized. The negative, they stated, but deemphasized." Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) complains that it doesn't cover most of the stuff you'd want it to cover: "It's much less insightful than other, recent products and focuses narrowly on counterterrorism efforts in Iraq and the progress of the Iraqi leadership."

And Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), a member of the House intelligence committee, is mighty suspicious -- both of the report's content and its timing: "One might ask whether the timing of the release and the apparent departure from usual procedures means this is more of a political document than an intelligence document," he tells the Journal.

As the Journal points out, "intelligence reports are often delayed by major developments that could affect the assessments, such as the Sadr fighting." This report, however, was not delayed, and there is no mention of the failed offensive in the report. It has, however, come right in time for the Petraeus and Crocker hearings next week.

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It's gotten to be something of a pattern with administration figures of late: making sweeping claims about national security matters that do not stand up to scrutiny. Just Monday, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) complained that Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell (who has something of a habit with this), had mischaracterized liberal opposition to retroactive immunity in the Senate as a bunch of impeachment-crazed loonies.

This time it's Attorney General Michael Mukasey who's catching flak. In a Q&A session after a speech last week, Mukasey said:

"[Officials] shouldn't need a warrant when somebody with a phone in Iraq picks up a phone and calls somebody in the United States because that's the call that we may really want to know about. And before 9/11, that's the call that we didn't know about. We knew that there has been a call from someplace that was known to be a safe house in Afghanistan and we knew that it came to the United States. We didn't know precisely where it went."

The problem with this, as Glenn Greenwald at Salon has shown, is that nothing of this sort seems to have happened. Greenwald asked former executive director of the 9/11 Commission Philip Zelikow, who responded that he was "not sure of course what the AG had in mind" and came up empty guessing.

In a letter today, House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers (D-MI) calls Mukasey's statement very disturbing and writes, "I am aware of no previous reference, in the 9/11 Commission report or elsewhere, to a call from a known terrorist safe house in Afghanistan to the United States which, if it had been intercepted, could have helped prevent the 9/11 attacks." And anyway, he adds, there's no reason why the FISA law would not have served to intercept the call in this instance. So what's Mukasey talking about? he wants to know.

You can read the letter, which was also signed by fellow committee members Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Bobby Scott (D-VA), below. The lawmakers also ask, not for the first time, for a copy of the October 23, 2001 memo by John Yoo that declared the Fourth Amendment kaput (it had "no application to domestic military operations").

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Do we really understand the scope of the administration's warrantless wiretapping program?

We've already written a number of times about the new book by New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau. And on Tuesday, I interviewed Lichtblau, who began reporting on the administration's wireless wiretapping program back in 2004 and won the Pulitzer Prize along with James Risen for breaking the story in December of 2005.

Among other things, I got him to walk me through what we do and don't know about the program. How broad was the surveillance? What does the NSA's massive data mining project have to do with the warrantless wiretapping? And does Lichtblau suspect that his own phone has been tapped?

Lichtblau also responded to Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), who posted at TPMcafe on Monday of this week. Harman was in turn responding to a passage in Lichtblau's book, where he writes that when he approached Harman in 2005 about the administration's then-still-secret warrantless wiretapping program, she'd shushed him and told him that The New York Times did the right thing by not publishing the story in 2004. Beginning in February of 2003, Harman was a member of the so-called "gang of eight," the eight lawmakers, four Republicans and four Dems, who were briefed on the surveillance program.

Harman didn't dispute his account, but did take issue with his characterization that her position on the program underwent "a dramatic transformation" after the Times broke the story. She wrote in her post that she'd been completely in the dark that the program had involved wiretapping without warrants.

To which, Lichtblau responds below:

I think that assertion was consistent with what we’ve heard, that these briefings were very limited, very carefully crafted, that they were only told a certain amount about the program and given sort of a filtered view of it. I believe all that much is true.

I guess the next question is why the gang of eight were willing to settle for that....

I’m not saying the program shouldn’t have continued, but it’s one thing for four members of Congress to know what they were approving and to say, okay. It’s another thing to say we had no idea, then to allow this to continue for five years.

The full interview is below. TPM research hound John Amick provided the transcription.

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John Yoo, speaking to Esquire:

“I did not think as a matter of policy that it was a good idea for the military to use aggressive interrogations of the kind that would be permitted to the CIA,” he said, adding that he expressed those reservations “to officials higher up the chain of command.”...

“The memo released yesterday does not apply to Iraq. It applied to interrogations of al Qaeda detained at Guantanamo Bay. I don’t [necessarily] agree that the methods did migrate to Iraq, because I don’t know for a fact that they did. The analysis of the memo released yesterday was not to apply to Iraq, and we made clear in other settings that the Geneva Conventions fully applied to the war in Iraq. There was no intention or desire that the memo released yesterday apply to Iraq.”

Of course, Yoo was just a lawyer in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, so it is true that it was not his call what to do as a matter of policy. He was just the consigliere.

But nothing can erase the fact that it is, in fact, his legal analysis that's been dropping jaws for the past two days.