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The Washington Post reports on the administration's purge of federal prosecutors this morning and finds that the call for the move came, shockingly, from outside the Justice Department:

One administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in discussing personnel issues, said the spate of firings was the result of "pressure from people who make personnel decisions outside of Justice who wanted to make some things happen in these places."


In other words, the pressure to replace the prosecutors did not come from the people who would know about the U.S. Attorneys' job performance (their supervisors at the Justice Department), but rather from power players in the White House or Republican Party. That would explain why the seven federal prosecutors purged in December were not given a reason for their dismissals -- and why justifications for the firings have sounded like lame rationalizations.

This fits, of course, with McClatchy's finding last week that the Bush administration, in a break with the practice of prior administrations, has been placing conservative loyalists in U.S. Attorney spots across the country. Instead of nominating local, qualified attorneys whose philosophy jibes with the administration (as was the traditional practice), the nomination of U.S. Attorneys has been subsumed into the Republican Party's political machine. Apparently the title of U.S. Attorney is just too attractive a resumé-fattener to dole out helter-skelter. And while you're fattening the resumés of possible future stars of the party, it can't hurt to knock out a prosecutor who was doing considerable damage to the party.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will be holding a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the issue Tuesday called, "Preserving Prosecutorial Independence: Is the Department of Justice Politicizing the Hiring and Firing of U.S. Attorneys?" Let's see if he comes up with an answer.

When decadent neoconservatives lose political battles over the war, the results aren't pretty. The byline here reads Bill Kristol, but the words could very well have come from Shakespeare's Richard III (like, say, Act V, Scene IV):

John Warner of Virginia, Gordon Smith of Oregon, and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine are the four Republican senators (in addition to Nebraska's Chuck Hagel) currently signed on to the Democrats' anti-surge, anti-Petraeus, anti-troops, and anti-victory resolution.


That's right: a nonbinding anti-surge resolution is an act against the troops.

Oh, and there's more. Kristol threatens dire political consequences to all anti-surge GOP senators... challenges from "victory-oriented" Republicans:

In any case, Republican senators up for reelection in 2008 might remember this: The American political system has primaries as well as general elections. In 1978 and 1980, as Reagan conservatives took over the party from détente-establishment types, Reaganite challengers ousted incumbent GOP senators in New Jersey and New York. Surely there are victory-oriented Republicans who might step forward today in Nebraska, Virginia, Oregon, and Maine--and, if necessary, in Tennessee, Minnesota, and New Hampshire--to seek to vindicate the honor, and brighten the future, of the party of Reagan.


Democratic political consultants must be popping champagne corks.

From the AP:

A senior Pentagon official resigned Friday over controversial remarks in which he criticized lawyers who represent terrorism suspects, the Defense Department said.

Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said Charles ''Cully'' Stimson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, told him on Friday that he had made his own decision to resign and was not asked to leave by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Stimson said he was leaving because of the controversy over a radio interview in which he said he found it shocking that lawyers at many of the nation's top law firms represent detainees held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba.

''He believed it hampered his ability to be effective in this position,'' Whitman said of the backlash to Stimson's comments.

At his press conference this morning, Defense Secretary Bob Gates used a rather Ari Fleischer-esque formulation on the prospect of war with Iran:

With respect to Iran, first of all, the president has made clear; the secretary of State has made clear; I've made clear -- nobody is planning -- we are not planning for a war with Iran. What we are trying to do is in Iraq, counter what the Iranians are doing to our soldiers, their involvement in activities, particularly these explosively formed projectiles that are killing our troops, and we are trying to get them to stop their nuclear enrichment. We are doing the latter strictly through the diplomatic process. It seems to be showing some progress. At least we -- the diplomatic process is working, and I think that that's where we are relying.

So there really is -- you know, I think because we are acting against the Iranians' activities in Iraq, it's given rise to some of these talks. Clearly, the deployment of the second carrier group has given -- has further led to this. But really, the purpose of that is simply to underscore to our friends, as well as to our potential adversaries in the region, that the United States has considered the Persian Gulf and that whole area, and stability in that area, to be a vital national interest.

And that has been the case for decades, under many, many presidents. And we simply want to reinforce to our friends, in particular, that they can count on us having a presence and being strong in their area in protecting our interests and in protecting theirs.


Let's review. The president has authorized military action against Iranian assets in Iraq. There's a new Special Operations task force, known as Task Force 16, devoted to rooting out Iranian influence. A few weeks ago, U.S. forces raided an Iranian diplomatic office in Iraqi Kurdistan and detained several Iranian nationals. Just the other day, President Bush told NPR that he will "respond firmly" to Iranian attacks on U.S. forces, and the administration is non-denial-denying that the Iranians may have been involved in last week's attack in Karbala. For good measure, the U.S. is beefing up naval assets in the Persian Gulf, and the incoming head of Central Command warned at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday of Iranian desires to restrict U.S. access to one of the world's most economically vital shipping lanes.

Perhaps the administration isn't planning a war -- but, as we learned in Iraq, just because there's no planning doesn't mean there won't be war.

During a press conference this afternoon, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley spun the National Intelligence Estimate's key findings to support the president's "surge" plan in Iraq.

As we reported earlier, the Key Judgments paint an extremely dire picture of the situation. In one key line, it says that "even if violence is diminished, given the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene, Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation in the time frame of this Estimate."

That's not as hopeless as it sounds, according to Hadley. All that means is that since Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed, "there is no alternative but to press them hard to do that reconciliation."

"One of the things you should conclude from this NIE," Hadley said, "is the best plan is to have this plan succeed."

If yesterday was any indication, a federal appeals court will soon hand the Bush administration a major defeat on their policy of indefinitely detaining "enemy combatants."

Ali al-Marri might be an al-Qaeda sleeper agent. Or at least, the Bush administration said so and detained him five years ago, but has never charged him. Instead, al-Marri, a citizen of Qatar living as a legal resident in Illinois, has been detained for all that time in a Navy brig in Charleston, SC. The administration's stance is that, thanks to the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress on September 18, 2001, it can hold al-Marri as long as it sees fit. It got a boost last year from the Military Commissions Act, which revoked due process from anyone detained as an enemy combatant.

Yesterday, lawyers for al-Marri challenged his detention before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Some of the judges appeared disinclined to accept the administration's arguments, according to The New York Times:

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FBI Agent's Testimony Damages Libby's Claim The government's case churned on yesterday in the perjury and obstruction trial of former Dick Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby with testimony from FBI agent Deborah S. Bond, who said that Libby claimed in questioning that he had not been the source of the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity. (NYT) Also damning to Libby was a video shown to jurors of White House spokesman Scott McClellan telling reporters that Libby was not the source of the leak, which undercuts his claim that he was scapegoated to protect others in the administration. (LA Times). There's a helpful witness rundown here. (AP)

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The NIE is unequivocal on the whole "civil war" debate, a phrase the administration has been desperate to avoid:

The Intelligence Community judges that the term “civil war” does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qa’ida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence. Nonetheless, the term “civil war” accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements.

Wow, this is grim. According to the just-released Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, political reconciliation is likely a bridge too far over the next year and a half.

The Sunnis remain "unwilling to accept minority status" and believe the Shiite majority is a stalking horse for Iran. The Shiites remain "deeply insecure" about their hold on power, meaning that the Shiite leadership views U.S.-desired compromises -- on oil, federalism and power-sharing -- as a threat to its position. Perhaps most ominously, the upcoming referendum on the oil-rich, multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk threatens to be explosive, as the Kurds are determined to finally regain full control over the city.

Interestingly, the listed prospects for reversing Iraq's deterioration contradict the NIE's assessment of where things actually stand. For instance, "broader Sunni acceptance of the current political structure and federalism" and "significant concessions by Shia and Kurds" could lead to stability -- but the NIE's earlier section viewed both these events as unlikely. To put this in the realm of the current debate, President Bush's "surge" is designed to give political breathing room to events that the intelligence community formally judges as unrealistic:

...even if violence is diminished, given the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene, Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation in the time frame of this Estimate.


About Iran. This must have been one of the most controversial elements of the estimate: Iraq's neighbors are "not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq's internal sectarian dynamics." There's the expected qualifications that Iran and Syria are up to no good, but this is the major point. In other words, no matter how much Bush wants to lay the blame for the disintegration of Iraq on the meddlesome interference of Iran and Syria, the U.S.-sponsored political process itself -- indeed, the new, U.S.-midwifed Iraqi political order -- itself sows the seeds for the country's destruction. Apparently Bush could attack Iran to his heart's content, and Iraq would still remain inflamed.

Oh, and one final thought: this is just what's unclassified. If past NIEs are any prologue, what remains classified is much, much grimmer than what we see here. More likely than not, this is the most optimistic presentation of the NIE possible. Happy Friday.

The Director of National Intelligence has released the declassified "Key Judgments" of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. You can read it here (pdf).

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