TPM News

It's official! The EPA-California greenhouse gas affair has matured into the promised knock-down-drag-out fight it showed promise to become. That's right, barely a month into it, and we've already got an assertion of executive privilege.

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, we know, is no shrinking violet. He has chutzpah in deep reserve. He showed that by denying California's petition to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks over the reportedly universal objection of his staff and with sure knowledge that his move would ultimately be reversed in court. His explanation? The Bush administration already has a comprehensive policy. So California's meddling is not welcome.

Immediately after his decision, Johnson was set upon by two Californians with subpoena power: Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Senate environmental committee, and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), who chairs the House oversight committee. They demanded documents -- documents that will reportedly show EPA staff advising Johnson he had to grant the waiver. But those documents have been a long time coming.

On Friday, Boxer's committee got their first batch. But... many of the pages were completely blank. The AP reports that "everything except the titles was omitted from 16 pages of a 43-page Power Point presentation" included in the documents (one of the slides reportedly reads "EPA likely to lose suit" -- I'm guessing that's one of the whited-out ones).

The reason, EPA associate administrator Christopher P. Bliley wrote, was that the "EPA has identified an important Executive Branch confidentiality interest in a number of these documents" -- code for executive privilege. Or executive privilege of a sort. Boxer and her staff could visit the EPA and see the complete unredacted documents, but they couldn't keep copies of them.

Bliley gave three reasons for invoking that privilege (you can read his letter in full here). The first is a familiar one: a supposed "chilling effect" that would result from disclosing internal deliberations "in a broad setting." But the second reason is one I haven't seen before. It deserves to be quoted in full:

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The U.S. military asserts that attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq that involve Iranian bombs have sharply declined (sub. req.) and that the influx of Iranian weapons has also waned. Rear Adm. Gregory Smith asserted that "the number of signature weapons that had come from Iran and had been used against coalition and Iraqi forces are down dramatically except for this short uptick in the EFPs in the early part of January," yet these remarks were preceded by allegations from Gen. David Petraeus last week that EFP attacks had risen by a factor of two or three recently. (Wall Street Journal)

For approximately one week, Canada placed the U.S. on a “torture watch list.” But as a result of complaints from the U.S., Canada’s foreign minister has conceded that his nation “wrongly” included “some of our closest allies.” The U.S. Ambassador to Canada argued that it was “offensive for us to be on the same list with countries like Iran and China,” but Amnesty International noted that Canada’s primary concern should “should not be” whether it is “embarrassing allies.” (Think Progress, BBC News)

For the fourth time in fewer than three years, the highest ranking editor or the publisher of the Los Angeles Times has been forced out for taking a stand against newsroom job and budget cuts. The paper’s top editor, James O’Shea, resisted calls by publisher, David Hiller to cut the news budget by $4 million. (New York Times)

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We spent a good deal of time in the 2006 elections tracking the activity of third party groups on the right, groups with anonymous names like the Economic Freedom Fund. Funded by the most part by millionaire home-builder (and former Swift Boat patron) Bob Perry, the groups swooped in to attack Dem candidates throughout the country, airing radio, TV, and print ads and calling hundreds of thousands of voters with push polls.

But Perry only gave about $9 million to such groups that year. Freedom's Watch, with its close White House connections and network of Bob Perrys, is a whole new breed.

The group aims to raise and spend approximately $250 million for the 2008 cycle, a vast amount of money they apparently plan to use not only on the presidential election, but to greater effect in numerous House and Senate races throughout the country, where six figures can go a long way.

To review the White House connections: the group is headed by Bradley Blakeman, a former Bush White House official, Mel Sembler, a millionaire former Bush admbassador to Italy, and Ari Fleischer, who serves as the group's spokesman. Much of its support so far has come from Sembler and casino magnate and billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the sixth richest person in the world. (The group intends to "broaden its base" as time goes on, Fleischer says.) The group got off the ground with a $15 million effort to support the president's surge strategy in August, but it's sticking around for the long haul.

The Washington Post headlines its takeout on the group "A Conservative Answer to MoveOn." To which the founder responds:

Wes Boyd, who co-founded with his wife in their home in Berkeley, Calif., said the two groups are fundamentally different because his liberal organization was set up outside the influence of Democratic Party operatives and is funded primarily by small-dollar donors around the country.

Freedom's Watch, on the other hand, is "doing attack ads by Beltway operatives, financed by billionaires, at the request of the White House," Boyd said by e-mail. "MoveOn helps millions of real people get engaged and be heard and is solely funded by these same people."

Whether Freedom's Watch is the right's MoveOn or not -- and at least for now the comparison is silly -- they're sure to be a major factor in the elections this year. A special election in December showed how:

Adelson personally wrote an $80,000 check to Freedom's Watch on Dec. 7... just four days before the election that gave Republican Robert Latta the House seat representing the district around Bowling Green. Behind a blood-red foreground, the group's ad showed Latinos hurrying under fences and being frisked by police as a narrator accused Democratic candidate Robin Weirauch and "liberals in Congress" of supporting free health care for illegal immigrants....

After Latta won, the DCCC chairman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), issued a memo warning fellow Democrats about the new independent group gunning for them. Van Hollen's campaign committee has $31 million, compared with $2.3 million for the Republicans' committee, but he is deeply concerned that independent groups on the right are now engaged in congressional races while liberal groups are focused on the presidential race.

When it comes to political money, "there's a whole other universe out there," Van Hollen said he told Democrats. "Don't get lulled into a false sense of security."

They say everything is bigger in Texas. And sure enough, if you've ever seen a bigger legal mess than the case of Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina, we'd love to hear about it.

Last June, the Medinas' house burned down in a fire that spread to two other houses, causing a total of about $900,000 in damages. Investigators suspected arson when they found an accelerant in the Medinas’ garage where the fire started. And the discovery that the house had been in foreclosure a year earlier deepened their suspicion. Medina and his wife gave conflicting accounts of the judge’s whereabouts at the time of the fire.

So Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal (R) duly convened a grand jury to examine the evidence. After deliberating three months past the scheduled end of its term, the jurors told prosecutor Vic Wisner on Thursday to prepare the indictments.

Wisner refused.

According to jury foreman Bob Ryan, “He slammed the door and left.” Later, Wisner thought better of that and agreed to prepare the indictments.

Medina was charged with tampering with or falsifying evidence, and his wife with arson, both felonies. Arson carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison; tampering with an investigation, a maximum of 10 years. They were set free on bail—$20,000 for Mrs. Medina and $5,000 for the judge.

The next day, Rosenthal dismissed the charges.

Ryan, who’s served as foreman on grand juries at least four times, was not happy: “This is ludicrous.... Mr. Rosenthal never put his head in the door and heard one word of testimony.”

Both Ryan and the assistant foreman, Jeffrey Dorrell, alleged that the jury was given to understand, before hearing any evidence, that the case had no merit.

“It was theater of the absurd,” observed Dorrell. "We knew before we handed the indictment down that the district attorney was going to refuse to prosecute, but we did it anyway.”

Ryan is considering reconvening the grand jury next week.

To add to the mess, the two have risked breaking a law that mandates the secrecy of grand jury proceedings; both say they haven't actually crossed the line.

But late Friday, Medina’s attorney, Terry Yates, filed a motion asking for a hearing to determine whether Ryan and Dorrell acted illegally. (If held in contempt, the pair could be fined $500 and given 30 days in jail.)

Yates accused them of indicting Medina in order to embarrass Rosenthal: “They've made a mockery of the entire process... This is crazy. This is mind-boggling, what this grand jury has done. This is more than a runaway grand jury. This is a grand jury speeding away in a Lamborghini.”

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South Carolina already had the reputation as a key forum for dirty campaign tricks before 2000. It was, after all, the home of Lee Atwater. But 2000, with its variety of smears distributed by push polls, faxes, fliers, and emails, cemented it.

But you got South Carolina all wrong, Tucker Eskew, George W. Bush's campaign spokesman in 2000, wants you to know. In this interview shot for the forthcoming documentary on Atwater, Boogie Man, Eskew, an Atwater protege, objects to the idea that racist smears work there:

It's "an insult" and "unfair to suggest that a state like South Carolina is a bunch of rubes because of our past," he says. So why would the Bush campaign have gotten involved in something like that? The McCain illegitimate black baby smear was "just some crazy rumor that some one person may have spread." And as for the impact, maybe "a few hundred people" may have been affected -- a "few rubes." Certainly not the payoff that a campaign genius like Karl Rove (another Atwater protege) would waste time with.

From the necessarily spotty reporting on what really happened in 2000, however, it's apparent that the rubes were out in force that year, distributing fliers about McCain's "Negro child" and running phone banks to push that and other rumors. So far, this election seems very tame by comparison.

On the one hand, Mike Huckabee really is in a bind.

Common Sense Issues is calling millions of voters and telling them that John McCain wants to allow experiments on unborn babies and that Fred Thompson supports partial-birth abortion. He can't do anything to stop it. And in a deft bit of spin, he says the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law is at fault -- so it's John McCain's fault that Huckabee can't stop the group from smearing McCain.

He's criticized the calls, said he "wished they would stop," and now has gone so far as to tell NPR, "I personally wish all of this were outlawed." (He didn't mention that the calls actually are illegal under state law in South Carolina.)

On the other hand, from what the group has disclosed, it's apparent that most, if not all, of its major donors also support Huckabee.

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"You can take me out of the system, but that's like taking a bucket of water out of the ocean." Here's Allen Raymond, the New Hampshire phone jammer, talking about How to Rig An Election with Jon Stewart last night:

For those who missed it, here's my vote for the most memorable excerpt from the book.

Raymond has also been blogging over at TPMCafe this week.

From The Washington Post:

Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) testified yesterday that an FBI agent cursed at him and told him that "this is going to be the worst day of your life," just before agents searched his Louisiana home as part of the investigation that led to corruption charges against him.

At one point during the tense interview at his house in August 2005, Jefferson said, an FBI agent followed him to the bathroom. "I told him, 'Are you going to the bathroom with me?' " Jefferson said in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. "He said, 'Yes.' "

Minutes later, another agent informed Jefferson that $100,000 he had accepted from a government informant -- allegedly used to bribe the vice president of Nigeria -- had been supplied by the FBI. Leaning forward, the agent yelled, "Where is my [expletive] money?" Jefferson testified.

(The Hill helpfully fills in the expletive.) Jefferson didn't reply, "in the freezer." Instead, he says, he refused to answer any more questions at that point.

The Secret Service is in court responding to a lawsuit from Steven Howards, a man accused of assaulting Dick Cheney in June 2006. Howards' suit against five agents alleges that they violated his freedom of speech and civil rights after he touched Cheney on the shoulder and denounced the Iraq war. Meanwhile, the agents have accused one another of unethical and illegal conduct in their handling of Howards’ arrest. (New York Times)

Immediately before and after Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) bought 145,000 trailers through no-bid contracts. Later, when the trailers became problematic, FEMA sold the trailers for 40 cents on the dollar. Now, FEMA has offered to buy them back at the original purchase price because the trailers may be a health risk as a result of high levels of formaldehyde. Meanwhile, a UN official who recently toured the Gulf coast says that many of the poor displaced by Katrina resemble poor people every where else in the world who have been displaced by natural disasters. (Washington Post, AP)

Just yesterday, Bhutto’s Pakistan’s People Party called for the United Nations to conduct an inquiry into Bhutto’s assassination. Today, the CIA, in its most “definitive public assessment” to date, asserts that Bhutto was murdered by al Qaeda and allies of the tribal leader Baitullah Mehsud. (Financial Times)

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Sometimes it's just too easy.

For months, the White House has battling the D.C. watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in court. The accusation is pretty straightforward: for more than a year between 2003 and 2005, the White House failed to archive emails, and the group had learned that as many as five million emails were lost as a result. The White House is required by law to retain them. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino responded that there had been a tech glitch: you know, we were transferring from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Outlook and... oops:

Again, I wouldn't rule out that there were a potential 5 million emails lost, but we'll see if we can get to you. If it was 5 million, I think that, again, out of 1,700 people using email every day, again, there was no intent to have lost them.

As the months have worn on, the White House has mounted a much more belligerent response in court. But the decisions -- and the headlines -- have repeatedly gone against them to the point now where it's apparent that not only did they lose the emails, but they copied over the backup tapes as well.

Nevertheless, White House spokesman Tony Fratto sees no reason for contrition. He's a flack in the proud Bush tradition of Ari Fleischer and Tony Snow, and if there's a single tenet to that order, it's that you do not have to admit anything that is the result of deduction. Sure, common sense dictates that if emails have not been archived, and the backup tapes that would have recorded them have been recycled, then those emails are gone forever. But show me the missing emails, Fratto says:

Q Tony, on the subject, could you address the missing White House emails and the law suit? It is a subject of reports this morning. Are there in fact the emails missing? What's the likelihood of their recovery versus the --

MR. FRATTO: I think our review of this, and you saw the court filing on this, and our declaration in response to the judge's questions -- I think to the best of what all the analysis we've been able to do, we have absolutely no reason to believe that any emails are missing; there's no evidence of that....

Q So where are they?

MR. FRATTO: Where are what?

Q Where are part of --

MR. FRATTO: Which email? Look, no one will tell you categorically about any system -- any system, whether it's your system at Bloomberg or our system here at the White House, past and present, categorically that data cannot be missing.... We have no reason to believe that there's any data missing at all -- and we've certainly found no evidence of any data missing.

Of course, now House sleuth Henry Waxman is getting into the act and plans to hold a hearing . So things are going to get worse for the White House before they get better. But nobody can deny their tenacity.