TPM News

The Department of Justice says it may close its investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks -- and possibly release previously sealed court records -- as early as today.

The move comes as questions and criticisms of the FBI's handling of the case grow more intense and also less than a week after the suicide of the alleged key suspect in the case, government scientist Bruce Ivins.

Closing the investigation would send a signal that Ivins was guilty and acted alone. But last week's suicide has thrust the anthrax investigation back into the spotlight and prompted new questions about the unsolved case as well as public statements and press reports surrounding the attacks in the fall of 2001.

The AP reports:

Among the unanswered questions in the investigation is how Ivins could have created the fine anthrax powder that, distributed in the mail, killed five people and terrorized the nation. Ivins' lab didn't deal with powdered anthrax and there is disagreement over whether he could have created it -- and if he did, how he kept it a secret.

The New York Times reports that investigators lack some key evidence against Ivins, such as anything linking the scientist to the central New Jersey town where the anthrax letters were mailed. An unnamed source calls the case against Ivins "circumstantial" and said at least 10 other people from the lab at Fort Detrick, MD, had access to the same flask containing that anthrax, the Times reports.

In an article on Sunday, The Washington Post wrote that federal prosecutors may disband the grand jury that was hearing evidence against Ivins, adding that no other criminal charges are expected in the case.

A lawyer for Ivins, Paul F. Kemp, has consistently maintained his client's innocence.

Glenn Greenwald at Salon has been working overtime on this story for the past few days and lays out a reconsideration of the anthrax investigation, its press reports and its time line. He bring attention to the mounting pressure on ABC News to disclose the confidential sources behind its report in 2001, which stated that federal agents had evidence that the anthrax came from Iraq.

Greenwald also raises questions about Ivins' therapist, who came forward several days ago describing Ivins's homicidal thoughts.

In a statement today, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD), who was a target in the attacks, criticized the FBI and said he has little faith in its investigation.

Finally, as we noted earlier today, evidence is emerging that White House officials may have pressured the FBI to tag Al Qaeda as a suspect during the initial weeks of the probe.

Late Update: After reports that federal investigators couldn't place Ivins at the New Jersey mailbox where the anthrax letters were dropped, sources at DOJ leaked the AP a new story this afternoon. Their best guess is that Ivins made the seven-hour round trip up to the Princeton area after work one night, possibly because he had a weird obsession with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, which has a chapter up there.

That might have been enough to secure a grand jury indictment, but that sounds like a stretch for the jury to buy. We'll never know.

BP appeared unfazed by allegations that it may have helped cover costs related to Sen. Ted Stevens' (R-AK) home renovations, and declined to say whether they were investigating the matter, or discuss it in any way with TPMmuckraker.

"We have done a significant amount of business with VECO over the years. They were one of the largest oil contractors in the state, and we don't discuss our business with our contractors," a BP press representative said this morning.

As we previously reported, the Anchorage Daily News published a Sunday expose of two former VECO employees who oversaw construction on Stevens' home. One of those employees, David Anderson, claimed that a VECO client, BP Exploration, had "possibly" borne the costs of some of the Stevens' renovations.

But curiously, Anderson himself backpeddled on his statements in a second story, published late last night, by the ADN:

Last week, Anderson said some of the labor charges were passed on to an oil company that was paying Veco to build a North Slope module at the time in its shop, probably BP, though not necessarily with the knowledge of the oil company. He affirmed that Saturday.

But on Sunday, Anderson said he was mistaken and only knew for sure that Veco covered the costs, not that they were passed through to a Veco client. That accounting took place in a Veco office outside the scope of his job, he said Sunday.

Stevens was indicted last week on seven counts of false statements, stemming from his failure to disclose the $250,000 worth of renovations made to his home by the oil company VECO. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment, and his trial is scheduled for September 24, where Anderson may testify.

The New York Daily News reports:

In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks, White House officials repeatedly pressed FBI Director Robert Mueller to prove it was a second-wave assault by Al Qaeda, but investigators ruled that out, the Daily News has learned.

After the Oct. 5, 2001, death from anthrax exposure of Sun photo editor Robert Stevens, Mueller was "beaten up" during President Bush's morning intelligence briefings for not producing proof the killer spores were the handiwork of terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden, according to a former aide.

"They really wanted to blame somebody in the Middle East," the retired senior FBI official told The News.

On October 15, 2001, President Bush said, "There may be some possible link" to Bin Laden, adding, "I wouldn't put it past him." Vice President Cheney also said Bin Laden's henchmen were trained "how to deploy and use these kinds of substances, so you start to piece it all together."

But by then the FBI already knew anthrax spilling out of letters addressed to media outlets and to a U.S. senator was a military strain of the bioweapon. "Very quickly [Fort Detrick, Md., experts] told us this was not something some guy in a cave could come up with," the ex-FBI official said. "They couldn't go from box cutters one week to weapons-grade anthrax the next."

The Government Accountability Office reports the government is putting millions of Medicare dollars in jeopardy through lax review practices for medical suppliers. The government has wasted roughly $1 billion a year by frequently authorizing fictitious companies to submit reimbursement claims. (AP)

Bruce Ivins, the former government scientist and suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks who committed suicide last week, was allowed to keep his security credentials at the FBI even though he was under investigation in the case. Former Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD), who was a target in the attacks, sharply criticized the FBI for its handling of the case. (Washington Post)

A former state assistant prosecutor in Alaska has been assigned to handle the investigation of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Steve Branchflower, the former assistant district attorney, will lead the investigation into Palin and her firing of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan. (ADN)

Read More →

Two VECO employees shed new light on who was behind the idea to renovate the home of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), the Anchorage Daily News reported yesterday.

The two employees, David Anderson, the nephew of former VECO CEO Bill Allen, and Robert "Rocky" Williams, a trusted VECO worker, told the ADN that they met with Allen over drinks at the Alyeska Prince Hotel in the spring of 1999 or 2000. It was during this meeting that the three men first discussed plans to renovate the Stevens' home.

Stevens was indicted last week on seven counts of false statements, stemming from his failure to disclose the $250,000 worth of renovations made to his home by the oil company VECO.

Anderson, who had a falling out with Allen over the construction and once claimed that his uncle threatened his life, told the ADN that there were numerous projects that Stevens was not billed for -- and Anderson would know, since he handled the billing:

Among the electricians' tasks was to wire up a switch for a generator that would automatically turn on whenever the power went out, Anderson said. Allen told him to buy an oversized power plant to install in the back yard. It was so heavy that Anderson had to order in a Veco crane from the shop to lift it over the garage from the driveway and set it in place in the back.

It was another gift that Stevens got for free, Anderson said. "I know, because I ran the paperwork -- I did all the purchase orders."

The generator is not mentioned in the indictment.

Anderson and Williams worked closely with Stevens' wife, Catherine Stevens, who had a say over much of the renovations:

Williams said Catherine Stevens wanted to put her touch on the place, which she and Stevens had bought as a 12-year-old house in 1983.

"So she picked out the carpet, she picked out the tile," Williams said. "She made it her place and that was what Ted wanted . . ."

In addition to shedding light on the work done to the Stevens' home, the ADN also speculates about the likely identities of two of the three anonymous parties in the Stevens' indictment, stating that Person A is Bob Persons, a local business owner who diligently oversaw the renovations, and Company A is Christensen Builders, a local construction company owned by Augie Paone, already known to have done work on the Girdwood chalet.

Anderson initially told the ADN that the "at least some" of the costs for the renovation were passed on to VECO clients, like "BP Exploration." Late yesterday, ADN ran a second story, saying that Anderson backed away from those statements.

The Pentagon defied a Congressional subpoena yesterday by refusing to let the head of its sexual assault program testify at an oversight hearing about sexual assault in the military.

The House panel had issued a subpoena for Dr. Kaye Whitley, the director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

But Pentagon officials ordered her not to testify and instead sent her supervisor, Michael Dominguez, a principal deputy undersecretary for defense, in her place.

Whitley's absence came on the same day a federal judge rejected the White House's claim to blanket immunity from Congressional oversight in an unrelated case.

Dominguez told the committee the Pentagon was not citing executive privileged but had simply instructed Whitley not to show up.

A Pentagon spokeswoman, Cynthia O. Smith, provided a statement today in response to questions about Whitley's defiance of the subpoena.

It is inappropriate to question Dr. Whitley about the program when Mr. Dominguez, the decision maker responsible for the program and for the program's results, is available to answer those questions.

Mr. Dominguez has full accountability and responsibility for the Sexual Assault Prevention Office and he has the full authority to discuss and answer all questions regarding the SAPRO and the Department's sexual assault policies. Dr. Whitley is responsible for implementing the policy....

Dr. Whitley has been on the Hill numerous times discussing the DoD's sexual assault program and she will continue to do so.

Lawmakers interpreted the move as an affront to Congressional authority and said they had specifically sought Whitley based on her knowledge of how the military's sexual assault programs actually work in practice.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) said to Dominguez at the hearing:
"What is, what it is you're trying to hide? She's the one in charge, let me speak, she's the one in charge of dealing with this problem. We wanted to hear from her. And despite a subpoena from a committee of Congress, you've been instructed by the secretary, undersecretary or deputy secretary in charge of legislative affairs not to allow her to come? ... I don't know who you think elected you to defy the Congress of the United States. We're an independent branch of government. ... this is an unacceptable, absolutely unacceptable position for the department to take and, uh, we are not going to let it stand."
Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) tersely dismissed Dominguez without asking him any questions about sexual assault.
"Well let me tell you something Mr. Dominguez, we decide who we want to have for witnesses at this hearing, we decide who, uh, the people that are going to give us factual testimony, the ones that we want to hear from when we are investigating or having a hearing. So for now Mr. Dominguez, you're dismissed."
Here is a clip of the entire nine-minute exchange between Dominguez and the lawmakers.

In June, the House panel asked Whitley to testify. When the Pentagon resisted, the committee issued a subpoena on Monday compelling her to attend the hearing yesterday, according to a statement today from Tierney, the chair of the oversight committee's National Security and Foreign Affairs subcommittee.

The hearing on sexual assault in the military came the same day as a GAO report that found sexual assault in the military is probably underreported by half.

Some victims in the military do not report sexual assault because they fear "that nothing will be done; fear of ostracism, harassment, or ridicule; and concern that peers would gossip," according to the report.

Whitley's office is essentially a policy office and the bulk of the military sexual assault support programs are run by individual commanders. The Pentagon has resisted efforts to create an Office of the Victims' Advocate, which would oversee those efforts more independently.

An advocate for military victims of sexual assault tells TPMmuckraker that Whitley's office is under-resourced and reflects the Pentagon's lack of attention to sexual assault.

"We are concerned that it does not have all the tools and personnel it needs to go forward. And we're increasingly concerned that it is becoming politicized," said Anita Sanchez, communications director for the Miles Foundation.

Tierney said the committee is considering "ALL our options here in the face of this blatant disregard of a validly-issued subpoena," including seeking a contempt of Congress charge for Whitley, Dominguez or others.

Following the letter sent by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) sent his own demand for the testimony and documents following the ruling yesterday in House Judiciary Committee v. Harriet Miers et al.

In a letter to White House counsel Fred Fielding, Conyers called for "quick compliance" with the ruling and an answer to the subpoena issued to White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten for documents relating to the politicization of the Department of Justice.

Conyers also wrote to Miers attorneys, reminding him that the ruling meant his client was "legally required to testify" in answer to Congress' subpoena.

Lastly, Conyers penned a missive to Robert Luskin, Karl Rove's attorney, informing him that his client had been held in contempt of congress by the House Judiciary Committee, but that in light of the recent decision, he hoped that it would not be necessary to carry out the contempt proceedings:

. . .[T]he "precise legal issue" raised by Mr. Rove's claim of immunity from our subpoena as a former White House official was before Judge Bates in Committee on the Judiciary v. Miers. Yesterday's decision in that case provides an unequivocal answer. . . In his letter to me of July 29, 2008, Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith also noted the pendency of the District Court case and stated that "mr. Rove assuredly will abide by the court's decision when it issues." I trust that this is correct and that there will be no further need to enforce the subpoena through contempt proceedings in the full House, and have directed my staff to contact you immediately so that we can make arrangements for Mr. Rove to testify in September.

On the heels of the Senate Judiciary Committee's questioning on Wednesday of Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, and the two recently released OIG reports, seven Democratic members of the committee have requested that Attorney General Michael Mukasey review the damage done to the DOJ by the illegal hiring practices.

Signed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), the letter requests an assessment on the "long-term damage" done to the Department:

We are concerned that the people hired into important career positions throughout the Department using the unlawful, politicized process described in the reports remain in place. This raises the troubling possibility that those positions are held by unqualified, partisan individuals. With this possibility extant, we believe it is inadequate for the Department simply to commit to discontinue the bad practices. There may be continuing consequences of the widespread illegal hiring process. We urge you to ensure that the people put in place via this illegal process meet the Department's high standard of qualifications, and do not undermine the Department's independence and ability to enforce the law without fear or favor.

House Democrats defeated a measure to censure Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) yesterday. The bid to censure, put forward by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), was over Rangel's questionable rent-stabilized housing arrangement in Harlem. At the same time, the House ethics panel announced yesterday that they plan to review Rangel's lease and his use of congressional letterhead in solicitations donations. (AP, Politico)

A former official at the Treasury Department is the focus of a new civil complaint filed by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo against UBS. The official, David Aufhauser, is described as "Executive A" in Cuomo's case against UBS over fraud in the auction-rate-securities market. (Wall Street Journal)

A MnDOT emergency response executive who was fired for taking an unauthorized state-funded trip to Washington directly after the Minnesota bridge collapse, was recentlyhired by the Department of Homeland Security. The former executive, Sonia Pitt, confirmed Wednesday that she is now a Transportation Security Specialist at the department. (Star Tribune)

Read More →

Around 5 PM Alaska time, Sen. Ted Stevens' office issued a second statement on his arraignment earlier in the day in federal court.

From the Anchorage Daily News:

I am pleased that the Judge has set a speedy trial date, which should allow ample time for a decision before the general election. I am looking forward to this trial as a way of finally showing the truth - that I am innocent.

We have a Bill of Rights and a trial by jury in our country to protect our citizens - so that every person has their day in court.

I am humbled by all the outpouring of support, expressions of friendship, and offers of prayers. This process has lasted for more than a year, causing great distress to my family and confusing the Alaskans who have put their trust in me for more than 40 years.

When all the facts come out at the trial, Alaskans will know that I continue to be a dedicated public servant and that I am working hard for them every day.