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The head of the General Services Administration should be punished "to the fullest extent" (i.e. fired) for wrongfully attempting to help Republican candidates based on their political affiliation, Special Counsel Scott Bloch wrote in a letter to President Bush released last night.

Now GSA chief Lurita Doan's fate is up to the White House. Bloch's Office of Special Counsel, which is charged with investigating Hatch Act violations, interviewed Doan for nine hours over the course of two days and spoke with 21 GSA employees, the Associated Press reports:

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said they had received the Bloch letter and it was under review. The White House previously acknowledged conducting about 20 meetings over the past several years for federal employees on GOP election prospects while insisting that such informational briefings are neither unlawful nor unusual.

Doan is set to testify before the House Oversight Committee tomorrow.

Former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA) has been identified (sub. req.) as the unnamed lawmaker in Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-LA) indictment. While chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Tauzin wrote a letter praising iGate, the company that Jefferson allegedly funneled contracts while in office. (Roll Call)

Rep. David Obey (D-WI), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is insisting that all members of Congress list and sign all earkmarks one month before the bill comes up for final approval. Meanwhile, channeling his inner elementary school teacher, Obey has announced that there “will be no earmarks for anybody” if Republican members criticize individual earmarks to score political points. (NY Times)

About one-quarter of the flight hours logged on the only FBI plane that can make international trips- a plane that was requested to fly counterterrorism agents on missions to Iraq- are attributed to Director Robert Mueller, who uses the plane to get to speaking events and to visit field offices. (Washington Post)

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The morning after Republicans blocked the no-confidence resolution in the Senate, the papers are trying to figure out what, if anything, the resolution's failure means.

The vote itself was apparently unprecedented; never before in the history of the Senate has there been a no-confidence vote for a cabinet official. And even if it had passed, the resolution had no force.

Seven Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the resolution (Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) voted against it, and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), who's under investigation by Gonzales' department, merely voted "present"). And as The New York Times notes, "Republicans who rejected the proposal offered little defense of Mr. Gonzales [with the notable exception of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT)], but criticized the resolution as a politically motivated stunt and a waste of the Senate’s time." In other words, voting no to no-confidence did not equal confidence. Any way you cut it, it was not a proud day for Gonzales.

So where do the papers come down on what the failure of an unprecedented symbolic vote with a number of (but not quite enough) Republican defections means?

There are really two separate questions here. The first is whether Gonzales will stay on as attorney general -- he will, but then the vote wouldn't have done anything to change that anyway. The administration has shown itself to be brazenly immune to political pressure on the question of Gonzales' tenure. The second question is whether the vote will affect the health of the investigation into the U.S. attorney firings.

The Los Angeles Times concludes that Democrats have slowed the momentum of their own investigation into the U.S. attorney firings:

There were signs that Democrats were on the verge of taking that investigation to a new level, possibly by issuing subpoenas to the White House for documents and testimony of such figures as political operative Karl Rove.

But the no-confidence vote suggests that the Democrats do not have the political might to force the issue.
McClatchy chose an opposite tack, running their story on the vote under the headline, "Majority of Senators Seek `No Confidence' Vote on Gonzales."

The investigation will churn on regardless. Next week, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty will appear before the House Judiciary Committee. The hearing will be an opportunity for McNulty to hit back after former DoJ aide Monica Goodling publicly accused him last month of not being "fully candid" in his February testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The following week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will focus their sights on William Mercer, the high ranking DoJ official who's pulled double duty as the U.S. Attorney for Montana for two years -- and yet had the nerve to tag one of the fired U.S. attorneys, New Mexico's David Iglesias, as an absentee landlord because Iglesias served in the Navy reserve for a month each year.

Not only that, but the Justice Department's Inspector General, in tandem with the Office of Professional Responsibility, continues to conduct its investigation of the firings and politicization at the department. Democrats expect the report, which will be made public when it's completed (probably sometime later this summer), to be bad news for the administration.

In other words, despite the contrary claims of victory and defeat, expect things to move along much as they have.

Since September 11, 2001, the U.S.'s Pakistan policy can be summed up in two words: Pervez Musharraf. But within the U.S. intelligence community, and in Pakistan, there's a growing belief that the U.S.-friendly military dictator's days are drawing to a close -- and possibly within the next few months. It may be time for the U.S. to face what it's long feared in the nuclear state: the prospect of chaos, rising Islamism or anti-Americanism that follows Musharraf.

But the hope -- among Pakistani military officers and politicians, to say nothing of U.S. diplomats -- is that the increasingly inept and unpopular Musharraf can be eased out of power while the U.S. slowly distances itself from him, allowing for as smooth a transition as is possible in the turbulent South Asian country. Some see the Pakistani Army remaining powerful enough to prevent a chaotic transition or an Islamist takeover. "This is going to be a Pinochet-like transition, instead of a Marcos-like one," one former Pakistani official tells TPMmuckraker. In other words, according to the ex-official, the U.S. may not stand foursquare behind its ally Musharraf until he's ultimately forced from power, as President Ronald Reagan chose with doomed Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Over the past few weeks, U.S. intelligence have started to conclude that Musharraf is on his way out. "It is the sense people have, and it's been out there," says Rob Richer, a former deputy head of CIA operations who has met with Musharraf personally and long worked with the Pakistanis on intelligence issues. "This is the view of both senior (U.S. intelligence) officials and people who follow the issue closely." What's more, Richer tells TPMmuckraker, Musharraf himself knows his time is up, and is "looking for an exit strategy":

"He believes his successor has got to be someone who supports the military but it won't necessarily be someone in uniform. There's no obvious candidate … At this point, he's looking for the right person, a right-winger, someone who understands the Army."

Musharraf's vision is to make Pakistan like Turkey, where Islamic currents ebb and flow with popular sentiment, "but who enforces what they call democracy? The military." Adds Frederic Grare, a former French diplomat in Pakistan, the military could "withdraw behind the scenes but keep the levers of power," while a civilian takes charge after elections that Musharraf has called for in the fall.

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The no-confidence vote on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales narrowly failed the necessary 60 votes needed for cloture in the Senate today, with a mere seven Republicans voting in favor of the resolution (see below). The final tally was 53-38, with 1 vote of "present." Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) voted against.

The Republicans voting in favor were:

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR) Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN)

Update: A statement out from the Justice Department:

“The Attorney General remains focused on the important issues that the American people expect him to address: securing our country from terrorism, protecting our neighborhoods from gangs and drugs, shielding our children from predators and pedophiles, and protecting the public trust by prosecuting public corruption. With so many pressing issues facing our country such as the threat of terrorism and the danger posed by gangs and violent criminals, we look forward to continuing to work with Congress to identify appropriate solutions to address these issues.”

As the vote draws near, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) made it simple this afternoon: Republicans have no confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, but they're not going to vote that way, because that would hand a victory to Democrats. For his part, Specter is a reluctant supporter of the resolution, he said -- but don't expect others to follow him.

The vote is scheduled to commence shortly.

From Sen. Specter's remarks:

The thrust of the resolution, if it really seeks his ouster, is going to be a boomerang and is going to be counterproductive. My own sense is that there is no confidence in the attorney general on this side of the aisle, but that the views will not be expressed in this format. Already some who have called for his resignation on the Republican side of the aisle have said they will not vote for this resolution. Others have declined to comment about his capacity but have said that this is not the proper way to proceed, that our form of government does not have a no-confidence vote. Is the principle reason for this resolution to help the Department of Defense (sic) or to embarrass Republicans? I think, clear cut, it is designed to embarrass Republicans. It’s designed to embarrass Republicans if the Senate says they have no confidence in the Attorney General…

Many on this side of the aisle, most, if not almost all, will vote against cloture here because there are ample reasons to vote against cloture. But as a I look at this matter as which is the more weighty, the more compelling, the more important – candidly stating that I have no confidence in Attorney General Gonzales or rejecting the outright political chicanery which is involved in this resolution offered by the Democrats, I come down on the side that the interests of the country and moving for improvements in the Department of Justice is to make a candid statement that I have no confidence in the Attorney General – which I have said repeatedly, it’s no surprise – and I am going to deal with this resolution on the merits and vote to invoke cloture.

Earmarking is still alive despite reforms from the new Democratic majority the practice of anonymously slipping pet projects into legislation became a symbol of the GOP's time in the majority. Now, the new Republican minority is rolling up its sleeves and planning to block future earmarks by using parliamentary procedure. (McClatchy Newspapers, The Hill)

Just in time for the Senate’s no-confidence vote, the Washington Post reports that half of the immigration judges appointed since 2004 had no experience in immigration law, while one third of the appointees were Republicans or insiders with the current administration.

Via Think Progress: Former Justice official Daniel Metcalfe speaks about his resignation this past January, claiming Gonzales treated the Department as a “political arm of the White House.” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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A majority of Democrats in the Senate are ready to cast a symbolic vote of no confidence against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales today, the Associated Press reports.

So far Republicans are offering meager support for the resolution and it's unclear whether backers of the unusual manuever will even find the 60 votes needed to close debate on the resolution and bring it up for a vote.

No one is predicting that a symbolic resolution expressing no confidence in Gonzales will survive even the test vote Monday. Most Republicans are likely to vote no, dismissing the whole exercise as a ploy to embarrass President Bush.

But would a vote even embarrass the president?

"They can have their votes of no-confidence but it's not going to make the determination about who serves in my government," Bush said Monday. "This process has been drug out a long time. ... It's political."

Whether successful or not, such a vote will at least bring discussion of Gonzales to the Senate floor after five months of Congressional inquiry into the Department of Justice and the firing of at least nine US attorneys.

The vote could be a final effort for Senate Democrats to oust Gonzales and show their commitment to the ongoing investigation.

"If all senators who have actually lost confidence in Attorney General Gonzales voted their conscience, this vote would be unanimous," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who authored the resolution with Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif. "We will soon see where people's loyalties lie."

Is the U.S.-allied Sunni tribal alliance against al-Qaeda in Iraq fracturing?

One of the bright spots in Iraq has been the recent tribal shift in Anbar Province against al-Qaeda. Started after al-Qaeda declared an "Islamic State of Iraq" -- alternative translations put it as the "Islamic Emirate of the Land of the Two Rivers," implying that statehood is a religiously illegitimate concept -- last fall, over 25 tribes decided that al-Qaeda's severe vision for Anbar threatened their interests more than the U.S. occupation does. As a result, tribal leaders created the Anbar Salvation Council, a political alliance that worked with the U.S. against al-Qaeda; and ever since, the U.S. military has reported increasing numbers of killed or captured al-Qaeda affiliates. The tribes have also sent their young men to join the Iraqi army and police, but they also retain a military wing that the U.S. has equipped and worked with, leading some analysts -- and military officers -- to worry about the creation of yet another militia.

Recently, however, strains have been on display in the Anbar Salvation Council. A key figure in its creation, Sheikh Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi, has been alienating some of the other tribes through his enthusiastic cooperation with the U.S. and his heavy-handed graft. al-Rishawi denies any such rift, but the Washington Post reports:

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The Council of Europe report provides the first-ever glimpse of what took place inside the CIA's secret detention facilities in Poland and Romania. It's not a complete account -- the report attributes its information to "current and former detainees, human rights advocates, or people who have worked in the establishment or operations of CIA secret prisons" -- but it's by far the most complete account available. Here's a selection of what conditions in the so-called "black sites" were like:

Clothes were cut up and torn off; many detainees were then kept naked for several weeks. ...

At one point in 2004, eight persons were being kept together at one CIA facility in Europe, but were administered according to a strict regime of isolation. Contact between them through sight or sound was forbidden... and prevented unless it was expressly decided to create limited conditions where they could see or come into contact with one another because it would serve (the CIA's) intelligence-gathering objectives to allow it. ...

The air in many cells emanated from a ventilation hole in the ceiling, which was often controlled to produce extremes of temperature: sometimes so hot that one would gasp for breath, sometimes freezing cold.

Many detainees described air conditioning for deliberate discomfort.

Detainees were exposed at times to over-heating in the cell; at other times drafts of freezing breeze.

Detainees never experienced natural light or natural darkness, although most were blindfolded many times so they could see nothing....

There was a shackling ring in the wall of the cell, about half a metre up off the floor. Detainees' hands and feet were clamped in handcuffs and leg irons. Bodies were regularly forced into contorted shapes and chained to this ring for long, painful periods.

All italics in the original.