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At an oversight hearing this morning, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) grilled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over the sudden departure of several U.S. Attorneys at the administration's request.

"How many U.S. Attorneys have been asked to resign in the past year?" Feinstein asked Gonzales.

"You're asking me to get into a public discussion" of personnel issues, Gonzales replied.

"I'm asking you to give me a number."

"I don't know the answer to that question," said Gonzales.

"You didn't know the answer when we spoke on Tuesday, but you said you would find out," Feinstein pressed.

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Conservative activists have been screaming bloody murder about a provision in the Senate ethics bill that would require grassroots groups to report on their fundraising activities. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who previously had championed a similar measure, has heard their call and is switching his position on the matter.

So-called "grassroots" groups spend millions of unregulated dollars trying to change public opinion each year -- money that often comes not from individuals but from corporate coffers. McCain, as The Hill reports, "sponsored legislation last Congress that included an even broader requirement for grassroots lobbying coalitions to reveal their financial donors."

But conservative figures as powerful as Richard Viguerie and James Dobson have weighed in hard on the measure in the current bill. Viguerie is calling it "the biggest threat to free speech ever," and Dobson's Focus on the Family is circulating a petition against it.

Now, as The Hill reports, McCain, who recently said he wanted to have a "dialogue" with Dobson, "has told conservative activists that he will vote to strip a key provision on grassroots lobbying from the reform package he previously supported."

Lubrigate: Interior Dept. Gaffe Led to Billions Lost "A top Interior Department official was told nearly three years ago about a legal blunder that allowed drilling companies to avoid billions of dollars in payments for oil and gas pumped from publicly owned waters, a report by the department’s chief independent investigator has found." (The New York Times)

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It's hard to make news that actually takes information away. But a day after the Attorney General announced that the Bush administration has decided to try to bring the NSA domestic spying program within the boundaries of U.S. law, he appears to have sucked information out of the air around the operation.

Did a court give a blanket OK to the program? Or did they approve surveillance against a single target, or group? How does the approval process work? How often does the NSA need to get approval? Who in Congress has been told, and how will they be kept informed? And -- is it really legal?

In a conference call with reporters yesterday afternoon, Justice Department officials demonstrated how little information they're actually making available about what has or has not changed. As the New York Times reports:

Justice Department officials said that the FISA court orders, which were not made public, were not a broad approval of the surveillance program as a whole, an idea that was proposed last year in Congressional debate over the program. They strongly suggested that the orders secured from the court were for individual targets, but they refused to provide details of the process used to identify targets — or how court approval had been expedited — because they said it remained classified. The senior Justice Department official said that discussing “the mechanics of the orders” could compromise intelligence activities.

Justice Department officials would not describe whether the court had agreed to new procedures to streamline the process of issuing orders or accepted new standards to make it easier for the government to get approval to monitor suspect e-mail and phone communications.


Clear as mud.

Moreover, there's reason to wonder whether the announcement was entirely true.

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The Senate Judiciary Committee's oversight hearing is set to begin in a few moments, featuring testimony from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

His surprise announcement that the administration's domestic wiretapping program would now receive some form of FISA court approval will surely be a topic of discussion. But Roll Call today reports (sub. req.) that key Democrats aren't dropping the issue of why so many U.S. Attorneys are being fired and replaced with administration appointees:

. . . [I]n what promises to be one of many showdowns between Congressional Democrats and the Bush administration, [Sens. Patrick] Leahy ([D-VT)] and [Dianne] Feinstein [(D-CA)] intend to grill Gonzales on the issue at a Judiciary Committee hearing today. Several Judiciary Democrats, who met Wednesday to plot strategy and discuss scheduling, said they were concerned about the appearance of undue political influence on the legal process.

“As a former prosecutor, I can’t believe they would give more power to the administration to interfere with prosecutions,” Leahy stated.

Added Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin: “I think the independence of the U.S. attorney’s office is something of major concern” to committee Democrats.


Update: You can watch the hearing live via webcast here (RealAudio).

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, during a long interview with journalists, gave the Bush administration a little of their own medicine. From The Washington Post:

Maliki disputed President Bush's remarks broadcast Tuesday that the execution of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein "looked like it was kind of a revenge killing" and took exception to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's Senate testimony last week that Maliki's administration was on "borrowed time."

The prime minister said statements such as Rice's "give morale boosts for the terrorists and push them toward making an extra effort and making them believe they have defeated the American administration," Maliki said. "But I can tell you that they have not defeated the Iraqi government."...

"I know President Bush and I know him as a strong person that does not get affected by the media pressure, but it seems the pressure has gone to a great extent that led to the president giving this statement," Maliki said.


And there was this precious moment:

Maliki spoke slowly and seriously for most of the conversation, but occasionally broke into a smile, such as when he was asked whether Bush needs him more than he needs Bush. "This is an evil question," he said, laughing.


The Times has more, including the audio of the Maliki's interview with journalists.

Earlier today, two senior Justice Department officials participated in a phone briefing with reporters about the president's wiretapping program. We've posted the transcript for you below the fold, as it's the most detailed discussion of the program by administration officials that you're likely to see.

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The Washington Post checks in from the Libby trial. If you lived in DC, though, your sister's secretary's car detailer probably told you about it already:

To see just how small a town Washington really is, drop in on jury selection at the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, where nearly every candidate so far seems to have some connection to the players or events surrounding the leak of an undercover CIA officer's identity.

There's the software database manager whose wife works as a prosecutor for the Department of Justice and who counts the local U.S. attorney and a top official in Justice's criminal division as neighbors and friends. And a housecleaner who works at the Watergate and knows Condoleezza Rice not by her title of secretary of state but as the "lady who lives up on the fifth floor." And a former Washington Post reporter whose editor was now-Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward; he recently lived across the street from NBC's Tim Russert and just published a book on the CIA and spying.


One guy in particular -- anybody know who this is? -- takes the cake:

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WTOP radio in Washington, D.C. reports:

Seventy-one employees in the Executive Office of the President, which includes the White House, owe $664,527 in taxes for 2005. About 20 of those employees have entered into an IRS payment plan, bringing the EOP balance down to $455,881owed by 50 employees.

The White House did not respond to repeated requests for comment.


Thanks to Reader LC for the tip.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) confirmed that as Judiciary Committee chairman last year he made a last-minute change to a bill that expanded the administration's power to install U.S. Attorneys without Senate approval.

Seizing upon the new authority granted by Congress last March, the White House has pushed out several U.S. Attorneys, and begun to replace them without the Senate's consent.

"I can confirm for you that yes, it was a Specter provision," a spokesperson for the senator wrote to me in an email earlier today, responding to repeated inquiries. Earlier we reported that Specter had been fingered for the last-minute change, made in a select Republicans-only meeting after the House and Senate had voted on earlier versions.

Still, a mystery remains: Why Specter wanted the change, which arguably weakened the Senate's role in selecting federal prosecutors.

The senator made no public comment on the provision at the time of the bill's passage. A congressional report which accompanied the final version of the bill said that Specter's change "addresses an inconsistency in the appointment process of United States Attorneys." It's not clear, however, what exactly that inconsistency was.

In her email to me, Specter's aide did not respond to my request for an explanation of why Specter wanted the change.

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