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On Sept. 16th of last year Blackwater guards leading a diplomatic convoy fired shots into Nisour Square in Baghdad, killing 17 civilians, including a 9-year-old boy. Blackwater offered each victim $20,000 in compensation, but, like other victims and their relatives, the boy's father has declined the buyout, and is now attempting to file a lawsuit against the company. (ABC News)

Speaking of Blackwater, House Democrats are requesting documents regarding a loophole in overseas contracting. House Oversight Chairman Henry Waxman, (D-California) sent letters to five executive agencies, marking the beginning of a congressional investigation into how and why a policy enabling possible fraudulent contracting was established. (Associated Press and Oversight.house.gov)

The US Justice Department is defending the practices they employed in pursuing the case against for New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. Officials claim the involvement of a public official, as well as large sums of money, warranted the unusually intensive investigation into a prostitution ring, a crime that rarely garners federal scrutiny. (New York Times)

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Another Watergate? The scheming of would-be plumbers searching for vulnerabilities in the possible Democratic presidential nominee's past?

Or three bored cube rats who were just looking out of "imprudent curiosity?"

Thrice this year, on Jan. 9, Feb. 21 and March 14, contract employees of the State Department accessed Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) passport file. So far, everything beyond that simple data point is unclear.

The State Department refuses to release the names of the contractors (there are apparently two) or the employees -- two of whom have been fired, one "disciplined." It's not clear what information, exactly, they accessed -- "whether the employees saw anything other than the basic personal data such as name, citizenship, age and place of birth that is required when a person fills out a passport application."

And, of course, it's not clear why they were doing it. The verdict of a "preliminary investigation," the State Department says, is that they were motivated by "imprudent curiosity."

And at this point it's unclear who will do more than a preliminary investigation. Although Undersecretary of State Patrick F. Kennedy told reporters last night that they were asking the State Department's inspector general (an office still stinging from the resignation of Cookie Krongard) to investigate, but as the AP points out, the inspector general probably wouldn't be able to do much because the employees no longer work for the Department. So who else will? The searches may have violated the Privacy Act, but another State Department official says it's premature to consider whether the FBI or Justice Department should be involved. Meanwhile an "administration official" tells The Washington Times that the FBI is conducting a "preliminary inquiry."

State Department officials say that the breaches came to light as a result of a reporter's query yesterday afternoon (it's not clear exactly what that query was). The Department's database flags the access of the files of "high profile" people, so it was easy to discover the breaches once they were looking for them. Why weren't they discovered before?

"I will fully acknowledge this information should have been passed up the line," Kennedy told reporters in a conference call Thursday night. "It was dealt with at the office level."


So what about those supervisors? It's unclear. The contractors, Kennedy says, do work like data entry, customer service and other administrative tasks for the Department.

The whole thing compels a comparison to 1992, when Steven Berry, a Republican appointee at the Department, was discovered to have pulled Bill Clinton's passport records. The independent counsel selected to investigate, Joe DiGenova, found after a three-year, $2.2 million probe, that Berry had indeed been up to no good, but no one higher up the chain had known about it and it wasn't criminal anyway.

The State Department is apparently going to be briefing the Obama campaign later today. We'll keep you updated.

Earlier this week, we reported on the decision by U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles Thomas O'Brien to disband the office's public corruption unit. The official line from O'Brien was that disbanding the 17-lawyer unit would actually boost the number of public corruption investigations, because other units would now have the opportunity to take on such cases. The was a line of reasoning with which a former prosecutor from that office disagreed.

And not surprisingly, the current lawyers there don't think much of that either. But, reports The Los Angeles Times, O'Brien warned them not to dispute that publicly:

[I]n interviews with The Times, several members of the disbanded unit challenged that explanation, saying the move was intended to punish lawyers for a perceived failure to produce and for bad-mouthing their boss, U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien.

The lawyers described a meeting last week in which an angry O'Brien derided attorneys in the office for working too few hours, filing too few cases and for speaking ill of him to subordinates.

They said O'Brien also threatened to tarnish their reputations if they challenged the official explanation for the unit's dismantling in conversations with reporters. Members of the unit contacted by The Times either spoke on the condition that they not be named or declined to comment. Several said they wanted to talk about the situation but feared reprisals if they did so.


Lawyers from that office also say that O'Brien's move might lead to an increase in the number of prosecutions, but they will be more in the mold of "filings against postal employees stealing mail and other relatively minor cases but 'don't look for any long, drawn-out City Hall corruption cases.'"

The misleading spin doesn't end there, however. The spokesman for the office told the Times that the Los Angeles' office was completely unique -- that no other office in the country has an entire section of lawyers specializing in public corruption cases.

That's not true. The public integrity unit in Manhattan's U.S. Attorney Office is famously handling now-ex-Gov. Elliot Spitzer's (D) entanglement with the Emperor's Club prostitution ring, and U.S. Attorney for Chicago Patrick Fitzgerald has a public corruption section in his office -- an office that's handled the wide-ranging investigation into the administration of Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).

Actually, given those units' recent success in making the lives of governors miserable, you can bet that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) isn't too upset about this move.

The Environmental Protection Agency's reaction to oversight has been less than friendly. Administrator Stephen Johnson's crew never misses the chance to redact the particularly embarrassing parts of agency documents. House sleuth Henry Waxman (D-CA) has already issued two subpoenas for EPA documents when they weren't promptly forthcoming.

But now the EPA wants a little something from Waxman: transcripts for the interviews Waxman's staff has done with seven senior EPA staffers. Waxman is investigating Johnson's decision to overrule the unanimous recommendation of his legal and technical staff and block California's greenhouse gas rules.

Now, why would the agency want to know what its own employees are telling congressional investigators? A cynic might say that Johnson wants to know what his staff are saying so that he's prepared for any unpleasant questions when Waxman finally asks him to testify before the House oversight committee. After all, there's such a gulf between the EPA's staff and the political appointees that union representatives have backed out of a cooperation agreement. But the EPA says otherwise:

The EPA "has an interest in ensuring that the information provided ... by agency employees in their official capacity is accurate and complete," wrote [EPA Associate Administrator Christopher Bliley] in a letter dated March 14, a day after Waxman had issued a subpoena for 196 internal EPA documents.


It's a reasoning reminiscent of the agency's refusal to turn over documents showing that Johnson had ignored his staff's recommendation. Agency lawyers argued then that the documents shouldn't be turned over because "many of the documents are pre-decisional and thus do not reflect the Agency’s full and complete thinking on the matter." So you might say that the EPA frequently expresses discomfort with the idea of the public getting information that the EPA would rather keep mum.

A quick update on the House's lawsuit against Harriet Miers and White House chief of staff Josh Bolten. From The Politico:

The House General Counsel's Office, which is representing the Judiciary Committee in a civil contempt lawsuit against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, has asked a federal judge to set up an expedited schedule to resolve portions of the case, a schedule that would require a ruling by this summer, according to court documents filed today.

The Justice Department, which is representing Bolten and Miers in the case, countered that the only reason the Judiciary Committee is seeking a speedy determination of the case is so that it "recommence prior to Congress' August recess" its investigation into the firing of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. The Justice Department wants a slower review of the contempt case, and it is already warning that it may appeal any ruling that goes against it.


What the House wants is to just settle the White House's more expansive claims of privilege -- namely, that Miers didn't even need to show up in response to the House Judiciary Committee's subpoena and that both Bolten and Miers didn't even need to indicate what sort of documents the White House were claiming privilege for.

A private conference is scheduled for tomorrow. The judge's decision will likely indicate whether the House has any hope of hearing any actual testimony from Miers or seeing any documents from Bolten during the Bush administration.

Who says that Scooter Libby is going unpunished?

I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was disbarred from practicing law in the nation's capital on Thursday.

I Lewis "Scooter" Libby was convicted to lying to a grand jury and investigators last year.

The former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney was convicted last year of lying to a grand jury and federal agents probing the leak of the identity of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame Wilson.

"When a member of the Bar is convicted of an offense involving moral turpitude, disbarment is mandatory," the District of Columbia Court of Appeals wrote in its opinion, which is posted on its Web site.


It's all part of the president's "measured" approach to Libby's commutation. Sure, Libby won't have to serve that 30 month jail sentence. But the remaining punishments (the bother of reporting to a probation officer, the inconvenience of disbarment, that $250,000 fine) are "harsh."

No one will ever say that Rep. Don Young (R-AK) can't handle the tough questions. OK, so maybe he tends to handle them by shouting down his questioners, but the man can take care of himself.

Well, Young is due for his first debate of the campaign tonight. But unfortunately there won't be any questions about why Young has paid defense attorneys almost $1 million, or whether he violated the Constitution in order to benefit a major campaign contributor, or any of his other entanglements.

That's because it's all about fish:

The kinds of questions that so annoyed the incumbent, Don Young, that he canceled a press conference last month -- his relationship to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff or why he's spent nearly $1 million on legal fees -- will be off limits in Kodiak.

The debate is part of the Comfish exposition and moderator John Whiddon, president of Island Seafoods and the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce, said any question not directly related to fishing will be ruled out of order.


Somehow you got to figure that someone will manage to work their way under Young's skin nonetheless. The debate will feature six participants, minus Young's prominent Republican primary challenger Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell. But Dem Jake Metcalfe, whom Young has dubbed "Jake the Snake," will be there to get him riled up.

Pentagon officials are at odds over military strategy in Iraq. Ground commanders, like Gen. David H. Patraeus, advocate an inflated troop presence, while the Joint Chiefs believe otherwise. (Los Angeles Times)

Rep. Henry Waxman, (D-California) is calling for an investigation in faulty electrical wiring of American military bases in Iraq following the electrocution death of Staff Sgt. Ryan D. Maseth, a 24-year-old Green Beret. (New York Times and Speaker.gov)

Health and Human Services Director Michael Leavitt sent a letter to the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology outlining the Bush administration's policy that allows physicians with moral objections to abortion to refuse referring patients to other outlets. (ThinkProgress.org)

(John Amick wrote this post -- ed)

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Dick Cheney: master diplomat, negotiator and conciliator?!

Ever since late February, the Iraqi government had been deadlocked over legislation that laid out guidelines for provincial elections. That was because one man on Iraq's three-member Presidency Council had objected to the law, calling it unconstitutional. The law would pave the way for the elections to take place on October 1st, a development that would be sure to have an effect on the U.S. election just a month later.

But yesterday, that member, Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, suddenly withdrew his objection. The move came just two days after Vice President Dick Cheney met with Mehdi. So did Cheney have anything to do with that change? Well, it depends on who you ask. From The New York Times::

[Laith Shubar, an adviser to Mr. Mehdi,] said that Mr. Cheney had called Mr. Mehdi in February to ask about his objections to the law, but that the issue did not come up again when Mr. Cheney visited Mr. Mehdi here this week. A spokesman for Mr. Cheney said he could not comment on the meeting, but in an interview on Wednesday with ABC News, Mr. Cheney said, referring to Mr. Mehdi: “I talked with him about that, and a number of others. They expect they’ll have that resolved shortly.”


Shubar says the reversal came because Mehdi "received a promise from the Parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashadani, that lawmakers would discuss the possibility of making changes to the legislation." Sounds like pretty thin gruel.

Meanwhile, the Times reports:

Early on Wednesday morning, American forces accidentally killed three Iraqi police officers, including a lieutenant in the special forces, just outside Hawija, a Sunni town about 140 miles north of Baghdad, an American military statement said. The statement said the officers were shot and another wounded when the Iraqi police, responding to a call for assistance, entered “at a high rate of speed” a cordoned area where American forces were operating about 2:30 a.m..

The police lieutenant, Abdul Amir Hamid Salih, 39, had escaped five assassination attempts and had to change his cellphone number every week because of death threats from insurgents, said his father, Hamid Salih. Lieutenant Salih’s house was burned down six months ago by insurgents, who offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who killed him, his father said.

Hamid Kareem Hussein, the wounded police officer, said, “We were surprised when the Americans asked us for help at night, so we went to this village and we faced gunfire.

“The lieutenant said, ‘Call them on the loudspeaker and tell them we are policemen and that they asked for us,’ and then everything cut out and I didn’t feel anything,” he said, adding, “It’s a tragedy. I hate the police, and I hate Iraq.”

Here's another nugget from Eric Lichtblau's new book.

It's well known that The New York Times held the story about the warrantless wiretapping program for more than a year. A concerted lobbying campaign by the administration at first convinced editors at the Times not to run the story in late 2004. But Lichtblau adds a new detail about how one of the few Democrats who had been briefed on the program seemed to take the administration's side of things.

The administration's main contention (beyond lying about there being no dissent about the legality of the program) was that reporting the existence of the program would compromise it and tip off the terrorists. In his book, Lichtblau tells how a few months after the story was held, he happened to be covering a House hearing where he heard Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) argue passionately for stronger civil liberties safeguards in the reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

Lichtblau saw this as an opportunity to question Harman about the warrantless wiretapping program, since Harman, as a member of the "gang of eight," was one of the four Democrats who'd been briefed on it. He writes:

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