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Being an author of legal thrillers, John Grisham knows a sophisticated bribery scheme when he sees one. And frankly, he seems a little disappointed in his fellow Mississippian and friend Dickie Scruggs. Or at least that's the impression one gets in reading his comments about his friend's predicament to The Wall Street Journal:

"This doesn't sound like the Dickie Scruggs that I know," Mr. Grisham said yesterday. "When you know Dickie, and how successful he has been, you could not believe he would be involved in such a boneheaded bribery scam that is not in the least bit sophisticated."

As we detailed last week, the indictment alleges plenty of boneheadedness. Would a villain in a Grisham book be so dumb as to refer to a bribery payment as "the package?" Surely not. Is he wrong to expect at least as much from his friends?

According to internal State Department cables obtained by TPMmuckraker, the State Department has slated two Diplomatic Security officials who oversee private-security contractors guarding U.S. diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan for salary bonuses. The optional bonuses, called Senior Foreign Service Performance Pay Awards, come months after administrative investigations have raised questions about the propriety of State's relationship with security contractors like Blackwater.

In late October, Richard Griffin, head of the department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, resigned after an internal State Department review of contractor relationships implicitly rebuked the office for insufficient oversight. That lack of oversight contributed to the September shooting deaths of over a dozen Iraqi civilians by Blackwater security guards at Nisour Square, and has inflamed Iraqis, who view State Department guards Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp as having a license to kill without legal consequence. Yet shortly after Griffin's resignation, ABC News reported that two key deputies who worked closely with the security contractors, Kevin Barry and Justine Sincavage, received quiet promotions. One outraged State official told ABC, "What does it say when State promotes the two people into DS' most senior positions, when if they had properly managed the programs under the responsibility, we wouldn't be in this mess?"

That question could also be asked of their recent pay bonuses.

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Rudy Giuliani is the only Republican candidate who remains involved in private business and recent scrutiny of his relationships has raised serious questions about his judgment. The New York Times reports that Rudy’s firm Bracewell & Giuliani has lobbied Congress for legislation that President Bush believes is a threat to anti-terrorism efforts in Africa. One state department official noted that Bracewell & Giuliani’s lobbying is harmful to a relationship with an ally. (New York Times)

Brent Wilkes, recently convicted of bribing former U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, will not be able to subpoena reporters and government officials regarding grand jury leaks. Wilkes argued that the leaks deprived him of his right to a fair trial but a federal judge ruled that leaks had "no material affect on the verdict." (AP)

In the wake of September 11, Congress created a $1 billion insurance fund (The World Trade Center Captive Insurance Company) to cover the claims of sick workers. Now, the inspector general for the Homeland Security Department is looking into why the fund "has chosen to litigate all claims instead of settling whenever possible." (AP)

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Score another one for Wikileaks. This morning -- thanks to a source known only as "Peryton" -- the open-source website for whistleblower documents published the 2004 manual for U.S. military detention operations at Guantanamo Bay. You can read it, with commentary, here.

Last month, Wikileaks published the 2003 edition of the manual. Among other controversial provisions, the manual instructed officials to hide certain detainees from the International Committee of the Red Cross, a practice that the military repeatedly denied was in existence at Guantanamo. Spokespeople for the U.S. military's Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo Bay, said the manual was outdated and assured that some instructions that violated the Geneva Conventions were no longer in effect.

It's unclear so far what portions of the 2004 manual remain in place. (Maybe Peryton will enlighten us in the future.) The Washington Post's Josh White quotes Guantanamo Bay spokesman as saying that "things have changed dramatically" at the camp since 2004. But Wikileaks finds that, in key areas, the 2004 manual didn't change so much from 2003:

Systematic denial of Red Cross access to prisoners remains. The use of dogs remains. Segregation and isolation are still used routinely and systematically – including an initial period of at least 4 weeks "to enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee", only terminated at the behest of interrogators. Both manuals assert that detainees will be treated in accordance with the "spirit" of the Geneva conventions "to the degree consistent with military needs", but never assert that the conventions are actually being followed at Guantanamo. Put into practice, neither manual complies with the Geneva conventions.

So is the past prologue? We'll find out. For now, though, dig into the 2004 manual and let us know in comments what you think is most significant.

Kevin Drum speculated earlier today that pressure from the Democratic-controlled Congress might have pushed Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, into releasing today's National Intelligence Estimate, which judges that Iran doesn't have an active nuclear weapons program. It's an assessment that's certainly in line with past practice: after all, the administration isn't in the habit of releasing much information at all, let alone data points that suggest Iran can't, you know, start World War Three. But in this case, it looks like McConnell took the initiative without help.

An aide to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, says that Rockefeller -- the obvious culprit in any Senatorial intelligence push -- didn't press McConnell to release the NIE's key judgments. Rockefeller's House counterpart, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), released a statement today saying that he wants to be "fully informed about the classified sources upon which this estimate is based" and that he will "review areas where certain agencies dissent." That sounds like a man in the dark about the NIE. At the risk of wild speculation, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's unlikely that their GOP colleagues didn't want the world to know about Iran's nuclear non-threat.

Perhaps other Senators or Congresscritters pushed McConnell. But so far it looks like this is a case of the intelligence community actually being out to set the record straight.

Thomas Kontogiannis, briber of Duke Cunningham and cooperator extraordinaire, was due to be sentenced today for his role in the schemes. But today the judge put it off since Tommy K just had bypass surgery.

Last week, his lawyers argued that he'd die in prison because of his heart condition. That didn't tug on the prosecutors' heart strings, however, and they recommended a ten-year sentence, adding that Tommy K had actually continued to run a mortgage fraud scheme for months after he'd pleaded guilty in February.

The judge appears to take a similarly dim view and has revoked Kontogiannis' bail:

[Kontogiannis] will remain in federal custody at the hospital.

U.S. District Judge Larry Burns said Kontogiannis went to Greece with family and appeared to commit what he called "new and continuing crimes." The judge did not elaborate on the alleged crimes.

Some senators are queasy over a potential contempt-of-Congress showdown with the Bush administration over the U.S. attorney firings. Not Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who sat down with TPMmuckraker in his Senate offices this morning.

Whitehouse said that the Bush administration has "redrawn the line" for a reasonable exercise of executive privilege. And that's why he supports Senator Patrick Leahy's efforts to hold current and former White House officials in contempt for not complying with Congressional subpoenas from the firings investigation. Leahy ruled last week that the administration's assertions of privilege this summer in response to the subpoenas were invalid, a step towards issuing a contempt citation.

What's more, Whitehouse welcomes the Constitutional showdown that would result. "I'm astounded at the breadth and the scope of the privilege that they claim," the first-term senator said. "I actually hope that it comes to a point where we end up litigating it and getting a court decision and settling this question."

Asked if he was going further than other senators, who'd use a possible contempt finding as a mechanism to compel the document disclosure, Whitehouse said the Bush administration has gone so far in "grading its own papers" -- that is, deciding for itself what Congress is entitled to receive from the executive -- that it's time to return to Constitutional first principles. "I'd rather get it done," he said:

"There has not been a lot of case law on this subject. We've been going on for a long time off of Department of Justice [attorney general] opinions, and a certain amount of tradition, and how settlements and agreements in the past have shaken out. But the Bush administration has shown why it's actually important that there be a legal line drawn to hold them to, because they've redrawn all the executive lines. I think it'd be good for the process to get a court decision for once and for all on the subject so everybody knows where we stand. It'll eliminate a lot of the back and forth in the future."

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Hmm. Could it be that Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell is trying to signal his opposition to a war with Iran?

This morning, the intelligence community released the key judgments of a National Intelligence Estimate concluding "with high confidence" that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. Yet, just weeks ago, McConnell announced that the NIEs -- assessments of a given national-security or foreign-policy priority across all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies -- would no longer be available to the general public. The Iran NIE, McConnell said, would be no exception. Here's how AP intelligence reporter Pamela Hess reported McConnell's decision on November 13:

McConnell also said a new national intelligence estimate on Iran should be complete in about a month, but its key findings will not be released publicly. He says doing so could alert Iran to its intelligence vulnerabilities.

How quickly times change! Credit McConnell and the intelligence community for the public disclosure: after all, its previous estimate on Iran, completed in 2005, judged that Iran had an active nuclear-weapons program, so keeping the new NIE secret would have amounted to letting an inaccuracy stand. Indeed, that's how McConnell's deputy, Donald Kerr, described the motivation behind disclosure in a statement to reporters:

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Ever since September, the nomination for accomplished vote suppression expert Hans von Spakovsky to be a member of the Federal Election Commission has been snagged, stopped by the public opposition of Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) and the somewhat more private opposition of Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

The Republican leadership countered the Democrats by insisting that von Spakovsky's nomination was all or nothing -- either von Spakovsky went through or none of the nominated commissioners did. That means that if no compromise is reached by the end of the year, the FEC, which makes rules governing election spending, might effectively shut down in an election year, since it would be left with only two commissioners out of six seats. As we reported back in October, that could create a situation where outside groups funded by millionaires (like the Swift Boat Vets) could run amok in a campaign year.

Roll Call gives (sub. req.) an update of sorts this morning. The short version: things are still at a standstill, but "various scenarios currently are circulating" to avoid a shutdown. One scenario: von Spakovsky could withdraw and the problem would go away. Another: the White House and Senate could join together to make a new round of nominations. Or another: "the deck of current commission recess appointees may be reshuffled and re-recess appointed, a complicated and likely unprecedented strategy." Stay tuned.

Another test for Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

In a letter to Mukasey today, House sleuth Henry Waxman (D-CA) said that the White House has prevented former Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald from turning over records of his interviews during the Valeria Plame leak investigation of White House officials, including the President.

In July, Waxman said, Fitzgerald agreed to turn over the documents to Waxman's House oversight committee, along with documents from his interviews with State Department and CIA officials. But though he's turned those other documents over to the committee, the White House has prevented the release of his records of the White House interviews.

In the letter, Waxman urges Mukasey to ignore the White House's position, saying that "the role of the Attorney General is to administer the laws with impartiality." During the Clinton Administration, he writes, Janet Reno "made an independent judgment and provided numerous FBI interview reports to the Committee, including reports of interviews with President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and three White House Chiefs of Staff." Apparently the Justice Department under Alberto Gonzales had agreed to the White House's request to keep the documents from Congress. Waxman wants to know if things will change now that there's a new boss.

Waxman had requested transcripts or other documents relating to Fitzgerald's interviews of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Andrew Card, Stephen Hadley, Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett, and Scott McClellan. Fitzgerald is prepared to turn over at least some of these, Waxman writes, though it's unclear which.