Mojo - June 2008

Federal Investigations of Pentagon Intrigues: Don't Forget the Chalabi Leak

| Thu Jun. 26, 2008 8:56 AM EDT

Regarding my recent articles on signs of a federal investigation seemingly looking at at least one Pentagon official, a colleague reminded me of the following. That the Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency did forward a crimes report to the Justice Department on the question of who leaked to Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi the allegation that the U.S. had broken Iran's communications codes in Iraq, a detail which Chalabi allegedly shared with his Iranian intelligence interlocutor.

For instance, revisit this Newsweek piece:

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Obama's Campaign Manager Displays the Confidence that Comes with $300 Million

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 5:47 PM EDT

David Plouffe looks ready to roll. At a Washington, D.C., press conference, Barack Obama's campaign manager surveyed the general election political landscape for several dozen reporters, and he spoke confidently, like a man who will have the money to do all that he believes is necessary and optional. Which he is, because he can expect to have $200 to $300 million to deploy--now that Obama has decided to sidestep the public financing system (which awards $85 million to party nominees) and raise much more from individual donors.

Plouffe repeatedly noted that the Obama campaign will have the resources to challenge John McCain in practically every state and to pursue multiple strategies for victory. That is, the campaign can attempt to win by holding on to every state John Kerry won in 2004 and swinging only Ohio from R to D, or it could win by bagging Iowa plus Colorado and New Mexico. Or how about losing Pennsylvania but winning Virginia and North Carolina? Plouffe claimed that Obama was already competitive in states that are not traditionally Democratic in presidential races, such as Alaska and Montana and that he can make a run at McCain in Georgia (where Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr, a former GOP congressman from Georgia, might draw votes from McCain). Plouffe has the money to invest in a number of game plans--to run ads and set up staff in various states. And as the election approaches, he will be able to determine which states to stick with or abandon. He's in a candy store with plenty of allowance.

How will he use the money? Plouffe told the reporters that a top priority is to "shift the electorate." He wants to spend a lot on registering African-Americans and voters under the age of 40 to "readjust the electorate" in assorted states so the voting pools in these states are more pro-Obama. "A couple of points here, a couple of points there," he says, and red states can go blue. Especially smaller states, where a swing of 10,000 votes could be decisive. And, he emphasized, his campaign will have sufficient resources to identify the people it needs to register, contact them directly, and mount targeted get-out-the-vote efforts. The campaign, he said, is not just going to set up registration tables outside community events.

Feingold and Dodd Take to the Floor of the Senate

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 4:03 PM EDT

Last night, Chris Dodd took to the floor of the Senate and made an impassioned plea to his colleagues not to support the House FISA legislation. The video, and text are available here.

Earlier today, Russell Feingold followed suit, in words that echoed his remarks in response to my question at a New America Foundation event on Monday. Here's a snippet:

This legislation has been billed as a compromise between Republicans and Democrats. We are asked to support it because it is a supposedly reasonable accommodation of opposing views. Let me respond as clearly as possible: This bill is not a compromise. It is a capitulation. This bill will effectively and unjustifiably grant immunity to companies that allegedly participated in an illegal wiretapping program – a program that more than 70 members of this body still know virtually nothing about. And this bill will grant the Bush Administration – the same administration that developed and operated this illegal program for more than five years – expansive new authorities to spy on Americans' international communications. If you don't believe me, here is what Senator Bond had to say about the bill: "I think the White House got a better deal than even they had hoped to get." And House Minority Whip Roy Blunt said this: "The lawsuits will be dismissed. There is simply no question that Democrats who had previously stood strong against immunity and in support of civil liberties were on the losing end of this backroom deal."
I think it's safe to say that even many who voted for the Protect America Act last year came to believe it was a mistake to pass that legislation. And while the House deserves credit for refusing to pass the Senate bill in February, and for securing the changes that are in this new bill, this bill is also a serious mistake…Mr. President, the immunity provision is a key reason for that. It is a key reason for my opposition to this legislation and for that of so many of my colleagues and so many Americans. No one should be fooled about the effect of this bill. Under its terms, the companies that allegedly participated in the illegal wiretapping program will walk away from these lawsuits with immunity. There is simply no question about it, and anyone who says that this bill preserves a meaningful role for the courts to play in deciding these cases is wrong…But I'm concerned that the focus on immunity has diverted attention away from the other very important issues at stake in this legislation. In the long run, I don't believe this will be remembered as the 'immunity' bill. This legislation is going to be remembered as the legislation in which Congress granted the executive branch the power to sweep up all of our international communications with very few controls or oversight.

On the other hand, moments ago Diane Feinstein just announced that she's read the Department of Justice's legal memos, the written requests from the White House to the telecommunications firms, and met with representatives from those firms, and after contemplating that balanced body of information, has decided to support the legislation.

Good Gov't Groups Push McCain, Obama on Bundling Disclosure

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 3:29 PM EDT

Eight campaign finance reform and watchdog organizations sent letters to John McCain and Barack Obama Wednesday asking them to identify exactly how much each of their bundlers has raised.

Bundlers are the closest thing to fat cats in today's fundraising landscape. Each individual can only donate $4,600 to a presidential candidate ($2,300 in the primary and $2,300 more in the general, if the candidate is declining public funds), but a bundler can lean on all of his contacts to put together hundreds of other people's donations, thus delivering anywhere from $50,000 to many millions to the candidate.

For that kind of money, a donor can expect some influence.

And that's why the eight groups — Campaign Finance Institute, the Center for Responsive Politics, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, the Sunlight Foundation, and U.S. PIRG — are asking McCain and Obama to make public how much bundlers collect.

This isn't really an unreasonable request. According to the reform group Public Citizen:

In 2004, Bush provided the names and states residence of bundlers who raised $100,000 (called "Pioneers") or $200,000 ("Rangers"). The information was displayed in an obvious place on his campaign Web site and appeared to be published promptly. Kerry provided lists of bundlers who raised at least $50,000 or $100,000.

We've Got an FEC

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 12:34 PM EDT

The longstanding vacancies at the FEC have finally been filled. Last night, the Senate confirmed five commissioners to join the only sitting commissioner, Ellen Weintraub. The panel, composed of three Democrats and three Republicans as per the usual, will finally have the quorum it needs to address issues like this and this, and deal with the DNC's newly filed lawsuit challenging John McCain's withdrawal from the primary election matching funds program.

Don't expect the new FEC to usher in an era of reform. Good government groups have long criticized the FEC for being a collection of party loyalists more prone to gridlock and slaps on the wrist than to firm and effective oversight. That said, a weak FEC is better than no FEC, particularly during an election year. So, happy day.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR), Getting Desperate

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 11:28 AM EDT

What do you do if you're a Republican incumbent in a blue state that the Democratic nominee for president is almost certain to win? Put out an ad making it look like you and that Democrat are best pals.

This is an obvious response to Gordon Smith's dwindling lead in the polls. The Obama campaign's response? "Barack Obama has a long record of bipartisan accomplishment and we appreciate that it is respected by his Democratic and Republican colleagues in the Senate. But in this race, Oregonians should know that Barack Obama supports Jeff Merkley for Senate. Merkley will help Obama bring about the fundamental change we need in Washington."

Ouch.

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Supreme Court Overturns Exxon Valdez Verdict

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 10:59 AM EDT

Exxon today has proven the benefits of the endless appeal. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars fighting the $5 billion punitive damage award handed down by an Alaska jury in 1994 for its role in the massive oil spill in Prince William Sound, Exxon today landed a major victory at the Supreme Court. In a 5-3 ruling, with Alito sitting out, the court overturned a lower court decision that had reduced the verdict to $2.5 billion, and sent the case back saying that the punitive damage award was excessive and should not exceed about $500 million, the same as the compensatory damages.

The decision strikes yet another blow against what is essentially the capital punishment of the civil justice system, in a long-running campaign by Exxon and other big companies to try to abolish these sorts of awards entirely. Punitive damages are the extra damages added to a jury verdict to punish especially egregious conduct by a civil defendant. As the former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely once wrote, punitive damage awards aren't given out for innocent mistakes, but are generally reserved for "really stupid defendants, really mean defendants, and really stupid defendants who could have caused a great deal of harm by their actions but who actually caused minimal harm." Punitive damages put the real teeth in the legal system, and serve as an ad-hoc form of regulation by standing as a potential deterrent to all sorts of egregious behavior. That, of course, is why business really hates them.

Does Your City Toke or Do Blow?

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 6:17 PM EDT

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In the quest to discover your neighbors' vices, the only data more valuable than Google search records might be the records you leave in your toilet. In cities around the world, scientists have begun to measure concentrations of illegal drugs at sewage treatment plants, hoping to get a sense of what people are sending down the pipes. Results so far indicate that Vegas-goers do more meth than some of their midwestern counterparts, Angelenos outdo the Old World in cocaine use, Londoners fancy heroin more than Italians, and everybody smokes a whole lotta pot.

Clearly, the most obvious place for this information is an online quiz site: "If your city were an illegal drug, which one would it be?" Beyond that, the real-life applications aren't yet clear. Environmentalists are interested in the potential consequences of so many chemicals in the pipes—who wants to find out that, in addition to being filled with prescription drugs, their drinking water is also laced with coke? And no city wants to broadcast that its citizenry is, uh, high (San Diego has already refused researchers access to its sewage). The scientists who conducted the European study (.pdf) think it will be most useful as a real-time data collection tool, not to mention a vast improvement over just asking people how many drugs they do—the study notes that the concentration of cocaine in Milan's sewage suggests that actual use is more than double the reported rate.

Such information could certainly help law enforcement and public health officials improve their approach to combating drug use, but it's easy to see how things could get out of hand. What happens when the DEA shows up at your door with a warrant and a urine sample you didn't know you were giving? You laugh, but the scientist who pioneered this idea believes it would be possible to analyze sewge at the level of "a community, a street, even a house." In that way, studying poop is like studying Google searches— you'll probably find out more about your neighbors than you wanted, or needed, to know.

Photo from Flickr user PabloBM.

GAO: U.S. Lacks Post-"Surge" Plan For Iraq

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 1:50 PM EDT

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Violence in Iraq has fallen precipitously since January 2007, when the Bush Administration upped U.S. troop presence there. Combined with other fortuitous developments like the Mahdi Army's ceasefire and fragile alliances of convenience with Sunni tribesmen, the U.S. "surge" strategy has reduced the average number of enemy attacks by 70 percent, from 180 per day in June 2007 to 50 per day last February. But, says the GAO in a report released today (.pdf), improved security has not yielded significant progress toward other reconstruction goals. And now that U.S. forces are beginning to draw down, the Bush Administration has yet to formulate a comprehensive post-surge plan.

The old strategy—dubbed "The New Way Forward" by the White House—outlined a series of political and economic reconstruction goals for Iraq, all scheduled to be achieved by the end of 2007. But, so the thinking was, security first had to be improved, starting with turning the Iraqi Army into a self-sustaining force that could eventually take over for U.S. troops. The results have been mixed: the number of Iraqi units "in the lead" during combat operations has risen to 70 percent, says the Pentagon. But it likewise admits that just 10 percent are capable of mounting operations without U.S. assistance, primarily for lack of logistical capability and proper training and leadership. As of last month, just 9 of 18 Iraqi provinces had taken "lead responsibility" for their own security, according to the GAO report.

Energy and Health Care Industries Lobby Hard in Advance of Next Administration

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 1:24 PM EDT

The two areas where we can expect the next administration to usher in massive shifts in domestic policy are health care and climate change. This would definitely be true under an Obama Administration, and could well be true under a McCain one as well. The health care and energy industries aren't stupid; anticipating upcoming movement on their respective issues, they've put their lobbying efforts in hyperdrive to try and direct that movement.

CQ Politics charts the number of lobbying registrations filed in the first quarter of 2008 for each sector, and they come up with this:

Energy: 278 registered lobbyists
Transportation: 85
Manufacturing: 79
Non-profits: 67
State or local gov't: 43
Agriculture: 28
Business and retail: 27
Real estate and construction: 25
Finance: 20
Organized labor: 16

Energy's new dominance knocks health care out of the top dog position. The pharmaceutical industry had a banner 2007, writes the Center for Public Integrity, putting together a record $168 million lobbying effort, according to a CPI analysis of federal lobbying data. Adds CPI, "the effort raised the amount spent by drug interests on federal lobbying in the past decade to more than $1 billion."

Top spenders within the sector in 2007: