TPM News

On Monday, we noted that Peter Keisler was unexpectedly slotted in as the man to replace Alberto Gonzales until the President's nominee, Michael Mukasey, was confirmed by the Senate. This morning, The Washington Post is the first paper to take much notice of the move, and reports that it caught pretty much everyone, including officials in the Justice Department, by surprise:

While Mukasey's nomination is pending, the Justice Department will be run by former civil division chief Peter D. Keisler, a conservative appointee who this week was a surprise replacement in that role for Solicitor General Paul D. Clement. Clement, who was publicly tagged last month as the temporary replacement for Gonzales, wound up officially taking the helm at 12:01 a.m. Monday and relinquishing it 24 hours later, officials said.

The switch was made on Sunday by the White House with no input from Justice Department officials, said two sources with knowledge of the matter. The change added another level of uncertainty to life at the Justice Department, where nearly every top senior official has resigned in the wake of controversies under Gonzales....

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Few people not employed by Blackwater know more about the rising world of private military companies than Robert Young Pelton, author of Licensed To Kill, an exploration of military contracting in the war on terrorism. Pelton told me it's a mistake to point a finger at Blackwater for Sunday's debacle in Mansour without looking at the role of the State Department -- which, after all, pays Blackwater to protect its diplomats. State doesn't want to take chances with its peoples' lives in the chaos of Iraq.

Blackwater's rules of engagement "are set by State and are different than other security contractors who use the Military Rules of Engagement and Rules of Force," Pelton says via e-mail. "State went from a kinder, gentler Rules of Force (they were told to shoot flares, throw water bottles or wave a flag to warn off motorists) to shoot if a threat is imminent with no warning shots required. They are supposed to use aimed shots and have to file a report if there is any discharge of a weapon." The State Department has said that Blackwater fired warning shots in Sunday's Mansour attack at an approaching car.

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The new, stronger congressional ethics rules will get their first test in the next 24 hours with the baggage manhandler himself, Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA). The new rules state that any member charged with a crime must be subjected either to a review, or an explanation by the ethics committee as to why a review was unnecessary. Either way, the decisions must be made within 30 days of the incident; that time frame expires tomorrow. (The Hill)

The SEC is on the case of the mysterious campaign financier. After two individuals reported that investments made with Norman Hsu (totaling more than $70 million) have gone missing, investigators are a bit curious what he is actually doing with all of this money. (Wall Street Journal)

Alexis Debat, the discredited terrorism expert and ABC news consultant who had a knack for publishing interviews that he never conducted, was preparing a study on Islamic warfare for a think tank (The Center For Strategic and Budgetary Assessments) under contract from Andrew Marshall, head of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment. Debat also had a relationship with the Nixon Center, a think tank that claims to be "America's realist voice." (Mother Jones)

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The Iraqi government is pressing hard to kick private-security giant Blackwater out of the country. After a pitched battle between Blackwater operatives and Iraqi insurgents in the Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour left at least nine civilians dead, the Iraqi Interior Ministry revoked Blackwater's license to work in Iraq. Now, the Iraqis are escalating their campaign against Blackwater, claiming that an official inquiry found that the company's agents fired the opening rounds. Reports the New York Times:

The report, by the Ministry of Interior, was presented to the Iraqi cabinet and, though unverified, seemed to contradict an account offered by Blackwater USA that the guards were responding to gunfire by militants. The report said Blackwater helicopters had also fired. The Ministry of Defense said 20 Iraqis had been killed, a far higher number than had been reported before.

In a sign of the seriousness of the standoff, the American Embassy here suspended diplomatic missions outside the Green Zone and throughout Iraq on Tuesday.

“There was not shooting against the convoy,” said Ali al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government’s spokesman. “There was no fire from anyone in the square.”

The explanation from the U.S. on Sunday for the Mansour incident was that a State Department convoy came under attack, prompting the Blackwater guards protecting it to respond with small arms fire and employ helicopter support. A State Department official said Blackwater's people were forced to "defend themselves" against an ambush.

But Dabbagh, the Iraqi spokesman, contradicted that entirely. According to the Iraqi inquiry, he said, a car bomb detonated far from the convoy, prompting Blackwater to overreact. A traffic policeman attempted to clear an area for the convoy to pass, but a "small car" didn't heed the warning. Blackwater responded as if the car represented a follow-on attack. Witnesses interviewed by the Times said that the ensuing confusion prompted Iraqi soldiers and police in the area to fire into the crowd as well.

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In response to questions from lawmakers about possible surveillance of Americans, McConnell and Wainstein both stated flatly that the Protect America Act doesn't remove robust "minimization" procedures for handling information collected on U.S. persons in the course of a foreign intelligence information. For instance, names of U.S. persons -- citizens and non-citizens -- collected in the course of a foreign-foreign warrantless surveillance investigation have to be blacked out and removed from reports based on that collected intelligence.

Under questioning from Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), however, Wainstein conceded that there are certain situations under which intelligence analysts might disseminate information on U.S. individuals throughout the government -- if it's necessary for the official reviewing the information "to understand the foreign intelligence value" of the intercept, for instance.

Wainstein suggested that's something of a trivial and minor circumstance, but who knows? Cohen referenced a 2006 Newsweek story that said the NSA has improperly turned over10,000 names of U.S. persons acquired through surveillance to other agencies.

McConnell seemed to be a bit irate at the question, scowling that the "issue is protecting the country," and not "incidental" concerns about what happens to U.S. person information collected in the course of a foreign intelligence investigation. However, this was the first time that McConnell and Wainsten elaborated, even a bit, about what minimization procedures exist under the Protect America Act.

In a blistering 14-page letter today (pdf), House oversight committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) charged that the inspector general for the State Department Howard Krongard has been actively impeding probes into waste and corruption in Iraq and elsewhere. The basic allegation, as Waxman simply puts it, is that "you believe your foremost mission is to support the Bush Administration, especially with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than act as an independent and objective check on waste, fraud, and abuse on behalf of U.S. taxpayers." In other words, Waxman is charging that he's a hack, and the worst kind, too -- one that can do real damage.

Waxman has a litany of examples of Krongards' alleged hackishness, but one is particularly colorful.

There have been allegations that the contractor First Kuwaiti used forced labor building the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. So Krongard looked into it.

Only he had a peculiar method, according to Waxman's investigation. First, he insisted on doing the report entirely by himself and shut out his staff. And instead of seeking out the source of the allegations, he allowed the contractor to choose the employees that he'd interview. He ultimately interviewed six employees.

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While the House Judiciary Committee hearings are in recess, take a look at this great post from Ilan Goldenberg at Democracy Arsenal. Goldenberg combs through the just-released quarterly Pentagon report (pdf) and compares its civilian-casualty numbers (pdf) to those presented last week to Congress by General David Petraeus (also pdf). And sure enough, it appears that the quarterly report's numbers -- which were taken from Multinational Corps-Iraq, the command just under Petraeus' -- make the pre-surge period seem better than Petraeus' numbers; and the surge period seem worse.

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The federal Office of Special Counsel is investigating the US attorney for Minnesota, Rachel Paulose, for a variety of infractions, former Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Eric Black reports on his blog.

In March, Paulose, a former special aide to Alberto Gonzales and Federalist Society member, replaced Tom Heffelfinger, who resigned before the mass firings of nine US attorneys, although his name was later discovered on one of the lists of prosecutors under consideration for termination. The U.S Attorney's Office went through a major staff shakeup after Paulose's arrival. Four of the top attorney's in the office resigned to rank and file prosecutor positions saying they disagreed with the young attorney's management style and lack of experience.

From Black:

The federal Office of Special Counsel is investigating allegations that Rachel Paulose, U.S. attorney for Minnesota, mishandled classified information, decided to fire the subordinate who called it to her attention, retaliated against others in the office who crossed her, and made racist remarks about one employee.

Black reports that one of the four prosecutors who resigned knew Paulose, who has developed a reputation for quoting Bible verses, would likely fire him before he decided to step down.

The US Attorney's Office in Minnesota is working on a statement. We'll update you as soon as we have it.

Here's something unexpected. During the hearing, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) asked to see the FISA Court rulings from earlier this year, in closed session, that McConnell and Wainstein and others have said required a probable-cause based warrant for purely foreign-to-foreign communications, prompting the August revision to FISA. McConnell's lawyer, Benjamin Powell, said that as the rulings compounded this year, the intelligence community found itself "in a place" where more and more foreign communications became covered by FISA, contrary to the original language and intent of the act.

Then McConnell dropped a bombshell: the rulings required the NSA to get a warrant before listening in on the communications of Iraqi insurgents who kidnapped U.S. soldiers.

The ACLU has filed motions with the FISA Court to obtain those rulings. If the court ultimately rules in the ACLU's favor, we'll be able to see whether this extreme claim -- it's safe to say no one thinks the NSA needs warrants to conduct surveillance on Iraqi insurgent communications -- is based on an explicit order of the Court or on a lawyer's interpretation of a FISA Court ruling. Or, for that matter, whether McConnell has, again, said something about surveillance that just isn't true.

Update: Responding to our request to elaborate on McConnell's comments, his spokesman Ross Feinstein replies:

I am not going to expand on what [McConnell] said in the HJC hearing. However, I will add, that before the Protect America Act, the [intelligence community] was missing vital intelligence - intelligence gaps. That was the reason we proposed legislation to modernize FISA - in April '07.

The Protect America Act has solved these gaps.

Wainstein and McConnell are holding firm that no civil liberties are adversely impacted by the Protect America Act. In that context, Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL) asked a good question: Why, then, seek to codify in the law a prohibition on suing telecommunications companies from complying with government surveillance?

Wainstein's answer? It's "just not right" not to provide that immunity for a company cooperating with the FBI or NSA on surveillance. "It isn't right if a company alleged to assist the country in a time of peril, turns around and faces costly litigation and maybe crushing liability," he said. He didn't say what laws the telecoms might be breaking currently. Later, McConnell told Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) that he would specify those laws to the panel in closed session.

Wainstein added that it might be a problem for a company just to be named in association with the surveillance program, due to public fear and skepticism of it. Yet last month in an interview with the El Paso Times, McConnell said AT&T and Verizon were cooperating with the government on surveillance.