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More than five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the western alliance of big oil firms is making its final move on Mesopotamian oil reserves.

The New York Times reports today that the Iraqi government will soon announce the award of no-bid oil service contracts with a coalition of western oil companies, marking the first legal agreement between big oil and the post-Saddam Iraqi government.

The no-bid contracts are unusual for the industry, and the offers prevailed over others by more than 40 companies, including companies in Russia, China and India. The contracts, which would run for one to two years and are relatively small by industry standards, would nonetheless give the companies an advantage in bidding on future contracts in a country that many experts consider to be the best hope for a large-scale increase in oil production.

The Times notes the four main companies -- the Texas-based Exxon Mobile, British BP, Total of France and Royal Dutch Shell, which has its headquarters in the Netherlands -- were the four companies that made up the Iraq Petroleum Company that Saddam Hussein ousted when he nationalized Iraq's oil resources in 1968.

According to the Times, "It is not clear what role the United States played in awarding the contracts."

To be sure, the companies are somewhat disappointed that this is how they have to return to Iraq. The companies and the Bush Administration for years pushed the Iraqis to accept a so-called Hydrocarbon Law that would permit Production Sharing Agreements for the oil companies. That was among the so-called "benchmarks" that Bush enumerated at the outset of the "surge" in early 2006.

The PSA's are often called "colonial" style agreements that permit western oil companies to exert a lot of control over a nation's subterranean resources. Few countries still use them, as most, like Venezuela and Russia, demand more control over their own oil.

These no-bid deals were probably as good as the companies could expect.

The no-bid deals are structured as service contracts. The companies will be paid for their work, rather than offered a license to the oil deposits. As such, they do not require the passage of an oil law setting out terms for competitive bidding. The legislation has been stalled by disputes among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties over revenue sharing and other conditions.

And it gives the Western oil giants a leg up on companies like the Russian-run Lukoil, which lost out big after the U.S. invasion.

A clause in the draft contracts would allow the companies to match bids from competing companies to retain the work once it is opened to bidding, according to the Iraq country manager for a major oil company who did not consent to be cited publicly discussing the terms.

Oil has been a major source of strife in domestic Iraqi politics. Opposition to giving foreigners access to Iraq's oil wealth has always been a critical motivation for followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, for example.

I wonder how this news will go over in Sadr City?

One day after Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) announced he will seek re-election despite his upcoming federal trial, his sister pleaded guilty in a federal court in New Orleans.

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

Brenda Jefferson, a younger sister of embattled U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, pleaded guilty this afternoon to concealing her knowledge of an alleged conspiracy to take money from nonprofits that involved several of her relatives.

The alleged conspiracy was the centerpiece of an recent indictment charging her sister, 4th District Assessor Betty Jefferson, her brother, political strategist Mose Jefferson, and her niece, Angela Coleman, with plundering more than $600,000 from three charities they controlled.

Brenda Jefferson, who also goes by the name Brenda Foster, signed a summary of the government's case against her in which she says that Coleman and Betty Jefferson made out a series of checks to her but then deposited the money in their own accounts.

Jefferson is awaiting trial on separate corruption charges in Virginia.

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) has had his share of federal investigations, scandal and legal bills, but he may now have a new problem: "The A Team."

In a document obtained today by, entitled 'An Intern's Survival Guide,' new interns in Young's office are given various instructions on how to thrive and excel working in Young's office. The document was distributed to new interns by a paid member of Young's staff.

The advice and rules range from the jocular to the mundane. But the most striking is the section on phone duty. The 'Guide' refers to an "A-Team" of nine lobbyists who should immediately be connected to any member of the staff they ask to speak with.

The A Team: Rick Alcade [sic], Colin Chapman, Randy DeLay, Billy Lee Evans, Jack Ferguson, Mike Henry, Ducan Smith [sic], CJ Zane or Jay Dickey. These people can talk to whomever they want, normally Mike or Sara. Tell them who it is and transfer over unless they say otherwise. I recommend looking up who they are.

Most notable on the list is Rick Alcalde, the lobbyist at the center of the "Coconut Road" earmark scandal, which the Senate, in an unprecedented move, has formally asked the Justice Department to investigate.

For readers (and interns who may have fallen behind on their duties), we've done the work for you. What do these nine all have in common besides being the perfect number for a baseball team? They're all transportation lobbyists.

Young was Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2000 to 2006.

As we mentioned, there's Rick Alcalde who besides organizing the Coconut Road earmark debacle for Young, is a lobbyist for wealthy Florida developer Daniel Aronoff.

Jack Ferguson, is the former Chief of Staff for Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), another of Alaska's scandal ridden representatives, and an Administrator for Midnight Sun PAC.

Randy DeLay, lobbyist brother of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Billy Lee Evans, the former Georgia congressman turned lobbyist.

Mike Henry, a former Young legislative assistant turned lobbyist.

Jay Dickey, a former Arkansas congressman turned lobbyist.

Duncan Smith, a former Young staffer and Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board member turned lobbyist.

CJ Zane, a former Young Chief of Staff, turned lobbyist.

and Colin Chapman, another former Young Chief of Staff, turned lobbyist.

At first glance, seems like an All-Star lineup.

A statement release late this afternoon by Young's congressional office claims that 'Guide' was unofficial and "outdated":

"Rep. Young has welcomed dozens of interns into his office over the years and finds their assistance in the office invaluable. But interns are not staff. This incredibly outdated "survival guide" was pieced together by several former interns and not by staff. This "guide" in no way reflects the official policies of Rep. Young's office.

"It's always interesting to see how students view their intern experience. It appears that some of what they have written is tongue in cheek, some to help relieve the daily stresses of working on Capitol Hill. At the end of the day, our goal is to ensure that all interns have the best experience possible.

"As for those listed, they include either former staffers (who represent Alaskans) or close friends and former colleagues of Rep. Young, whom he has known for many years."

Contrary to this account, has learned that the 'Guide' and other initiation materials were distributed by a paid member of Young's staff.

After getting zinged for having a number of domestic and foreign lobbyists advising the candidate, the McCain campaign recently introduced new campaign rules barring anyone currently employed as a lobbyist from serving on the campaign.

But they seem to have another new policy too: not telling anyone who the candidate's advisers are.

Until a couple weeks ago, included a page with a long list of its advisers.

But they took it down right after TPM asked about an economic adviser who was linked to Jack Abramoff's lobbying scheme.

A McCain aide explained at the time that the list was outdated and did not reflect the new no-lobbyist rules that took effect in May. (Yes, the adviser we asked about, Carlos Bonilla, is both a lobbyist and a former White House official accused of taking favors from Abramoff's shop. He's no longer with the campaign, the aide said.)

We were curious about a handful of people with lobbying backgrounds who had been working for or advising the campaign. So we drew up a list and asked a McCain spokesman to tell us which ones remained with the campaign and which ones, like Bonilla, had been removed.

The spokesman refused to comment on the people individually and only reiterated the policy announced a few weeks ago, that no registered lobbyists work for the campaign and policy advisers can't be registered to lobby on issues they advise the campaign on.

It's been about a month since the campaign's new rules took effect, and the Web page we asked about is still blank.

When we asked today about the Web page that used to list advisers, the McCain aide told us they are "updating the page."

So how can anyone know who's on the McCain campaign, then?

The McCain spokesperson suggested that we go to the Federal Election Commission for information about staff and advisers.

Of course, that won't really tell us much. The FEC filings include expense records with outdated payroll payments for hundreds of campaign workers -- but without any indication of what the individuals actually do.

The McCain aide also responded: "Please show me a list of Obama campaign staff and advisers."

We asked the Obama campaign about that this morning and we haven't hear back from them. We'll let you know when we do.

Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Kent Conrad (D-ND) are still fending off questions about special-rate loans they received from Countrywide Financial.

Countrywide's been at the center of the mortgage meltdown, and the GOP is cranking up the pressure on the two Democratic lawmakers.

Dodd told reporters yesterday that a loan officer specifically told him and his wife they were getting "VIP" consideration in 2003 when they took out two loans on their Connecticut home and Capitol Hill townhouse.

But Dodd said he didn't think to ask precisely what that meant. Even though he is chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which oversees the mortgage industry, Dodd said he "assumed" that "it was more of a courtesy thing."

From the New York Times.

"Somebody told you you were in a V.I.P. program," a reporter said, "And you didn't think you were getting ... "

Mr. Dodd cut off the reporter and finished the question himself. "A special deal on a loan?" the senator asked. "No."

According to Portfolio, which broke the story last week, the lower rates Dodd received saved him "about $58,000 on his Washington residence over the life of the loan, and $17,000 on the Connecticut home."

Calculating the exact benefit is a challenge, and some suggest Dodd's perk was far less. The Washington Post reports:
Dodd borrowed $506,000 at 4.25 percent to refinance a Capitol Hill townhouse, originally purchased in 1999, and $275,042 at 4.5 percent to refinance a home in East Haddam, Conn.

Rather than requiring him to pay the full amount to obtain the reduced mortgage rates, as other customers must, Countrywide waived three-eighths of a point, or about $2,000, on the first loan and a quarter-point, or $700, on the second.

Meanwhile, Sen. Conrad has moved quickly to quell the criticism. Through the special program -- known as the "F-O-A program", or "Friends of Angelo, named for Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo -- Conrad got a good deal on loans for both a Delaware beach vacation home as well as an eight-unit investment property he owns in Bismarck with his brothers.

Conrad said he gave $10,700 to Habitat for Humanity to compensate for any benefit he may have received on the vacation home loan. And this week, he said, he paid off the final $32,000 on the investment property.

Conrad spoke to Mozilo about his mortgage in 2002, but the deals under scrutiny were not finalized until 2004. Yet like Dodd, Conrad also said he was unaware of any discount. "I had absolutely no clue they had done that," he said yesterday.

"My conscience is absolutely clear," he told the Times.

Recent weeks have seen a rash of activity from some of the old players involved in the investigation of shamed Washington insider Jack Abramoff, including the uber-lobbyist himself. Here are complete listings from the Associated Press and TPM's own ongoing tally of the Abramoff ripple effect. (Associated Press)

Committee hearings in the House and Senate are revealing evidence of abuse, possible torture, handicapped legal proceedings and innocent detainees in prisons like Guantanamo Bay. The Senate Armed Services Committee released documents detailing the U.S. military's policy of hiding detainees from outside humanitarian groups such as the Red Cross. (McClatchy)

Sen. Barack Obama-antagonizer and polygraph-test failure Larry Sinclair is responsible for charging the presidential candidate with past sex trysts, drug use and accusations of murder, mainly through an oft-visited YouTube video. Public records show Sinclair has a hefty, 27-year-old rap sheet and is wanted in Colorado. Nevertheless, the National Press Club is giving Sinclair time to speak today in Washington D.C. (Politico)

Read More →

As we reported yesterday, the China-drilling-off-Cuba story that has been a talking point for high level Republicans for the last few weeks is an urban legend. And the GOP is slowly acknowledging that:

From Roll Call:

"We're not using the China talking point anymore, but we will continue to point out that it is absurd that Cuba is developing its deep-water energy resources while Democrats are blocking America from doing the same," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Yesterday we learned about the CIA's larger involvement in developing torture techniques at Guantanamo Bay -- techniques previously thought to have been developed primarily by the military.

In an epic eight-hour, three-panel hearing, the Senate Armed Services Committee examined dozens of documents and grilled former Pentagon officials involved in developing the interrogation methods introduced in 2002.

(Among several good articles on the hearings, a good place to start isSpencer Ackerman's article at the Washington Independent.)

Key to the hearings were the minutes of a meeting between CIA counter-terrorism lawyer Jonathan Fredman and a group of military and intelligence officials who convened at the base in Cuba to discuss the use of harsher interrogation techniques on detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The techniques derived from a training regimen U.S. Special Forces troops used prepare troops to withstand torture --Survival Evasion Resistance Escape, or SERE.

The SERE program -- first introduced to many by a 2005 article by the New Yorker's Jane Mayer -- is not an interrogation program. Nor is it an intelligence-collection program. Instead, it's an obscure program across the different military services' special-forces wings that teaches troops how to withstand torture if captured. Instructors subject students -- under the rigorous watch of psychologists and physicians -- to various torture techniques, including waterboarding, prolonged stress positions, sleep deprivation and sensory manipulation. Waterboarding "is an overwhelming experience that induces horror, triggers a frantic survival instinct," Malcolm Nance, a former Navy SERE instructor who was himself waterboarded, testified to Congress in November. "As the event unfolded, I was fully conscious of what was happening: I was being tortured."

On July 25, 2002, the Defense agency that oversees the SERE program, known as the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, or JPRA, was contacted by a representative of Pentagon General Counsel William Haynes for information about SERE practices for the "exploitation process" -- that is, getting detainees to cooperate with their interrogators. The next day, JPRA's chief of staff, Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Baumgartner, sent Haynes a lengthy memorandum explaining how the program worked.

. . . Baumgartner's memorandum was not the last time SERE techniques were introduced into the interrogation bloodstream. On the week of Sept. 16, 2002, JPRA officials invited a contingent of senior Guantanamo-based officers to a briefing session at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Haynes and his legal counterparts at the Central Intelligence Agency, Justice Dept. and the vice president's office visited Guantanamo the following week for an update on interrogations. The minutes of that meeting record that the commander of the detention facility "did take Mr. Haynes and a few others aside for private conversations."

Just the week after that, a senior CIA lawyer, Jonathan Fredman, instructed Guantanamo officers on various SERE-pedigreed torture methods, including waterboarding. "If the detainee dies," Fredman said, "you're doing it wrong." In response, the chief Guantanamo Bay attorney, Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, said, "We will need documentation to protect us."

The Washington Post today emphasized that the meeting records, specifically Feldman's statements, revealed the CIA's larger involvement in advising on the torture techniques, the creation of which was previously thought to fall mainly under the purview of the Defense Department.

Baumgarten and Beaver testified about their involvement:

Before the Senate panel, Baumgartner said he did not realize that Haynes wanted to use SERE techniques on enemy combatants. "I had no idea how it would be used," he testified. "When tasked by my higher headquarters... I can't really turn around and tell the flag officers and the senior executive service people no."

Beaver testified today for the first time since Haynes declassified her guidance in mid-2004. She said she intended for the techniques to be used under supervised and restricted circumstances. It turned out that not a single other military lawyer submitted written guidance in support of the SERE-derived techniques. "In hindsight," Beaver told the Senate panel, "I can only conclude that others chose not to write on this issue in order not to be linked to it. For me, that was not an option."

Meanwhile, Haynes attempted to distance himself from the policy.

Haynes, who retired from the Pentagon in April, after his nomination to the federal judiciary foundered, pled ignorance. "No, sir, I don't remember it at the time," Haynes said when asked if he had received Baumgartner's memorandum. "But I saw it a long time ago... it's possible I saw it at the time."

Pressed by Levin on how he could not have seen a memorandum concerning terrorism detentions and interrogations, Hayes replied, "the recipient is the Office of the Secretary of Defense General Counsel, which [was] not my precise title."

For more coverage, also see Ackerman's live blog of the hearing as it took place.

We pointed out this morning the New York Times story that suggested KBR was over charging the military on Iraq-related contracts and threatening to cut off services to combat troops if the bills weren't paid.

Now here's another one about KBR's billing. This time from the Department of Defense Inspector General. And it looks at the company's role in the clean-up efforts after Hurricane Katrina.

The Houston Chronicle reports:

The Pentagon Inspector General said he could find no documentation in Navy contracting files to back up KBR claims it paid fair and reasonable prices to subcontractors that served meals in New Orleans.

"The prices KBR agreed to pay were greatly inflated," the 86-page audit said.

"The Navy paid approximately $4.1 million for meals and services we calculate should have cost $1.7 million, more than a $2.3 million difference," said the audit, signed by Assistant Inspector General for Acquisition Management Richard Jolliffe.

. . . Altogether, the audit requested that the Navy seek refunds of at least $8.5 million for "inappropriate" payments to KBR.

A reporter for the Los Angeles Times landed a rare interview with the Iraqi known as "Curveball," the now-discredited source on whom the Bush Administration rested much of its case for Iraq having weapons of mass destruction.

Living in Germany and speaking out for the first time, "Curveball" says everyone has been lying about him:

"I never said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, never in my whole life," he said. "I challenge anyone in the world to get a piece of paper from me, anything with my signature, that proves I said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

How did the Bush administration get it so wrong?

"I'm not the source of these problems," he said.