Mojo - April 2009

Talking Harman, Gonzales, AIPAC, Wiretaps, and Cheney on "Hardball"

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 7:39 PM EDT

Another scandal, another Hardball appearance. Tuesday night's subjects: the Harman-AIPAC-Gonzales controversy and ex-Veep Dick Cheney's continuing assaults on the Obama administration. Not much time to probe the depths of the Harman tale--because it takes a fair bit of time just to explain why it involves a possible double quid pro quo. (Harman allegedly offering--during a conversation intercepted by the NSA--to use her influence to reduce espionage-related charges for two AIPAC officials, and a suspected Israeli agent, in return, vowing to help her become House intelligence chair by arranging for a mega-donor to withhold campaign funds from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales blocking a preliminary FBI probe of Harman because Harman, a California Democrat, could help the Bush administration defend its warantless wiretapping program. As for Cheney, what's there to say about his compulsion to fire potshots at Obama? He's certainly not heeding what Al Gore said after the 2000 election was finally resolved: "It is time for me to go." I did note that Sean Hannity interviewing Cheney is a bit like Igor grilling Dr. Frankenstein.

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When Tea Parties Attack

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 2:34 PM EDT

This video from a tax day Tea Party in South Carolina is making the rounds on the Internet. Republican Congressman Gresham Barrett voted for the bailout bill, and hoo-boy that did not go over well when he tried to speak. I won't describe the video any further, just see for yourself. He gets points for persistence, at least.

Lefty Eco-Terrorist Added to FBI's "Most Wanted"

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 1:41 PM EDT

On the heels of the uproar caused by the release of a Department of Homeland Security memo warning that returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan could be recruited by right-wing, domestic terrorist groups, the FBI announced Tuesday the addition of a fugitive eco-terrorist to its "Most Wanted Terrorists" list. It's the first time a domestic terrorist has been added to the list, created in late 2001 after the 9/11 attacks; others, like anti-abortion bomber Eric Rudolph, have appeared among the "Ten Most Wanted" list, an altogether different and longer-running list established under J. Edgar Hoover in 1950. Osama Bin Laden bears the dark distinction of appearing on both.

The fugitive in question is Daniel Andreas San Diego, 31, a computer specialist wanted for his alleged role in bombing attacks on two office buildings in 2003. He's thought to be hiding in Central America, possibly Costa Rica. From the FBI:

Daniel Andreas San Diego is wanted for his alleged involvement in the bombing of two office buildings in the San Francisco, California, area. On August 28, 2003, two bombs exploded approximately one hour apart at the Chiron Corporation in Emeryville. Then, on September 26, 2003, one bomb strapped with nails exploded at the Shaklee Corporation in Pleasanton. San Diego was indicted in the United States District Court, Northern District of California, in July of 2004.

San Diego has ties to animal rights extremist groups. He is known to follow a vegan diet, eating no meat or food containing animal products. In the past, he has worked as a computer network specialist and with the operating system LINUX. San Diego wears eyeglasses, is skilled at sailing, and has traveled internationally. He is known to possess a handgun.

Reward's $250,000, in case you're interested.

Aging Behind Bars

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 1:23 PM EDT

Among the grotesque realities of modern American life is the exponential rise of geriatric prisoners–men and women in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s, who committed crimes decades ago, are feeble and ill, yet remain incarcerated not only as a punitive measure, but on the premise that they are a threat to society. Many of these inmates want to get out of prison only so they can die in what many call the “free world.”

People age faster behind bars than they do on the outside: Studies have shown that prisoners in their 50s are on average physiologically 10 to 15 years older than their chronological age, so 55 is old in prison. And even by conventional standards, the United States is experiencing an exponential jump in the number of old people in prison. The causes of this increase go beyond the graying of the population at large: Long mandatory sentences without parole mean that offenders who enter prison while still in their teens or twenties may remain there until they are old–if they don’t die first.

The problem is most acute in states like California, Texas, and Florida, which have large prison systems and strict and harsh sentencing laws. In California, the population of prisoners over 55 doubled in the ten years from 1997 to 2006. This contributes to the overcrowding that has reached crisis proportions. It also yields a sense of utter hopelessness within prison walls. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, some 85 to 90 percent of the men who pass through the prison gates will never leave. Angola has its own hospice, mortuary, and graveyard.

A Desi's Lament

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 1:14 PM EDT

Indian Americans have been appointed as the United States' Chief Technology Officer and Chief Information Officer, and were offered (but turned down) the gig as Surgeon General, butttt it turns out they can't get the ambassadorship to India. That goes to former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer. I'm starting to think we've been typecast.

But as unfortunate as this pigeon-holing is, it makes sense that the first Indian Americans in national-level public service would work in fields Indians are most associated with. Others will follow behind them, and won't be similarly limited. It's just a matter of time until there is an Indian American ambassador, an Indian American senator, and eventually, an Indian American president.

Harman's Big Gambit

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 12:09 PM EDT

Rep. Jane Harman is fighting back with one helluva gambit.

Late Sunday CQ broke the story--subsequently confirmed by the New York Times--that Harman, a California Democrat, was caught by NSA eavesdroppers telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would do what she could to reduce espionage-related charges filed against AIPAC officials and that this suspected agent promised in return to help her become chair of the House intelligence committee. A Harman spokesperson told CQ, "These claims are an outrageous and recycled canard, and have no basis in fact." Harman herself refused to say anything.

But on Tuesday afternoon, Harman went on the offensive. She sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking--make that, demanding--that the Justice Department "release all transcripts and other investigative material involving me in an unredacted form." She noted, "It is my intention to make this material available to the public."

In other words, let's have those NSA tapes, and let's play them for the world. (CQ and the Times both reported that after Harman's conversation was intercepted, the FBI began a preliminary investigation, but then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales shut it down because Harman could help the Bush administration defend its warantless wiretapping program.)

But there's more. Harman also wrote Holder:

I also urge you to take appropriate steps to investigate possible wiretapping of other Members of Congress and selective leaks of investigative material which can be used for political purposes.  As you know, it is entirely appropriate to converse with advocacy organizations and constituent groups, and I am concerned about a chilling effect on other elected officials who may find themselves in my situation.

That is, she's requesting an investigation of all wiretapping that might have captured a conversation including a lawmaker. Harman wants to widen the circle of victims.

She must know that there is no way that Holder can release all the information she is seeking in unredacted form, for that would entail identifying the supposed Israeli agent with whom she talked. The Justice Department would at least have to blank out that person's name. But in general such wiretaps are not disclosed for they can reveal what's known in the intelligence world as "sources and methods." A longtime member of the intelligence committee, Harman, as a Democrat, is fully aware of this. After all, she was an ardent defender of the Bush administration's warantless wiretapping program and was one of several lawmakers who tried to persuade The New York Times not to reveal the existence of that program.

Now, she has become a transparency advocate. Does she believe that the full transcripts of these tapes would show she had said nothing improper? (What if the conversations match the descriptions reported by CQ and the Times?) Or is she counting on Holder to turn down her request, so she can then position herself as the wronged lawmaker who was the target of sneaky and inappropriate snooping and become a champion of openness and accountability?

In either case, this is a bold move. This scandal is significant--especially the portion involving Gonzales. And Harman is trying to up the ante.

UPDATE: Harman went on MSNBC on Tuesday afternoon. She noted she had been "wiretapped" and that this had been "a gross abuse of power." She reiterated her demand that the Justice Department release any secret recordings of her: "If there are tapes out there, bring it on." And, she added, "with nothing crossed out." The lawmaker who had supported the Bush administration's warantless wiretapping program declared that she now was "very disappointed my country could've permitted a gross abuse of power." She said she was worried that other "innocent" Americans had been eavesdropped upon, adding, "I have a bully pulpit, and I can fight back."

UPDATE II: As the daily White House press briefing was ending on Tuesday afternoon, I asked press secretary Robert Gibbs if he would take a question on the Harman-AIPAC-Gonzales story. "No, thank you," he replied."

UPDATE III: CQ's Tim Starks and Edward Epstein report that Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who got the intelligence committee chairmanship Harman wanted, has asked the committee's staff to investigate the Harman incident.

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Why Won't Gonzales Deny He Killed Harman-AIPAC Probe?

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 10:45 AM EDT

If you had been falsely accused of doing something outrageous, wouldn't you declare you had done no such thing?

Everyone is entitled to a presumption of innocence--at least in a courtroom--but it is certainly suspicious that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has not denied the most recent allegations against him. My CQ colleague Jeff Stein reported late Sunday night that Gonzales had blocked a preliminary FBI investigation into Democratic Representative Jane Harman, who had been captured by NSA eavesdroppers telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would try to use her clout to lessen espionage-related charges filed against two AIPAC officials. In return for her assistance, the suspected Israeli agent reportedly offered to help Harman become chair of the House intelligence committee. On Tuesday, The New York Times confirmed much of the story--including the piece about Gonzales: that the then-AG killed the inquiry because Harman, then the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, could help the Bush administration defend its use of warrantless wiretaps.

So there are two lines of inquiry that official investigators ought to follow. First, whether Harman broke the law by offering to lean on the criminal investigation of AIPAC for help in advancing her career. (The Times reports that the suspected Israeli agent promised that media mogul Haim Saban would threaten to hold back donations to Rep. Nancy Pelosi if she did not award Harman the top slot on the intelligence committee; Saban's spokesperson did not respond to the Times' request for comment.) Second, whether Gonzales stopped a criminal investigation because the target (Harman) could help the Bush administration. Harman has put out a very carefully-worded denial that's full of holes. Gonzales, though, hasn't said anything. That's not very reassuring. Shouldn't a former attorney general be able to declare that he never halted an investigation as a favor to a lawmaker who was doing the administration a favor? If not, there's a problem--and a problem (no matter Barack Obama's penchant for leaving the past behind) deserving a thorough examination by someone with subpoena power.

These are both major scandals--and, alas, they are linked. Democrats on the Hill might welcome another opportunity to pursue Gonzales, but they are not going to be eager to chase after Harman, even though she is not the most popular among House Democrats. Hill Republicans who would love to see a Democrat caught in an ethics investigation may not be eager to give Dems more reason to investigate Gonzales and the Bushies. And FOIs--friends of Israel--on both sides of the aisle will not be enthusiastic about any probe that could depict a lawmaker as a tool of AIPAC and Israel. (On Monday, Pelosi said nothing about the Harman-AIPAC-Gonzales story.)

Justice Department internal investigators certainly have the standing to probe what happened with Gonzales and the Harman investigation. They may not care that much about Harman, but an investigation of Gonzales cannot get too far without a determination of what Harman said (to the suspected Israeli agent) and did (regarding the AIPAC prosecution). Meanwhile, congressional sources tell me that Hill people are wondering how many other members of Congress have held conversations that have been collected by the NSA.

With the Times picking up Stein's story, the whole thing has gone mainstream. (Not that CQ isn't mainstream.) As I noted yesterday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington quickly sent requests to the Office of Congressional Ethics and the Justice Department for investigations. But someone is going to have to raise a fuss on Capitol Hill or within the executive branch for anything to happen. This double quid-pro-quo tale is truly a bipartisan embarrassment--and that's the best protection Harman and Gonzales could have.

This was first posted at CQPolitics.com.

TARP Overseer Initiates 20 Criminal Probes

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 10:36 AM EDT

The bad news: 20 criminal investigations into people who have tried to rip off the TARP program have been initiated by federal prosecutors, with more investigations likely. The good news: at least we're going after these people in a timely fashion.

If you agree the bailout is necessary, you have to accept some amount of this -- any pile of money that big is going attract people seeking to filch some of it, and the best we can do is try to stop them before they are successful and catch them afterward if they are, which appears to be what the Obama administration is doing. I am officially not outraged.

Senators Push to Close The Gun Show Loophole

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 9:40 AM EDT

Omar Samaha's sister Reema was among those gunned down at Virginia Tech in April 2007 when Seng-Hui Cho rampaged through classrooms with two semi-automatic pistols. In the shootings' aftermath, many were shocked to learn that Cho, with a long history of psychiatric problems, was able to obtain his weapons legally. Although Cho purchased his guns from licensed dealers, the Virginia Tech killings brought new scrutiny to Virginia's gun-show loophole: unlike larger, licensed dealers that sell in large quantities, small, unlicensed dealers are free to sell weapons at gun shows without completing background checks. And whereas many small dealers will do background checks anyway, many don't, creating an obvious opporunity for buyers who might not otherwise qualify to own weapons.

Omar Samaha recently drove this home when, accompanied by a film crew from ABC News, he purchased ten firearms at a Virginia gun show in under an hour without undergoing any background checks. Last year, in a similar exercise, I attempted to purchase an assault rifle at gun show in Fishersville, Virginia, but was unable to do so based on my DC residency. But had I lied about my residency or produced a fake license, I might just as easily have walked out with one.

With a new administration in Washington, some Senate Democrats are making a new push to close the gun show loophole. Joined by Omar Samaha, several others affected by the Virginia Tech shootings, and the Brady Campaign's Paul Helmke, New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg, Rhode Island's Jack Reed, and California's Diane Feinstein announced Tuesday that they plan to introduce legislation to make background checks mandatory for every gun purchase, whether from licensed dealers or not.

From a press release announcing the move:

The bill would help keep guns out of the hands of criminals, terrorists, the mentally ill and gun traffickers by requiring background checks on all sales at gun shows. In 1993, the Brady Law was passed requiring prospective purchasers of guns sold by federal firearms licensees, like gun shops and pawn shops, to go through a background check.  However, a loophole in current law allows people to purchase guns from unlicensed sellers at “gun shows” without going through any background check.

In 1999, Sen. Lautenberg introduced the first bill in Congress to close the gun show loophole.  Later that year, in the wake of the Columbine tragedy, the Senate passed Sen. Lautenberg’s legislation to close the gun show loophole as an amendment to a juvenile justice bill.  The legislation passed by one vote, with Vice Al President Gore casting the tiebreaking vote.  However, the gun lobby killed the legislation in House-Senate conference. 

 

MN Senate Race Goes to MN Supreme Court

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 9:26 AM EDT

Norm Coleman will rage, rage against the dying of the light. CQ Politics:

Republican Norm Coleman filed the promised notice of appeal Monday challenging a trial court’s ruling that Democrat Al Franken is the winner of Minnesota’s 2008 Senate race.

The appeal to the state Supreme Court will be based on the same arguments Coleman's legal team made unsuccessfully during the seven-week election trial, though with a focus on what his attorneys say are constitutional violations made during the initial count and six-week recount.

Huh. That doesn't sound like it will be very successful.

The Coleman campaign said it expected the state Supreme Court to take the case on an expedited basis, with attorney Jim Langdon estimating oral arguments could take place "anywhere from two weeks to two months from now."

Ahhh.