- March 22: A Senate panel finds that billions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted -- through fraud, corruption, incompetence, and outright theft -- in reconstruction efforts throughout Iraq.
Iraq war and occupation
The panel, led by "independent" Democrat Joseph Lieberman and moderate Republican Susan Collins, say they are considering legislation to create a commission to help fix problems after investigators found confusion and disarray in the four-year-old reconstruction effort. Lieberman observes, "Where we've seen failure is when the US government failed to plan projects carefully and then failed to keep a close watch over contractors and now we've seen billions of dollars wasted -- a cost measured not just in dollars but in the undermining of the overall US mission in these war-torn countries."
- Inspector General Stuart Bowen's latest report on the occupation's reconstruction efforts found that nearly $400 billion had either been wasted or simply disappeared, though Bowen's report was careful not to make allegations of outright criminality. Bowen's report primarily blames confusion, disarray, and incompetence in joint efforts between the rival Defense and State Departments. "Anyone who has spent appreciative time in the Iraq reconstructive effort understands the tension that exists between the two," Bowen says.
- Bowen's latest report finds, among other things, that a Defense Department agency charged with running the reconstruction effort never developed a fully coordinated plan upon members' arrival in 2003, leading to confusion and duplication of effort. "We were bumping into one another as we tried to solve the same problem," a former agency official is quoted as saying. Money flowed to reconstruction projects before procedures, training and staffing were fully in place, resulting in a "lack of clearly defined authorities" and little accountability in terms of how dollars were being spent. Only three contracting officers were initially sent to Baghdad to oversee spending of reconstruction dollars. As a result, some contract files were in disarray or missing while others were stored on personal e-mail accounts and individual hard drives. There was little oversight to ensure that Iraqi companies hired to do reconstruction work operated according to international standards. In a case involving the Baghdad Police Academy, the Iraqi subcontractor used cement joints to seal wastewater pipes, a practice used by Iraqi construction firms. The cement joints leaked, causing major interior damage as wastewater leaked through floors, ran down halls and filled ceiling lights.
- Earlier this year, federal investigators determined that the Bush administration had squandered as much as $10 billion in reconstruction aid in part because of poor planning and contract oversight, resulting in contractor overcharges and unsupported expenses. (AP/USA Today)
- March 22: Senior administration officials reveal that in his first weeks as defense secretary,
Terrorism detainees and "enemy combatants"
Robert Gates argued for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention facility, telling Bush and senior officials that its reputation had become so tainted that legal proceedings at the facility would be viewed as illegitimate. Gates wanted to turn Bush's stated desire to close the facility into a specific plan for action, and particularly to move trials for terrorism suspects to the US proper, both to make them more credible and because Guantanamo's continued existence hampered the broader war effort, administration officials said. But Gates was overruled by Dick Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
- Gates was backed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But Bush rejected the idea. Currently, the facility holds about 385 prisoners, including 14 senior leaders of al-Qaeda. Some of the detainees, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, may face war crimes charges under military tribunals later in 2007. "The policy remains unchanged," says Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
- But the plans aren't nearly that clearcut, says one senior administration official who favors the closing of the facility. "Let's see what happens to Gonzales," he says, referring to the uproar over Gonzales's part in the firings of eight US attorneys. "I suspect this one isn't over yet."
- Another group of officials say that Gates and Rice discussed their desire to close Guantanamo with Bush, Gonzales, and other senior officials, beginning in January 2007. One widely discussed alternative would move the prisoners to military brigs in the United States, where they would remain in the custody of the Pentagon and would be subject to trial under military proceedings. There is widespread agreement, however, that moving any detainees or legal proceedings to American territory could bring significant complications. Some administration lawyers are deeply reluctant to move terrorism suspects to American soil because it could increase their constitutional and statutory rights, and invite a raft of civil litigation. Guantanamo was chosen because it was an American military facility but not on American soil, and Bush officials have argued that the facility does not fall under the purview of US law.
- Insiders find the new alignment of Gates and Rice, who was often at odds with Gates's predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, fascinating. The State Department has long been concerned about the adverse foreign-policy impact of housing prisoners at Guantanamo. Gates did succeed in killing plans to build a $100 million courthouse and detention complex at Guantanamo, after he argued that the large and expensive project would leave the impression of a long-lasting American detainee operation there and that the money could be more effectively spent elsewhere by the Pentagon. Gates approved a far more modest facility at one-tenth of the cost. The setback in his effort to close Guantanamo is described by senior Pentagon officials as Gates's only significant failure during an effort in his first three months in office to shift course from policies pursued by Rumsfeld. The outcome shows that Bush, Cheney and Gonzales remain committed to a detention plan that has become one of the most controversial elements of the administration's counterterrorism program.
- More than 390 detainees have been transferred abroad from the Guantanamo facility since it was opened amid global controversy in 2002. Last year, 111 detainees were transferred out, and 12 more have been this year. About 20 of those repatriated to home countries have been picked up again in sweeps of terrorism suspects or have been killed or captured in battle, Pentagon officials say. Many countries do not want to take back the detainees held at Guantanamo. Some home nations will not guarantee that returning detainees would be assured humane treatment and fair trials, while others will not guarantee that detainees viewed by American officials as still dangerous would not be set free.
- Some officials at both the Pentagon and at State say that one of the biggest reasons why Bush and his allies do not want to close the prison camp is because the closure would be seen as a public admission of an incorrect policy -- something the administration is loath to do.
- While neither Gates nor Rice have made their concerns public, in a recent news conference, Gates did discuss his concerns about Guantanamo in general terms. "I think that Guantanamo has become symbolic, whether we like it or not, for many around the world," he said. "The problem is that we have a certain number of the detainees there who often by their own confessions are people who if released would come back to attack the United States. There are others that we would like to turn back to their home countries, but their home countries don't want them." He said officials "are trying to address the problem of how do we reduce the numbers at Guantanamo and then what do you do with the relatively limited number that would be irresponsible to release." Gates's deputy, Gordon England, says the issue of what to do with the prisoners "is not a US problem. It is an international problem to be dealt with." (New York Times
- March 22: The investigation into the Tom DeLay corruption scandal, and DeLay's close ties to Jack Abramoff, seemed ready to propel DeLay into a jail cell in the fall of 2005.
Tom DeLay and DeLay corruption scandal
Now that investigation seems moribund.
- In November 2005, DeLay's former communications director, Michael Scanlon, who was Abramoff's partner in their scheme to defraud Native American tribes, pled guilty to conspiracy to defraud the nation. In March 2006, DeLay's former deputy chief of staff, Tony Rudy, another Abramoff colleague (and the notorious "Staffer A" in Abramoff's plea bargain), pled guilty to conspiracy and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Ed Buckham, DeLay's former chief of staff and later the chairman of the lobbying firm Alexander Strategy Group, and another business crony of Abramoff's appeared in Tony Rudy's guilty plea as "Lobbyist B." Buckham helped rout $50,000 in payments to Rudy's wife's consulting firm, money to bribe Rudy for his help defeating a bill on behalf of Abramoff's client. In January 2006, Buckham shut down Alexander Strategy Group, and in June 2006, Buckham was revealed to have opened a retirement account in the late 1990s for DeLay's wife and contributed thousands of dollars to it while also paying her a salary to work for him from her home in Texas. The retirement account was little more than a slush fund for DeLay opened by Buckham; in total, DeLay received about $500,000 from Buckham.
- So where is the prosecution of DeLay now, almost a year after the Buckham revelations? Apparently the prosecution was bought off. Noel Hillman, the lead prosecutor in the Abramoff investigation, was given a plum position as a federal judge. A new division chief with ties to the Republican National Committee, and to the DeLay defense team itself, was appointed, and since then, nothing. Trial attorney Martin Garbus wrote in January 2006, "At the same time that Mr. Hillman was conducting a grand jury and submitting evidence aimed at Bush's allies and perhaps Bush himself, he was meeting with Bush, who was, in effect, offering him a bribe. 'Mr. Hillman,' Bush is saying, 'leave the job, let me put someone else in your stead, someone I want. Forget,' says Mr. Bush, 'that you have been in charge of the investigation for two years, that you have been involved on a day-to-day basis, and that your leaving seriously impedes the investigation.'" It is worth noting that Hillman's boss is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. (Burnt Orange Report [multiple sources])
- March 22: The former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Kyle Sampson, agrees to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee as to his role in the firing of eight US attorneys.
US Attorney firings
Sampson resigned last week amid the furor over the firings.
The former top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales agreed Friday to testify at a Senate inquiry next week into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year. His appearance will mark the first congressional testimony by a Justice Department aide since the release of thousands of documents that show the firings were orchestrated, in part, by the White House. E-mails between the White House and the Justice Department, dating back to the weeks immediately after the 2004 presidential election, show Sampson was heavily engaged in deciding how many prosecutors would be replaced, and which ones. The Bush administration maintains the dismissals of the eight political appointees were proper. "He was right at the center of things," says Democratic senator Chuck Schumer, who is leading the inquiry into the firings. "He has said publicly that what others have said is not how it happened. ...He contradicts DOJ." (MSNBC)
- March 22: A federal appeals court reverses the conviction and sentence of former Republican National Committee official James Tobin, convicted of crimes surrounding a GOP phone-jamming scheme on Election Day 2002.
Election fraudTobin, the former regional chairman of Bush's re-election campaign, was convicted in 2005 of helping to arrange more than 800 hang-up calls that jammed get-out-the-vote phone lines set up by the state Democratic Party and the Manchester firefighters' union for about an hour. Republican John Sununu defeated then-Governor Jeanne Shaheen for the Senate that day by a razor-thin margin. But the First US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston rules that the statute under which Tobin was convicted "is not a close fit" for what Tobin did and questioned whether the government showed that Tobin intended to harass. A Justice Department spokesman says prosecutors were reviewing the decision, and did not say if they planned to appeal.
- "Oh my God, wow, you know sometimes there is no justice," says New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan.
- At the time of the phone jamming, Tobin was a regional official with the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, overseeing Senate campaigns in several states, including New Hampshire and Maine. He went on to serve as Bush's New England re-election campaign chairman in 2004, but resigned after the phone-jamming allegations surfaced. The jamming has led to four criminal prosecutions, a civil lawsuit and a recent flurry of political outcries. Tobin was convicted of putting the executive director of the state's Republican Party in touch with the head of a Virginia-based telemarketing firm, who hired another telemarketing firm to place the hundreds of hang-up calls. A co-owner of that firm at the time, Shaun Hansen, of Spokane, Washington, pleaded guilty in November to a conspiracy charge and to making the calls and awaits sentencing. Phone records introduced at Tobin's trial show he made two dozen calls to the White House political office within three days around Election Day 2002, as the phone-jamming operation was finalized, carried out and shut down. (AP/South Coast Today)
- March 22: Justice Department prosecutors appointed by the Bush administration interfered in the landmark lawsuit against tobacco companies, says the leader of the prosecution team, Sharon Eubanks.
Eubanks says that Bush loyalists in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's office began micromanaging the team's strategy in the final weeks of the 2005 trial, to the detriment of the government's claim that the industry had conspired to lie to US smokers. Eubanks says that a supervisor demanded that she and her trial team drop recommendations that tobacco executives be removed from their corporate positions as a possible penalty. He and two others instructed her to tell key witnesses to change their testimony. And they ordered her to read verbatim a closing argument they had rewritten for her. "The political people were pushing the buttons and ordering us to say what we said," Eubanks says. "And because of that, we failed to zealously represent the interests of the American public." Eubanks, a 22-year veteran at Justice, says three political appointees were responsible for the last-minute shifts in the government's tobacco case in June 2005: then-Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum, then-Assistant Attorney General Peter Keisler, and Keisler's deputy at the time, Dan Meron.
- The sudden strategy change sparked an uproar in Congress, and led to an inquiry by the Justice Department. Government witnesses said they had been asked to change testimony, and one expert withdrew from the case. Government lawyers also announced that they were rolling back a proposed penalty against the industry from $130 billion to $10 billion. Of course, DOJ officials say that there was no political meddling in the case, an assertion supported by the department's Office of Professional Responsibility.
- Eubanks, who left the department in December 2005, has not spoken publicly about the case until now. She says she is now coming forward because she is concerned about what she calls the "overwhelming politicization" of the department demonstrated by the controversy over the firing of eight US attorneys. Lawyers from Justice's civil rights division have made similar claims about being overruled by supervisors in the past. Eubanks says Congress should investigate the matter along with the US attorney firings. "Political interference is happening at Justice across the department," she says. "When decisions are made now in the Bush attorney general's office, politics is the primary consideration.... The rule of law goes out the window."
- US District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled in August 2006 that tobacco companies violated civil racketeering laws by conspiring for decades to deceive the public about the dangers of their product. She ordered the companies to make major changes in the way cigarettes are marketed. But she said she could not order the monetary penalty proposed by the government. The Clinton Justice Department brought the unprecedented civil suit against the country's five largest tobacco companies in 1999. George W. Bush disparaged the tobacco case while campaigning in 2000. After Bush took office, some officials didn't believe that the Bush administration would adequately fund the prosecution, Justice's largest. Eubanks says McCallum, Keisler and Meron largely ignored the case until it became clear that the government might win. She recalls that "things began to get really tense" after McCallum read news reports in April 2005 that one government expert, professor Max Bazerman of Harvard Business School, would argue that tobacco officials who engaged in fraud could be removed from their corporate posts. Eubanks says she received an angry call from McCallum on the day the news broke. "How could you put that in there?" she remembers McCallum demanding. "We're not going to be pursuing that." She says that afterwards, McCallum, Keisler, and Meron told her to approach other witnesses about softening their testimony.
- Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids was one of the witnesses whom Eubanks asked to change his testimony. Yesterday, he said he found her account to be "the only reasonable explanation" for what transpired.
- Two weeks before closing arguments in June, McCallum called for a meeting with Eubanks and her deputy, Stephen Brody, to discuss what McCallum described as "getting the number down" for the $130 billion penalty to create smoking-cessation programs. During several tense late-night meetings, McCallum repeatedly refused to suggest a figure, Eubanks said, or give clear reasons for the reduction. Brody refused to lower the amount. Finally, on the morning the government was to propose the penalty in court, she said, McCallum ordered it cut to $10 billion.
- The most stressful moment, Eubanks says, came when the three appointees ordered her to read word for word a closing argument they had rewritten. The statement explained the validity of seeking a $10 billion penalty. "I couldn't even look at the judge," she says. (Washington Post)
- March 22: The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin spells out just why the Bush administration's insistence that any interviews with White House officials take place without transcription or recordings of any kind is unacceptable.
US Attorney firings
"White House officials say that the absence of a transcript is absolutely essential -- and is a reflection of their determination not to allow a friendly information-gathering session to take on the trapping of a court proceeding or political theater," Froomkin writes. "But more significantly, it would deny the public any reliable record of what was said. It would remove the pressure from senior aides, most notably White House political guru Karl Rove, to come clean on their involvement in the firings -- while denying the public an opportunity to assess their veracity. And it would make Congress a party to keeping important information obscured from the kind of public scrutiny that comes when journalists and bloggers have a chance to untangle the skillful evasions so common to this White House. Especially when under fire, Bush and his aides use language with great cunning. Some observers of Bush's comments on Tuesday, for instance, could have walked away thinking he had definitively denied that partisan politics played a role in the firings. But in fact, as I wrote in yesterday's column, all Bush really said was that 'there is no indication that anybody did anything improper.' The existence of a transcript creates the possibility that reporters will follow up and ask him what that really means. Elite Washington journalists are notoriously averse to doing anything that might get them labeled as liberals -- but there is nothing remotely partisan about grilling administration officials relentlessly about their resistance to creating a public record on a matter of such significance."
- Salon's Joe Conason is more blunt about Rove and his potential testimony, saying that even under oath, Rove is a proven liar who cannot be counted on to tell anything approaching the truth, and for that reason alone, a transcript is an absolute necessity. Conason writes, "Both press secretary Tony Snow and communications director Dan Bartlett say they cannot understand why the House and Senate Judiciary Committees won't accept the offer to interview Rove in private, behind closed doors, without putting him under oath or transcribing the proceedings. If the Congress is honestly interested in the truth about those firings, as Snow exclaimed yesterday under questioning from reporters, why wouldn't the committees agree to that 'extraordinarily generous' proposal from the White House? Why not just let ol' Karl sit down in a back room with a few senators and members of Congress and explain everything, without stenographers and reporters and videotapes and nosy rubbernecking citizens? The proposal to interview the president's chief political counselor without an oath or even a transcript is absurd for a simple and obvious reason. Yet the White House press corps, despite a long and sometimes testy series of exchanges with Snow, is too polite to mention that reason, so let me spell it out as rudely as necessary right here: Rove is a proven liar who cannot be trusted to tell the truth even when he is under oath, unless and until he is directly threatened with the prospect of prison time."
- Conason reminds the reader of Rove's near-pathological inability to be honest during the investigation of the Valerie Plame Wilson outing. Rove had to visit Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury four times, and had to be warned that if he continued to lie he would face a possible criminal indictment, before his memory suddenly improved to recall his key role in outing Plame as a CIA agent. It ultimately took five visits to the grand jury before Rove could get his facts straight -- and, as documented in many items earlier in this site, he still managed to at least shade the truth, if not get away with outright lies under oath. Rove's attempt to game the Fitzgerald prosecutors with lies, half-truths, and convenient memory lapses, lasted for years, and, as Conason reminds us, there is no reason to think that he ever would have told the truth had he not been confronted with the actual notes from Time reporter Matthew Cooper.
- So, as Conason writes, "By now the porous brainpans of the Washington press corps not only seem to have excused Rove's leaking and lying about Plame's CIA position, but also to have erased that disgraceful episode from their memories. The president and all his flacks can stand before the public and act as if Rove should be treated like a truthful person whose words can be believed -- and not as someone who lies routinely even in the direst of circumstances. The press secretary Snow can say, without fear of contradiction, that the best way to ascertain the facts about the White House role in the firing of the US attorneys is to interview Rove without benefit of oath or transcript. 'Do they want the truth, and do they think they're not going to be able to get it?' Snow asked rhetorically. 'And the answer is, of course, they're going to get the truth. They're going to get the whole truth.' Why didn't everybody laugh when he said that?" (Washington Post, Salon)
- March 22: The conservative smear campaign against John Edwards continues -- this one particularly pernicious because it attempts to politicize the recent news that Edwards's wife Elizabeth announces that she suffers from terminal breast cancer.
Conservative smear campaigns
Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh tells his audience that the Edwards campaign intentionally "leak[ed]" false information -- that Edwards would "suspend" his campaign because his wife's cancer had recurred -- to Politico reporter Ben Smith in order "to jump-start the campaign." At a press conference earlier in the day, Edwards announces that his wife, Elizabeth, had been told that she has Stage IV metastatic breast cancer-- 100% fatal -- but that after the two discussed the matter, they decided that Edwards should continue his campaign. Smith originates the lie that Edwards would announce the "suspen[sion]" of his campaign in a March 22 post on Politico.com. Referring to that post, Limbaugh stated that "this business about" Edwards announcing that he will continue his presidential bid "makes me think that the leak that was planted today was purposely wrong to create surprise," and added that the inaccurate leak "[m]ay have been done on purpose." Naturally, Limbaugh has no source for his "reporting" except for his own twisted mind.
- As for Simon, he says that his source is an unnamed "Edwards friend, and reports, in the words of an AP reporter, "Quoting but not identifying 'an Edwards friend' as his source, Smith reported" one hour before Edwards' press conference "that Edwards was suspending his campaign and may drop out completely because of his wife's cancer." Simon later follows up with an article explaining his error, putting the entire blame on a response to a "chatty, half-hearted e-mail" to the single, unnamed "source." The report reappears almost instantly on conservative Matt Drudge's gossip and news site, and Simon reiterates the story on three conservative radio shows. But within hours, the Edwards campaign corrects Simon, telling him in no uncertain terms that Edwards has no intention of suspending his campaign.
- Limbaugh defends his own reiteration of Simon's incorrect report -- which qualifies as a lie in the view of this editor because it violates the basic tenets of journalism, including the radical idea of actually contacting the person you're writing about in such matters -- by waxing philosophical, saying, "You know, in public relations and politics, just what is a lie and what isn't? It's all a game." Limbaugh also criticizes Newsweek's Howard Fineman for crediting the Edwards family with being open and honest about Elizabeth Edwards's terminal cancer by calling Fineman "slavish." (Media Matters)
- March 22: Like the majority of White House officials, White House press secretary Tony Snow seems to have no problem talking out of both sides of his mouth.
US Attorney firings
Today, Snow makes the rounds of the morning talk shows to repeat his talking point that "has no oversight responsibility over the White House." He tells CNN, "There's another principle, which is Congress doesn't have the legislative -- I mean oversight authority over the White House." On MSNBC, he says, "First, the White House is under no compulsion to do anything. The legislative branch doesn't have oversight." And on Fox, he says, "Congress doesn't have any legitimate oversight and responsibilities to the White House." But on October 16, 2006, Snow -- then speaking of the much more reliable Republican-led Congress -- was asked, What is the president's opinion of a request by Republican leaders in the House to launch an investigation of Sandy Berger's involvement in the removal of classified documents from the National Archives?" Snow replied, "There were questions last week, about investigations involving Republican members. Members of Congress have their own oversight obligations. They may proceed as they wish. They're a separate and co-equal branch of government and I'm not going to tell them what they can and can't do." (Think Progress [link to video])
- March 22: A Baltimore Sun editorial castigates Bush for refusing to let his White House aides Karl Rove and Harriet Miers testify before Congress in the US attorney scandal investigation, saying that the refusal "suggests either that he doesn't recognize the weakness of his position or that he has something awful to hide."
US Attorney firings
The editorial continues, "Mr. Bush easily could have followed long precedent and sent the aides to Capitol Hill without ceding any erosion of executive privilege. He could have declined to invoke the privilege or put only limited curbs on the aides' appearance in a bargain that is the usual way out of such confrontations. Instead, the president made what he called a 'reasonable' alternative proposal that was more like a poke in the eye." The editorial recalls similar efforts by Richard Nixon to prevent his aides from testifying about Watergate, a battle that Nixon lost. "Does President Bush, like Mr. Nixon, have a 'smoking gun' piece of evidence to cloak?" the editorial asks. "So far, there's no clear indication of criminal wrongdoing, such as obstructing justice. A botched job of dispatching federal prosecutors deemed insufficiently loyal to the Bush administration, while appalling, doesn't rise to that level. But Mr. Bush's standing with the American people is so low that they aren't likely to defend him for cashiering his own appointees, apparently for failing to prosecute Democrats or moving too aggressively against Republicans." It concludes, "Mr. Bush should head off these legal and political battles by adopting the course of most of his modern predecessors of both parties, who sent nearly three score White House aides to testify before Congress without raising the shield of executive privilege. If he doesn't, the president risks losing whatever credibility his tarred and tired administration has left. " (Baltimore Sun)