Friday, July 13, 2007

Equipment worth $22M missing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Equipment worth $22M missing from CDC

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will investigate the disappearance of $22 million worth of equipment, computers and other items from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last month, a congressional oversight committee requested an audit of the CDC's property management procedures and an investigation into allegations of theft at the center.

CDC officials said they have accounted for about $9 million in missing goods in recent weeks.

"A thorough audit will help stop the bleeding of taxpayer-owned property at CDC," U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said in a statement Wednesday. "In cases of theft, it will also tell us what happened to the thieves."

The committee specifically said it was concerned about a suspected "insider" burglary of $500,000 in computers, and millions of dollars worth of other items missing or unaccounted for since the CDC's last audit in 1995.

Daniel Levinson, inspector general of Health and Human Services, told Barton in a June 25 letter that his department would conduct an audit and investigate the theft allegations, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Thursday.

Between fiscal 2004 and 2006, there were 61 investigations into the theft or disappearance of CDC property. No arrests or disciplinary action resulted from those investigations, and several are ongoing, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.

He said much of the equipment was discovered missing during a reorganization at the center. Staff are using new computer programs to better track items, he said.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

House panel rejects Bush privilege claim

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House panel rejects Bush privilege claim
By LAURIE KELLMAN, Associated Press Writer

House Democrats on Thursday took the first step toward holding former White House counsel Harriet Miers in contempt of Congress after she defied a subpoena — at President Bush's order — and skipped a hearing on the firing of U.S. attorneys.

Over the strenuous objections of Republicans, a subcommittee cleared the way for contempt proceedings by voting 7-5 to reject Bush's claim of executive privilege. He says his top advisers, whether current or former, cannot be summoned by Congress.

"Those claims are not legally valid," Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., said of Bush's declaration. "Ms. Miers is required pursuant to the subpoena to be here now."

Republicans complained that Democrats were choosing showy, televised proceedings and the threat of court action to force the testimony rather than agree to Bush's offer for private, off-the-record interviews.

In the absence of an agreement with the administration, House leaders and committee members were likely to pursue contempt proceedings against Miers but were still talking about when, according to some Democratic officials.

"We would not be discharging our responsibility today if we were to simply drop this," Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said during the hearing.

The White House showed no sign of giving in.

"If the House Judiciary Committee wants to avoid confrontation, it should withdraw its subpoenas," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "The committee is rejecting accommodation because they prefer just the kind of political spectacle they're engaged in now."

Miers' testimony emerged as the battleground for a broader scuffle between the White House and Congress over the limits of executive privilege. Presidents since the nation's founding have sought to protect from the prying eyes of Congress the advice given them by advisers, while Congress has argued that it is charged by the Constitution with conducting oversight of the executive branch.

Bush's invocation of executive privilege comes during the Democrats' probe of whether the firings were really an effort by the White House to fire and replace federal prosecutors in ways that might help Republican candidates. Democrats say testimony by numerous aides that Bush was not involved in deciding whom to fire undercuts his privilege claim.

Administration officials acknowledge that the firings were botched in their execution, but they insist there was no improper motive for them. They point out that U.S. attorneys are political appointees and that the president can fire them for almost any reason.

The probe has prompted calls by Democrats and a few Republicans for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. With Bush's support behind him, Gonzales shows no sign of stepping down.

The dispute extended to Congress' request for information on other matters, including the FBI's abuses of civil liberties under the USA Patriot Act and Bush's secretive wiretapping program.

But it is a pair of congressional subpoenas for two women who once were Bush's top aides that has moved the disagreement to the brink of legal sanctions and perhaps a court battle.

Former White House political director Sara Taylor appeared Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee and in a tentative performance sought to answer some lawmakers' questions and remain mum on others, citing Bush's claim of privilege. Senators didn't seem eager to cite her with contempt, but Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he had not yet made that decision.

Miers, in contrast, chose to skip the House hearing Thursday, citing White House Counsel Fred Fielding's letter to her lawyer conveying Bush's order not to show up. In letters sent the night before to Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers and Sanchez, Bush and Fielding cited several legal opinions that they said indicated that the president's immediate advisers had absolute immunity from congressional subpoenas.

Incensed, Democrats held the hearing anyway. Addressing an empty chair at the witness table with a nameplate reading "Ms. Miers," Sanchez and Conyers left little doubt that contempt proceedings by the full Judiciary Committee — and later the full House — would be the next step unless Miers and the administration change their positions.

"If we do not enforce this subpoena, no one will ever have to come before the Judiciary Committee again," Conyers, D-Mich., said.

"What we've got here is an empty chair. I mean, that is as contemptuous as anybody can be of the government," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. "I resent the fact that this lady is not here."

Republicans accused Democrats of proceeding in the absence of evidence of wrongdoing by Miers or any White House officials.

Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah, the ranking Republican on Sanchez' subcommittee on commercial and administrative law, warned Democrats that a contempt citation would fail evidentiary standards in court.

"You can't go to the courts essentially and say, 'We don't know what we don't know, therefore give us a subpoena so we can find out,'" Cannon said.

"There is no proof whatsoever that Harriet Miers likely holds some smoking gun with respect to the U.S. attorney situation," added Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla.

The citation would first be debated and voted upon by the full Judiciary Committee. If approved, it then would go to the full House where it would be debated and require a majority for approval.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would then refer the matter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, "whose duty it shall be to bring the matter before the grand jury for its action," according to the law. The man who holds that job is Jeff Taylor, a Bush appointee.

Legal scholars said the issue of Miers' immunity is far from clear-cut. No president has gone as far as mounting a court fight to keep his aides from testifying on Capitol Hill.


Associated Press writer Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report.


Iraq report shows only limited progress

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Iraq report shows only limited progress
By DAVID ESPO, AP Special Correspondent

Iraq has achieved only limited military and political progress toward a democratic society, the Bush administration said Thursday in a report that became prelude to a House vote on ordering a U.S. troop withdrawal by spring.

"The security situation in Iraq remains complex and extremely challenging" the report concluded. The economic picture is uneven, it said, and the government has not yet enacted vital political reconciliation legislation.

As many as 80 suicide bombers per month cross into the country from Syria, added the interim assessment, which is to be followed by Gen. David Petraeus' fuller accounting in September.

"I believe we can succeed in Iraq, and I know we must," President Bush said at a White House news conference at which he stressed the interim nature of the report.

Describing a document produced by his administration at Congress' insistence, he said there was satisfactory progress by the Iraqi government toward meeting eight of 18 so-called benchmarks, unsatisfactory progress on eight more and mixed results on the others.

To his critics — including an increasing number of Republicans — he said bluntly, "I don't think Congress ought to be running the war. I think they ought to be funding the troops."

Democrats saw it differently.

A few hours after Bush's remarks, the House plunged into debate over legislation requiring the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops to begin within 120 days, and to be completed by April 1, 2008. The measure envisions a limited residual force to train Iraqis, protect U.S. assets and fight al-Qaida and other terrorists.

Passage of the measure was not in doubt — only the number of Republicans who might break with Bush and support a bill he has vowed to veto.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., set the tone. "After nearly five years of a failed policy in Iraq, we have a duty not just to voice our opposition, but to vote today to end the war," she said.

The 25-page administration report was issued in the fifth year of a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,600 U.S. troops and is costing U.S. taxpayers an estimated $10 billion a month.

Bush announced last winter he was ordering thousands of additional troops to the war zone, but the full complement has only arrived in recent weeks. "The full surge in this respect has only just begun," the report said.

It warned of "tough fighting" during the summer as U.S. and Iraqi forces "seek to seize the initiative from early gains and shape conditions of longer-term stabilization."

The president sampled the report at his nationally televised session with reporters.

"Iraqis have provided the three brigades they promised for operations in and around Baghdad. And the Iraqi government is spending nearly $7.3 billion from its own funds this year to train, equip and modernize its forces," he said.

But in other areas, he added, they "have much more work to do. For example, they've not done enough to prepare for local elections or pass a law to share oil revenues."

The report was blunt at points and more opaque at others.

While Iraq has begun to show progress in providing services, "citizens nationwide complain about government corruption and the lack of essential services, such as electricity, fuel supply, sewer, water, health and sanitation."

At another point, it added, "The prerequisites for a successful militia disarmament program are not present."

In addition to citing a Syrian connection for terrorists, it also said Iran has continued to foster instability in Iraq.

It cited measured progress on the economic front. "Unemployment has eased slightly and inflation is currently abating," the report said. It omitted mention of a June 1 Pentagon report estimating an annual inflation rate at 33 percent and the Iraqi government estimate of joblessness at 17 percent.

In an evident jab at critics of Bush's war policies, the report also said progress toward political reconciliation was hampered by "increasing concern among Iraqi political leaders that the United States may not have a long term-commitment to Iraq."

Despite rising pressure from Republicans in Congress for a change in course, Bush was adamant.

"When we start drawing down our forces in Iraq, it will (be) because our military commanders say the conditions on the ground are right, not because pollsters say it'll be good politics," he said.

Before Thursday's house vote, GOP aides said they hoped to suffer only a few party defections, but the administration faced a more volatile situation in the Senate. There, three Republicans have already said they intend to vote for a separate withdrawal measure, and several others have signed on as supporters of a bipartisan bill to implement a series of changes recommended last winter by the Iraqi Study Group.

Even so, it appears the president's allies have the support to block a final Senate vote in a showdown expected next week.

If the report changed any minds in Congress, it was not immediately apparent.

"It is time for the president to listen to the American people and do what is necessary to protect this nation. That means admitting his Iraq policy has failed, working with the Democrats and Republicans in Congress on crafting a new way forward in Iraq and refocusing our collective efforts on defeating al-Qaida," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

But Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said Congress has already decided it will be September before the administration's strategy can be evaluated properly. "Certainly the young soldiers and Marines risking their lives today on the streets of Baghdad and Ramadi would agree — and they deserve our patience."


Bush seeks to put CIA leak issue to rest

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Bush seeks to put CIA leak issue to rest
By TERENCE HUNT, AP White House Correspondent

President Bush on Thursday sought to put to rest the controversy over his decision to spare a top former White House official from going to jail, saying it was time to move on. He also called on the nation and skeptical lawmakers to stand with him on Iraq, despite a new report showing only mixed progress.

"There's war fatigue in America. It's affecting our psychology. I understand that. It's an ugly war," Bush said.

The president also said that, while al-Qaida remains a threat to the United States, it has been hurt by his war on terrorism and is "weaker today than they would have been" otherwise. He spoke as a new U.S. threat assessment found that al Qaida had rebuilt its capability to mount attacks to levels not seen since 2001.

At a news conference lasting over an hour that was dominated by questions on Iraq, Bush was asked about his decision ten days ago to commute the 30-month prison sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Libby was convicted of lying and obstruction of justice in the investigation of the outing of an undercover CIA official, Valerie Plame, whose husband Joseph Wilson was a vocal anti-war critic.

Bush acknowledged publicly for the first time that someone in his administration leaked her name to the news media. "And, you know, I've often thought about what would have happened had that person come forth and said, `I did it.' Would we have had this, you know, endless hours of investigation and a lot of money being spent on this matter?"

Bush would not directly address answer a question about whether he is disappointed in the White House officials who leaked Plame's name.

The president had initially said he would fire anyone in his administration found to have publicly disclosed Plame's identity.

"It has been a tough issue for a lot of people in the White House, and it's run its course, and now we're going to move on," Bush declared.

Several Bush administration officials revealed Plame's identity. White House political adviser Karl Rove and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage were the primary sources for a 2003 newspaper article outing Plame. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer also admitted telling reporters about her. And jurors apparently believed prosecutors who said Libby discussed Plame with reporters from the New York Times and Time magazine. Libby was the only one charged in the matter.

Meanwhile, the sentencing judge, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, took issue Thursday with Bush's characterization of Libby's sentence as "excessive."

"It is fair to say the Court is somewhat perplexed as to how its sentence could be accurately described as 'excessive,'" wrote Walton, a Bush appointee. He noted that the 2-1/2 year sentence was at the low end of federal sentencing guidelines.

Walton's comments came in a footnote to an opinion formalizing Libby's probation term. Bush kept in place two years probation and a $250,000 fine, which Libby has already paid.

Bush presented a mixed picture of progress in Iraq, coinciding with an interim report to Congress by his administration that asserted progress on some fronts but not on others.

He said he understood the growing opposition to the war among the American public and recent defections by some Republicans in Congress. He said he had listened carefully to influential Republican senators who had recently been critical of his war strategy. But, in the end, he said, he was commander in chief and he would rely on advice from his military commanders.

"I value the advice of those senators, I appreciate their concern. ... I'm going to continue to listen to them," Bush said.

He said he still believed the war could — and must — be won. "If we increase our support at this crucial moment, we can hasten the day when our troops come home," Bush said.

The administration's report said there has been satisfactory progress on eight political and military benchmarks, unsatisfactory progress on another eight, and mixed results in two other areas.

On one of the few other questions of the news conference not related to Iraq, Bush was asked whether he also had a "gut feeling" there might be a terror attack this summer, as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had recently suggested.

"My gut tells me that, which my head tells as well, is that: When we find a credible threat, we'll share it with you."

Bush also addressed his low approval ratings and mounting public opposition to the war. "You know, I guess I'm like any other political figure. Everybody wants to be loved — just sometimes the decisions you make and the consequences don't enable you to be loved.

"And so, when it's all said and done, if you ever come down and visit the old, tired me down there in Crawford, (Texas), I will be able to say I looked in the mirror and made decisions based upon principle, not based upon politics. And that's important to me."

Bush opened the news conference with a tribute to Lady Bird Johnson. The former first lady died on Wednesday at age 94.

Bush called her "an extraordinary first lady and a fine Texan. ... She brought grace to the White House and beauty to our country."S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, took issue Thursday with Bush's characterization of Libby's sentence as "excessive."

"It is fair to say the Court is somewhat perplexed as to how its sentence could be accurately described as 'excessive,'" wrote Walton, a Bush appointee. He noted that the 2-1/2 year sentence was at the low end of federal sentencing guidelines.

Walton's comments came in a footnote to an opinion formalizing Libby's probation term. Bush kept in place two years probation and a $250,000 fine, which Libby has already paid.

Bush presented a mixed picture of progress in Iraq, coinciding with an interim report to Congress by his administration that asserted progress on some fronts but not on others.

He said he understood the growing opposition to the war among the American public and recent defections by some Republicans in Congress. He said he had listened carefully to influential Republican senators who had recently been critical of his war strategy. But, in the end, he said, he was commander in chief and he would rely on advice from his military commanders.

"I value the advice of those senators, I appreciate their concern. ... I'm going to continue to listen to them," Bush said.

He said he still believed the war could — and must — be won. "If we increase our support at this crucial moment, we can hasten the day when our troops come home," Bush said.

The administration's report said there has been satisfactory progress on eight political and military benchmarks, unsatisfactory progress on another eight, and mixed results in two other areas.

On one of the few other questions of the news conference not related to Iraq, Bush was asked whether he also had a "gut feeling" there might be a terror attack this summer, as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had recently suggested.

"My gut tells me that, which my head tells as well, is that: When we find a credible threat, we'll share it with you."

Bush also addressed his low approval ratings and mounting public opposition to the war. "You know, I guess I'm like any other political figure. Everybody wants to be loved — just sometimes the decisions you make and the consequences don't enable you to be loved.

"And so, when it's all said and done, if you ever come down and visit the old, tired me down there in Crawford, (Texas), I will be able to say I looked in the mirror and made decisions based upon principle, not based upon politics. And that's important to me."

Bush opened the news conference with a tribute to Lady Bird Johnson. The former first lady died on Wednesday at age 94.

Bush called her "an extraordinary first lady and a fine Texan. ... She brought grace to the White House and beauty to our country."


Report: Pentagon Armor Contracts Endangered Troops

AP News
Report: Pentagon Armor Contracts Endangered Troops

The Defense Department put U.S. troops in Iraq at risk by awarding contracts for badly needed armored vehicles to companies that failed to deliver them on time, according to a review by the Pentagon's inspector general.

The June 27 report, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, examined 15 contracts worth $2.2 billion awarded since 2000 to Force Protection Inc. and Armor Holdings Inc


Guards Steal $282 Million From Baghdad Bank
Guards Steal $282 Million From Baghdad Bank

Three bank guards were able to pull of the largest heist in Iraqi history, making off with a stunning $282 million dollars from a private bank in central Baghdad, Aswat al-Iraq reports in Arabic.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Interior Ministry source told Aswat al-Iraq that "three guards working for the Dar al-Salam Bank located on Sa'adoun Street in Central Baghdad were able to attack the bank . . . and stole a sum of up to $282 million dollars, and fled in an unknown direction after implementing the operation."


Bush Refuses to Explain Libby Order

Associated Press
Bush Refuses to Explain Libby Order

President Bush refused to explain to Congress on Wednesday why he commuted the prison sentence of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. The husband of the CIA agent outed in the case testified during a House hearing that the clemency grant had cast a pall of suspicion over the presidency.

In a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., Bush counsel Fred Fielding said Congress had no authority to review a presidential clemency decision.

"To allow such an inquiry would chill the complete and candid advice that President Bush, and future presidents, must be able to rely upon in discharging their constitutional responsibilities," he wrote.

The letter came in the middle of a politically charged hearing by the Judiciary panel on Bush's move last week to erase Libby's 2 1/2-year prison sentence. Libby, a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted of obstructing justice in a federal probe of the leak of former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson's identity.

When he issued the commutation July 2, Bush said in a statement that he respected the jury's verdict but thought the prison term was too harsh.

The hearing's star witness was her husband Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat whose 2003 newspaper column challenging Bush's case for the Iraq war precipitated Plame's unmasking and the resulting investigation that ensnared Libby.

"In commuting Mr. Libby's sentence, the president has removed any incentive for Mr. Libby to cooperate with the prosecutor. The obstruction of justice is ongoing, and now the president has emerged as its greatest protector," Wilson testified.

Wilson said Bush "at the very least owes the American people a full and honest explanation of his actions and those of other senior administration officials in this matter, including but not limited to the vice president."

Conyers said he recognized Bush's constitutional right to grant clemency, but he argued that using the power to benefit a former aide who was in a position to incriminate other administration officials was suspect.

Even President Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich "did not involve someone who worked in the White House and could potentially implicate others there, as may be or appears to be the case in this instance," Conyers said.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., compared the commutation to the pardons issued by President George H.W. Bush in the Iran-Contra affair, arguing that both excused actions that "frustrated a legitimate investigation, and the pardons guaranteed ... that that investigation could go no further."

Republicans angrily derided the hearing as a partisan stunt that could accomplish nothing, since the president has inherent constitutional authority to pardon or grant clemency to whomever he wishes.

"What's going on here today is more braying at the moon by my friends on the other side of the aisle, who spend more time looking into real or imagined misconduct on the part of the Bush administration, rather than doing the job that we were elected to do," said Sen. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., said Democrats were right that Bush might have handled the matter differently, but added: "The big difference is, he's the president and you're not, and he made the judgment to exercise his constitutional authority the way he did."

At one point the hearing degenerated into name-calling, as Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., accused Plame of lying to the Judiciary Committee during testimony in March when she said she had not tapped her husband to travel to Niger for the fact-finding mission that led to his op-ed questioning Bush's Iraq war claims.

"This is yet a further smear of my wife's good name and my good name," Wilson loudly protested later, as Issa objected repeatedly and Conyers fought to gain control of the hearing.


Relatives of Firefighters Blast Giuliani
Relatives of Firefighters Blast Giuliani

Relatives of firefighters killed at the World Trade Center in 2001 reproached Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani in a video Wednesday, pairing footage of the falling twin towers with charges that the city's former mayor was woefully unprepared for Sept. 11, causing needless firefighter deaths.

The parents and siblings of some of the 343 firefighters killed in the terrorist attacks released the video with the International Association of Fire Fighters, which opposes Giuliani's candidacy.

Giuliani's campaign denounced the images, saying that the former mayor had a long history of supporting firefighters' health and safety and that the international union releasing the video only supports Democratic presidential candidates.

Fire union officials and family members, repeating claims they had made for months, charged Giuliani pushed for a faster cleanup of ground zero at the expense of finding remains, put an emergency center in a building that collapsed on Sept. 11 and failed to provide working radios for firefighters, making it impossible for them to learn the towers were on the verge of collapse.

"Virtually the whole thing goes back to him with the radios," Jim Riches, a deputy fire chief whose son was killed on Sept. 11, says in the video. "He's the guy on the top, and he's the guy you yell at.

"He takes the hit. And my son is dead because of it."

Giuliani's camp called the video a "mockumentary." Giuliani campaign spokesman Michael McKeon said the union leadership "makes Michael Moore look like Edward R. Murrow."

Former New York firefighter Lee Ielpi, whose son died on Sept. 11, and former Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Richard Sheirer appeared at a news conference with McKeon, calling the video a "disgrace" and saying it is full of "half-truths."

Ielpi disputed claims made in the tape that workers searching for remains were pulled from the rubble, arguing that Giuliani allowed some workers to return. Similarly, Sheirer said it wasn't the radios that didn't work but rather a high-rise signal transmission system that didn't work in one of the towers but worked "perfectly" in the other tower, until it crashed to the ground.

"I was there. I saw it. I experienced it," said Ielpi, who worked at ground zero for the nine-month cleanup. "I'm not going to let lies like this go."

But the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Harold Schaitberger, said that Giuliani is opposed by firefighters on both sides of the aisle.

"Giuliani's biggest problem is that this video is a bipartisan condemnation of his record on 9/11," Schaitberger said.

The 13-minute video was being distributed to the union's 280,000 members, to the news media and online.

It includes statements from leaders of the city's two largest firefighter unions, who say Giuliani became rich and famous on his image as a post-Sept. 11 hero while ignoring firefighters' needs.

"This image of Rudy Giuliani as America's mayor, it's a myth," said Steve Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which represents about 9,000 firefighters.

Cassidy said that his union supported George Bush in the last election and had supported George Pataki for governor of New York.

"It's not about Republicans, it's about this Republican," he said.

Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, says in the video that Giuliani's image is more important to him than the needs of firefighters.

"He's making millions, tens of millions of dollars on the backs of my members, as far as I'm concerned," he says.


U.S. border official says Bush can't fire him

U.S. border official says Bush can't fire him
Associated Press Writer

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- The head of an obscure agency that prunes trees along the U.S.-Canada border says he's entitled to a job for life under international treaties, despite President Bush's attempt to fire him.

In a letter dated Tuesday, the White House informed Dennis Schornack he had been fired as commissioner of the International Boundary Commission and the International Joint Commission.

But Schornack plans to fight the firing in federal court. Even though he was appointed by Bush in 2002, Schornack says the language of an 80-year-old treaty makes it clear he can't be removed from the boundary office.

"It says I can only leave in a coffin or if I hand in my resignation," Schornack said Wednesday.

Schornack's tussle with the Bush administration comes a few months after he began warning a Washington state retired couple that a concrete wall in their backyard was encroaching on a buffer zone along the border with Canada.

The homeowners, Herbert and Shirley-Ann Leu, live in the tiny border town of Blaine. In the Leus' neighborhood, the international boundary is marked by a drainage ditch; their neighbors across the street are Canadians.

In April, with the help of the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, the Leus sued Schornack. They asked a federal judge to stop the commission from removing the wall, arguing Schornack had no standing to impose a 10-foot buffer zone on private property.

The Justice Department took up the defense in U.S. District Court in Seattle, but Schornack also hired private counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based commission.

The White House and Justice Department declined comment on Schornack's claims Wednesday, citing personnel policy and the ongoing legal dispute.

The Joint Commission is a Canadian and U.S. board that oversees boundary waters issues. The Boundary Commission is the border's caretaker, enforcing the construction-free "vista" that extends for 10 feet on either side of the line.

Schornack, a lifelong Republican and longtime aide to former Michigan Gov. John Engler, was appointed to the offices by Bush in 2002. The job pays about $135,000 annually, Schornack said.

The commissions' U.S. offices are minuscule. Besides Schornack, there are four other employees. Until the dispute with the Leus, he said the boundary caretaking job was not very taxing.

"You had to write a couple of reports, occasionally inspect the boundary, decide how to spend the budget on a few projects," Schornack said. "And that's it. Not that hard."

Schornack said his problems began when the Leus' case landed in the hands of Justice Department lawyers who "are on basically a mission to pare back what they see as government intrusion into private property."

"I'm not an ideologue, and it seemed to me that I was being demanded to adopt the ideology of the Justice Department," he said.

Schornack said he tried to be sensitive to the Leus' concerns, but maintained that they should have known building near the border would carry restrictions.

Brian Hodges, the Leus' Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer, said Schornack was being far too heavy-handed.

"It's stranger than fiction," Hodges said. "Commissioner Schornack's hardheaded approach unfortunately justifies people's worst fears about government."


Bush orders former counsel to defy House committee's subpoena

International Herald Tribune
Bush orders former counsel to defy House committee's subpoena
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush ordered former White House counsel Harriet Miers to defy a congressional summons, even as a second former aide told a Senate panel Wednesday she knew of no involvement by Bush in the dismissals of eight federal prosecutors.

Contempt citations against both women were a possibility.

Democrats want to know if the prosecutors were fired at the White House's direction, perhaps to make room for Bush loyalists. Bush has denied that there were improper political motives. Federal prosecutors are political appointees, and the president can hire and fire them for almost any reason.

The confrontation between the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government over what the White House can keep secret could wind up in court, taking years and dragging on even after Bush leaves office in 2009.

House Democrats threatened to cite Miers if she refused to appear as subpoenaed for a Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday. The White House said she was immune from the subpoena and Bush had directed her not to appear, according to Miers' lawyer. Democrats said her immunity ended when she left her White House job.

Across the Capitol, meanwhile, former White House political director Sara Taylor found out what Miers may already have known: It is almost impossible to answer some committee questions but not others without breaching either the subpoena or Bush's claim of executive privilege.

After first refusing to answer questions about Bush's possible role in the firings, Taylor later told the Senate Judiciary Committee that she knew of no involvement by the president. Further, she said, she knew of no wrongdoing by administration officials in the controversy that has hobbled the Justice Department and imperiled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The developments whipped across Washington as part of a broader dispute over the boundaries of Bush's executive power and Congress' oversight duty. Democrats, in control of Congress for the first time in a dozen years, are probing whether the White House ordered the prosecutor firings in ways that might help Republicans in elections.

The Bush administration acknowledges that the firings were clumsily carried out but insists no wrongdoing occurred. Bush has offered to allow his aides, including counselor Karl Rove, Miers and Taylor, to be interviewed by congressional investigators — but only in private and without a transcript.

Democrats on the committees rejected the offer and subpoenaed Miers and Taylor to appear this week, a possible foreshadowing of what's to come for Rove.

In letters dated Tuesday, White House Counsel Fred Fielding told Miers' lawyer that Bush had ordered her to stay away from Thursday's hearing.

"Ms. Miers has absolute immunity from compelled congressional testimony as to matters occurring while she was a senior adviser to the president," Fielding wrote to Miers' lawyer, George T. Manning. "The president has directed her not to appear at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, July 12, 2007."

Manning, in turn, notified committee chairman John Conyers, and Rep. Linda Sanchez, chairwoman of the subcommittee on commercial and administrative law.

Conyers had previously said he would consider pursuing criminal contempt citations against anyone who defied his committee's subpoenas.

"A refusal to appear before the subcommittee tomorrow could subject Ms. Miers to contempt proceedings," Conyers and Sanchez, wrote back to Manning. "The subcommittee will convene as scheduled and expects Ms. Miers to appear as required by her subpoena."

At the same time, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy held open the possibility of contempt proceedings against Taylor if she does not answer follow-up questions posed during his hearing Wednesday.

"That's a decision yet to be made," Leahy said.

Taylor, eager to exhibit a willingness to answer questions but refusing to do so on many of them, revealed some details behind the firings.

"I did not speak to the president about removing U.S. attorneys," she said under stern questioning by Leahy. "I did not attend any meetings with the president where that matter was discussed."

When asked more broadly whether Bush was involved in any way in the firings, Taylor said, "I don't have any knowledge that he was."

She said she did not recall ordering the addition or deletion of names to the list of prosecutors to be fired. Taylor said she had no knowledge that Bush was involved in the planning of whom to fire, an assertion that echoed previous statements by Attorney General Gonzales, his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty.

On almost every question, Taylor hesitated as she considered whether answering would cross Bush's order to not reveal internal White House deliberations.

"I'm trying to be consistent and perhaps have not done a great job of that," Taylor said. "I have tried."

The committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, said that may not be enough to protect her from a contempt citation for failing to answer many of the committee's questions.


Jittery Senate Republicans get nowhere with White House on quick change of course in Iraq

International Herald Tribune
Jittery Senate Republicans get nowhere with White House on quick change of course in Iraq
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON: Nervous Senate Republicans beseeched the White House without apparent success for a quick change in course on Iraq as congressional Democrats insisted on high-profile votes calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops by spring.

Prospects for a less-sweeping, bipartisan challenge to President George W. Bush suffered a setback Wednesday when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said the leading proposal has "less teeth than a toothless tiger."

Taken together, the events pointed toward a 10-day period of politically charged maneuvering in the Senate in which Democrats push for a withdrawal, the White House's allies resist and a small but growing collection of Republicans — most of them facing re-election in 2008 — is caught in the middle.

"I'm hopeful they (White House officials) change their minds," Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, said after a meeting that National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley held with several Republicans in the Capitol.

There was no evidence of that — and the House Republican leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, was biting in his criticism of Republicans who have parted company with Bush on the war. "Wimps," he called them in closed-door comments confirmed by an aide.

Bush, one day after ruling out talk of any shift in strategy before fall, met at the White House with Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Both Republican lawmakers emerged saying that the administration's troop buildup had produced progress and deserved a chance to work, at least until Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, produces a widely anticipated report on the war in September.

The White House owes Congress an interim report later this week on the progress that the Iraqi government has made toward meeting a series of political, military and economic goals.

One senior U.S. official said the report will judge that the Iraqi government has partially met some objectives, failed to achieve others, and completed action on a few requirements for upgrading its military.

In a downbeat assessment, the nation's top intelligence analyst told Congress during the day that the troop increase had not created conditions that would allow the country's various groups to reconcile their deep differences.

"They (the violence levels) have not yet been reduced significantly," Tom Fingar told the House Armed Services Committee.

There were signs of crumbling Republican support for the president's war policy at every turn.

Sen. Gordon Smith became the first Republican to declare on the Senate floor that he will vote for Democratic-drafted legislation that orders a troop withdrawal to begin within 120 days, to be concluded by April 30, 2008.

Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Chuck Hagel have also said they will vote for the measure, and Sen. Susan Collins said she has not ruled out joining them.

Most Democrats are expected to support the legislation, but Republican opponents have vowed to block a final vote, and they appeared to have enough strength to do so.

The compromise legislation, backed by a bipartisan group of 12 lawmakers, draws on a report issued last winter by the Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker, a Republican, and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana.

Among its provisions is a goal of removing most U.S. combat brigades by the first quarter of 2008, with the exception of troops needed to train Iraqi forces, protect U.S. assets and conduct counterterrorism operations.

Reid spoke dismissively of the measure at a news conference. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has not been critical of the proposal, but nor is he a supporter.

Without the active support of either Reid or McConnell, the party leaders, the prospects of the measure succeeding are poor, particularly since it likely will need 60 votes to advance.

Across the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unexpectedly announced Tuesday night that the House will vote later this week on legislation requiring a troop withdrawal.

Republicans were critical. "The fact is Democrats have offered no plan for success in Iraq, indeed no plan at all other than to leave the country to radical jihadists like al-Qaida," Boehner said in a written statement.

The decision by Pelosi, as well as Reid's criticism of a potential compromise, underscored the potential political peril for Republicans facing votes on a war that has become deeply unpopular with the public 16 months before the 2008 elections.


Associated Press writers Anne Flaherty and Katherine Shrader contributed to this report.


White House, Democrats clash over prosecutor probe

White House, Democrats clash over prosecutor probe
By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The fight between the White House and Democratic-led Congress over fired U.S. prosecutors flared on Wednesday when one former official declined to answer a number of questions and another refused to even appear before lawmakers.

President George W. Bush, under fire on issues ranging from the Iraq war to immigration policy, claimed executive privilege on Monday to shield former White House political director Sara Taylor and former White House counsel Harriet Miers from having to testify to Congress about the dismissals.

"What is the White House trying to hide?" said Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating the Bush administration's dismissal last year of nine of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys.

Taylor, testifying under oath before Leahy's committee in response to a subpoena, apologized for calling one of the fired federal prosecutors "lazy."

But at Bush's direction, she refused to answer certain questions about the firings, which critics say appear to have been politically motivated -- perhaps even to influence investigations of Democratic or Republican lawmakers.

"I will answer faithfully those questions that are appropriate for a private citizen to answer while doing my best to respect the president's directive that his staff's communications be privileged," said Taylor, who stepped down as political director six weeks ago.

A short while later, Democratic lawmakers warned Miers she may face a contempt charge after her attorney advised a House of Representatives panel that the president had directed her not to appear, despite a subpoena to testify.

"The president must be nervous that Ms. Miers will accidentally divulge the truth," said Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales signed off on the firings as part of a plan that originated at the White House shortly after Bush was re-elected to a second term in 2004.

Bush and Gonzales have said the dismissals were justified but mishandled. With the support of Bush, Gonzales has rejected bipartisan calls to resign.


With lawmakers challenging Bush's claim of executive privilege, the battle will likely go to the courts unless the White House and Congress reach a compromise on demanded testimony and documents.

Caught in the middle, Taylor was guarded in her testimony but at times went on the offensive. "I don't believe that anybody did anything wrong or improper with respect to this issue," she said.

Taylor cited a letter from White House counsel Fred Fielding that advised her not to answer questions "concerning White House consideration, deliberations or communications, whether internal or external, relating to the possible dismissal or appointment of U.S. attorneys."

She declined to answer several questions, including whether she discussed the firings with White House political strategist Karl Rove and who had decided who should be fired.

But Taylor said she never spoke to Bush about replacing the prosecutors or attended any meeting with the president about the matter.

Taylor also responded when asked about an e-mail she wrote this year in which she said "Bud (Cummins) is lazy -- which is why we got rid of him" as the U.S. attorney in Arkansas.

"I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to Mr. Cummins," Taylor told the committee. "It was unkind and unnecessary."

Cummins was replaced by Tim Griffin, a former aide to Taylor and Rove.


Senate Republicans stop more leave for troops

Senate Republicans stop more leave for troops
By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a proposal to give American troops in Iraq more rest from battle, as Democrats renewed their attempts to change President George W. Bush's Iraq policy.

While the White House won this initial skirmish on a military policy bill, it lost the support of seven of Bush's fellow Republicans in the Senate's vote on requiring minimum rest times between troop deployments. Six of the seven Republicans who broke ranks are up for re-election next year.

Bush faces another challenge on Thursday, this time in the House of Representatives. Democratic leaders predicted they will pass a bill requiring the start of U.S. combat troop withdrawals within four months and completing it by April 1, 2008.

"My main concern is the readiness of our U.S. military," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who is pushing the legislation and thinks the long Iraq war is "draining" the army.

In March, the House passed a similar plan, which was not accepted by the Senate.

House Democrats hope passage of this bill, coupled with public opposition to the war, will goad the Senate into action on a similar measure setting an April 30, 2008 deadline for withdrawing troops. But passage there will be difficult because of procedural rules that likely would require 60 of the Senate's 100 members to approve it.

Several Republicans have signed up to co-sponsor the Senate withdrawal proposal, including Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Trying to calm dissent among a growing number of Republicans over the Iraq war, the White House dispatched national security adviser Stephen Hadley to Capitol Hill for the second straight day, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned lawmakers.

They urged senators to back Bush's determination to wait until September for an evaluation by Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, instead of embracing some lawmakers' attempts to impose change with a series of votes this month.

"Basically the White House position is we should wait to hear from General Petraeus before we take another step," said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee after a session with Hadley.

Seven Republicans joined 48 Democrats and one independent to vote for a plan by Virginia Sen. James Webb to ensure that troops, many of whom have endured multiple deployments to Iraq, get adequate time at home between tours of duty.

But that was still four votes short of the 60 needed given procedural hurdles erected by Republican leaders.


The Bush administration is expected to issue an interim report on Thursday on the situation in Iraq and how the government in Baghdad is performing.

"We will all hear the U.S. government's sober assessment of that tomorrow," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

The Senate did agree 97-0 on an amendment confronting Iran over its "proxy attacks" on U.S. soldiers. Sponsor Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, said Iran has been training and equipping gunmen who kill U.S. troops in Iraq.

"The Senate is blowing the whistle on Iran. We know what they are doing, we know it is resulting in the death of American soldiers in Iraq, and they better stop it," he said.

But at the insistence of Democrats, Lieberman added wording to say that this was not authorizing armed force against Iran.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan)


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sheehan launches Pelosi challenge

Yahoo! News
Sheehan launches Pelosi challenge
By PAUL J. WEBER, Associated Press Writer

Cindy Sheehan bid farewell to her former "peace camp" near President Bush's ranch and began a nearly two-week trek Tuesday toward Washington, D.C., with her sights set on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Sheehan, a Californian, officially announced that she intends to run as an independent against Pelosi in 2008 if the San Francisco congresswoman doesn't move to impeach Bush by July 23, the day she expects to reach Washington.

"I know what Californians care about," Sheehan said. "They don't care about the ruling power elite."

Sheehan first told The Associated Press on Sunday about her plans to challenge the top-ranking Democrat. She made it official Tuesday at Camp Casey, named after her 24-year-old son, whose death in Iraq first led Sheehan to set up camp in Crawford in 2005 to demand a meeting with Bush, who was on vacation at the time.

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said Tuesday that Pelosi's "focus is on ending the war in Iraq."

"She believes that the best way to support our troops in Iraq is to bring them home safely and soon," Daly wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "Democrats will continue to hold the Bush Administration accountable by having votes in July to change course in Iraq; to responsibly redeploy our troops; and to refocus our effort on protecting Americans from terrorism."

But Sheehan said that's not enough.

"You can't bring the troops home if you give George Bush $100 billion to wage this war," she said Tuesday. "You're not supporting them. You're keeping them in harm's way."

Sheehan says Bush should be impeached because she believes he misled the public about the reasons for going to war, violated the Geneva Convention with the torture of detainees and crossed the line by commuting the prison sentence of former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

After her announcement, Sheehan and about 20 anti-war protesters began their 13-day trip with a symbolic march to the edge of Crawford, where a billboard of Bush and first lady Laura Bush welcomes visitors.

Sheehan, who turned 50 on Tuesday, stunned fellow anti-war activists in May by announcing that she would sell her 5-acre Crawford protest site. She said then that she felt her efforts had been in vain and that she had endured hatred and smear tactics from the left as well as from the right.


Al Franken leads incumbent in fundraising

Yahoo! News
Franken leads incumbent in fundraising
By FREDERIC J. FROMMER, Associated Press Writer

Democratic Senate candidate Al Franken raised nearly $2 million in the latest reporting period, pulling in more money than both his Democratic rival and the Republican incumbent, Sen. Norm Coleman.

Franken, a comedian-turned-candidate, announced Monday he had pulled in $1.9 million in the second quarter of the year, covering April through June. Last week, Coleman, R-Minn., said he had raised about $1.6 million in the period, and Democrat Mike Ciresi said he had raised $750,000.

Ciresi, a wealthy lawyer, didn't begin raising money until May.

"It's unusual for a challenger to have this kind of quarter," said Steven S. Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "It is a very impressive showing."

Coleman still enjoys a healthy advantage in cash on hand, ending the reporting period with $3.8 million, compared to just under $2 million for Franken and $625,000 for Ciresi.

According to Franken's campaign, more than 95 percent of his contributions in the last reporting period were $100 or less.

Franken's emphasis on money raised from small donors could be a way to deflect criticism of "Hollywood" money, which he has tapped from friends and colleagues from the entertainment industry. In the first quarter of the year, scores of actors, writers, producers and others from that field contributed to Franken's campaign.

The extent of their support in the latest period won't be known until Franken files his report on July 15, but the campaign did volunteer that its latest contributors include actors Edward Norton and Meg Ryan.


Giuliani rejects medical marijuana use

Yahoo! News
Giuliani rejects medical marijuana use
By PHILIP ELLIOTT, Associated Press Writer

Presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani said Tuesday that people who want to legalize marijuana for medical purposes really just want to make the drug available to everyone.

"I believe the effort to try and make marijuana available for medical uses is really a way to legalize it. There's no reason for it," the former New York mayor said during a town hall-style meeting at New Hampshire Technical Institute.

He also said there are better alternatives.

"You can accomplish everything you want to accomplish with things other than marijuana, probably better. There are pain medications much superior to marijuana," he said.

"We'd be much better off telling people the truth. Marijuana adds nothing to the array of legal medications and prescription medications that are available for pain relief."

After a speech at the first of several stops in the first-primary state, the early front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination fielded questions. None dealt with the unpopular war in Iraq.

Instead, voters wanted to know about the failed immigration bill and Giuliani's views on climate change and health care.

Giuliani said promises of universal health care are hollow and simply not manageable.

"If you try to do socialized medicine, a la Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama or Michael Moore, you're going to end up with a disaster," he said.

He urged voters to press other candidates for specifics and to move beyond lofty language.

"We tried that before. We tried that with the `War on Poverty' and we tried that with welfare. Look what happened. We tried a simplistic solution and look what happened. We locked people into poverty. It was a tragedy."


NEW YORK (AP) — The leading Democratic presidential contenders will participate in a forum on gay issues next month, sponsored by a major gay rights advocacy group and televised on a cable channel aimed at gays and lesbians.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards have agreed to appear in the live, one-hour forum in Los Angeles on Aug. 9. The program is sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and will be broadcast on the LOGO cable channel. LOGO will also stream the forum live on its Web site.

Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden declined the invitation to appear at the forum, citing scheduling conflicts. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich have not yet said whether they'll attend.

Former Alaska Gov. Mike Gravel was not invited to participate because he did not meet a $100,000 fundraising threshold, HRC spokesman Brad Luna said.

Luna called the forum "a historic opportunity for us," noting it was the first time major presidential candidates had agreed to address gay issues before a television audience.

The candidates will appear one at a time to field questions on gay marriage, HIV/AIDS, hate crimes and other issues. HRC president Joe Solmonese and singer Melissa Etheridge will host the forum.

In the Democratic field, only Kucinich and Gravel support marriage rights for gays and lesbians. The major contenders oppose gay marriage but support same-sex civil unions that confer most of the same legal rights.


WASHINGTON (AP) — Four supporters of Barack Obama were getting a rare chance to dine with the Democratic presidential candidate Tuesday night, with one change to the guest list.

Florida firefighter Jennifer Lasko, chosen from among thousands of small-dollar donors, declined her invitation after local media reported that she used to be a man named John.

Aides to the Illinois senator said they weren't aware of Lasko's sex change before inviting her, but they encouraged her to attend after the news reports surfaced. Lasko decided that she did not want the attention that the dinner would attract.

"We would have loved to have her at the dinner with Senator Obama and the other guests," said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "We hope they have the opportunity to meet at another time."

The campaign invited Christina Cheatham, a rising senior at Georgia College and State University, to take Lasko's place. Cheatham entered the dinner contest with a $5 donation and was rewarded with an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, including a site-seeing tour and dinner at a steak restaurant.

She said she wanted to ask Obama about health care first, but also taxes, abortion and other topics that are important to her friends and family.

"I have a really, really long list of stuff," she said from her cell phone during a visit to the National Archives. "I'm not sure it'll all come up."


COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, missed a campaign stop in South Carolina on Tuesday to be with her mother, who was injured in a fall at her North Carolina home.

The wife of the former North Carolina senator was to open the campaign's headquarters here in this early voting state, but campaign manager David Bonior showed up in her place.

"Her mother fell yesterday in the bathroom and hit her head and she went to the hospital. So she's doing fine, but she wanted to be with her this morning," Bonior told a crowd of about 90 people gathered outside the headquarters.

Elizabeth Edwards' mother, Mary Anania, 83, lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. with her husband, Vincent.


Associated Press writers Beth Fouhy in New York and Nedra Pickler in Washington contributed to this report.


McCain campaign suffers key shake-ups

Yahoo! News
McCain campaign suffers key shake-ups
By LIZ SIDOTI, Associated Press Writer

John McCain's campaign manager, chief strategist and other senior aides quit Tuesday, the second major staff shake-up in a week for the Republican presidential candidate who trails his rivals in money and polls.

In a statement, the Arizona senator said Terry Nelson and John Weaver offered their resignations, "which I accepted with regret and deep gratitude for their dedication, hard work and friendship."

Nelson, a veteran of President Bush's successful 2004 re-election effort, said he stepped down as campaign manager and Weaver, a longtime aide who was a key player McCain's failed 2000 presidential bid, said he left his post of chief strategist. Both resignations were effective immediately.

Following the two out the door were political director Rob Jesmer and deputy campaign manager Reed Galen, officials said.

At the Capitol, McCain said he would "of course" remain in the presidential race, and disputed the idea that the staff changes marked a major shake-up that reflects his campaign's recent troubles.

"People are free to make their own assessments. I think we're doing fine," McCain said. "I'm very happy with the campaign the way it is."

Other officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid discussing private conversations, said Nelson was fired. But several people close to Nelson disputed that characterization.

Two officials said Rick Davis, a longtime McCain aide who ran the 2000 race, will take over the campaign and that other changes also were likely.

The shake-up comes just six months before the first voting in Iowa and as McCain, once considered the front-runner, seeks to regain some momentum with a diminishing list of options to lift his candidacy.

McCain's fortunes soured considerably this year as he embraced President Bush's troop increase for the Iraq war, an unpopular conflict with the public but one supported by most Republicans, and a bipartisan immigration bill that has divided the GOP.

Over the past six months, his donors and supporters were turned off by what they viewed as McCain embracing the policies of a lame-duck president with abysmal approval ratings. That caused McCain's polling and fundraising to suffer.

The campaign said Mark Salter, a senior aide whom some consider McCain's alter ego, will continue to advise him and the campaign without pay, an arrangement worked out last week. Earlier, officials had said Salter would cease day-to-day activities with the campaign.

McCain said discussions were ongoing about Salter's future role, adding, "he will remain actively involved in my campaign."

McCain hired Nelson more than a year ago to start laying the foundation for the senator's long-expected second presidential run. Weaver has been with McCain for at least 10 years.

"It has been a tremendous honor to serve Senator McCain and work on his campaign," Nelson said. "I believe John McCain is the most experienced and prepared candidate to represent the Republican Party and defeat the Democratic nominee next year."

Weaver said: "It has been my honor and a distinct privilege to serve someone who has always put our country first. I believe that most Americans will come to the conclusion that I have long known there is only one person equipped to serve as our nation's chief executive and deal with the challenges we face, and that person is John McCain."

As word of the changes became public, McCain was on the Senate floor defending the troop buildup in Iraq and contending that reinforcements had only just been put in place. He made his sixth trip to Iraq last week.

"Make no mistake. Violence in Baghdad remains at unacceptably high levels," but the United States and Iraq seem to be "moving in the right direction," McCain said. "The progress our military has made should encourage us."

Days ago, the candidate laid off dozens of staffers after lackluster fundraising and excessive spending left him with just $2 million.

McCain raised just $11.2 million in the second financial quarter of the year, which ended June 30. That was less than the $13.6 million he brought in during the year's first three months when he came in third behind Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.

In what would be a major strategic shift, the campaign said it was seriously considering taking public matching funds of about $6 million. But doing so could tie the campaign's hands by limiting the amount of money it can spend in individual states, particularly if his rivals forgo taxpayer money as expected.

McCain's popularity among Republicans has dropped since the start of the year, in part because of his support for measures in Congress that don't sit well with the GOP's base, like the immigration bill. He declined to participate in an early test of organizational strength in the leadoff state of Iowa this summer, and, the 70-year-old is fighting the perception that he is yesterday's candidate.

McCain's support in national polls has slipped. He is in single digits in some surveys in Iowa and South Carolina, trailing Giuliani, the former New York mayor; Romney, the ex-governor of Massachusetts, and Fred Thompson, the actor and former Tennessee senator who hasn't officially entered the race.


Monday, July 09, 2007

Many Vacancies at Homeland Security

The New York Times
Many Vacancies at Homeland Security

WASHINGTON, July 9 — Fully one-fourth of top positions at the Department of Homeland Security are now vacant, a problem that could make the country more vulnerable to attack, according to a critical report released today by a House oversight committee.

The report, issued by the majority staff of the House Homeland Security Committee, attributed what it called “the gaping hole in department executive resources” in part on “the over-politicization of the top ranks of department management,” particularly in critical national security jobs.

This, the report said, could lead to an unduly large turnover of department executives in 2009 when the next president installs his or her own team.

“This identifies an enormous security vulnerability should an attack or disaster occur during the upcoming presidential transition,” the committee said in a statement.

As of May 1, the report said, 138 of 575 executive positions at the department remained unfilled.

Vacancy rates were close to half in two offices — those of the assistant secretary for policy and of the general counsel — and about one-third in several others, including the office of the assistant secretary for intelligence and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

Vacancy rates of about one-fifth were reported in offices as sensitive as the Nuclear Detection Office, the Office of Operations Coordination, and Customs and Border Protection.

The department was created in 2003, bringing together 22 federal agencies in an effort to forge — or in some cases force — better inter-agency cooperation in dealing with terror threats in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, the new department’s shortcomings were revealed, leading to a reorganization.

The department has attributed the job vacancies largely to the addition of 73 senior executive positions on March 1. Before then, only 12 percent of top positions were unfilled, a department spokesman, Russ Knocke, told The Washington Post, which detailed the House committee’s report on the department’s vacancies today.

The House report called the department’s assertion “a false correlation.” It noted that 70 of the 138 executive positions unfilled were “vacant with no explanation,” while 44 percent were “under recruitment” and only 5 percent involved “tentative or ending appointees.”

But Laura Keehner, a department spokesman, said today that the House report’s numbers were “skewed.” She said that 70 percent of the vacant postings were “already in the hiring process and that’s in the final stages.” She also said that the department, which has 208,000 employees around the world, currently had 200 political appointees, of which about 40 percent were in senior management. Of the top 30 positions in the department, she said, only three were not filled at present.

The House committee’s analysis said that the January 2009 presidential transition would be deeply problematic. The report cited an article from The National Journal that noted that while the Pentagon, for example, has a large and steady cadre of career officers overseeing worldwide operations, Homeland Security “is still run almost entirely by political appointees and stands to be the most weakened during the transition.”

This reliance has been attributed partly to the way the department was cobbled together from diverse agencies with separate power bases, and also to the political horse-trading in Congress involved in its creation. But “in the four and a half years since the department opened for business, few career officials have been promoted into positions of senior or even middle management,” The National Journal reported.

Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the Democrat who is head of the Homeland Security Committee, asserted that the high vacancy rate and broader management problems had resulted in poor morale in the department.

In January, department employees reported the lowest levels of job satisfaction of 36 federal agencies, according to a survey by the federal Office of Personnel Management.

But the precise impact of the job vacancies on the department’s day-to-day work is difficult to gauge.

“To me, the issue is less vacancies per se and more whether they have the right institutional structure,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a security expert at the Brookings Institution. “For example, do they have a vibrant internal think tank and/or red team capacity? I can’t tell, but I’m skeptical.”

A “red team” attempts to anticipate terrorists’ plans and intent.

The department’s reputation suffered in 2005 after what was seen as FEMA’s grossly inadequate response to the hurricanes that battered of the Gulf Coast.

The report indicates that only one of 19 department offices listed had zero executive vacancies: the office of Gulf Coast reconstruction.


Sunday, July 08, 2007

Fred Thompson aided Nixon on Watergate; Tipped off White House that Investigating Committee new about the tape weeks before asking the famous question

Yahoo! News
Fred Thompson aided Nixon on Watergate
By JOAN LOWY, Associated Press Writer

Fred Thompson gained an image as a tough-minded investigative counsel for the Senate Watergate committee. Yet President Nixon and his top aides viewed the fellow Republican as a willing, if not too bright, ally, according to White House tapes.

Thompson, now preparing a bid for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, won fame in 1973 for asking a committee witness the bombshell question that revealed Nixon had installed hidden listening devices and taping equipment in the Oval Office.

Those tapes show Thompson played a behind-the-scenes role that was very different from his public image three decades ago. He comes across as a partisan willing to cooperate with the Nixon White House's effort to discredit the committee's star witness.

It was Thompson who tipped off the White House that the Senate committee knew about the tapes. They eventually cinched Nixon's downfall in the scandal resulting from the break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington and the subsequent White House cover-up.

Thompson, then 30, was appointed counsel by his political mentor, Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, the top Republican on the Senate investigative committee. Thompson had been an assistant U.S. attorney in Nashville, Tenn., and had managed Baker's re-election campaign. Thompson later was a senator himself.

Nixon was disappointed with the selection of Thompson, whom he called "dumb as hell." The president did not think Thompson was skilled enough to interrogate unfriendly witnesses and would be outsmarted by the committee's Democratic counsel.

This assessment comes from audio tapes of White House conversations recently reviewed by The Associated Press at the National Archives in College Park, Md., and transcripts of those discussions that are published in "Abuse of Power: The New Watergate Tapes," by historian Stanley Kutler.

"Oh s---, that kid," Nixon said when told by his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, of Thompson's appointment on Feb. 22, 1973.

"Well, we're stuck with him," Haldeman said.

In a meeting later that day in the Old Executive Office Building, Baker assured Nixon that Thompson was up to the task. "He's tough. He's six feet five inches, a big mean fella," the senator told Nixon.

Publicly, Baker and Thompson presented themselves as dedicated to uncovering the truth. But Baker had secret meetings and conversations with Nixon and his top aides, while Thompson worked cooperatively with the White House and accepted coaching from Nixon's lawyer, J. Fred Buzhardt, the tapes and transcripts show.

"We've got a pretty good rapport with Fred Thompson," Buzhardt told Nixon in an Oval Office meeting on June 6, 1973. The meeting included a discussion of former White House counsel John Dean's upcoming testimony before the committee.

Dean, the committee's star witness, had agreed to tell what he knew about the break-in and cover-up if he was granted immunity against anything incriminating he might say.

Nixon expressed concern that Thompson was not "very smart."

"Not extremely so," Buzhardt agreed.

"But he's friendly," Nixon said.

"But he's friendly," Buzhardt agreed. "We are hoping, though, to work with Thompson and prepare him, if Dean does appear next week, to do a very thorough cross-examination."

Five days later, Buzhardt reported to Nixon that he had primed Thompson for the Dean cross-examination.

"I found Thompson most cooperative, feeling more Republican every day," Buzhardt said. "Uh, perfectly prepared to assist in really doing a cross-examination."

Later in the same conversation, Buzhardt said Thompson was "willing to go, you know, pretty much the distance now. And he said he realized his responsibility was going to have be as a Republican increasingly."

Thompson, who declined comment for this story, described himself in his book, "At That Point in Time," published in 1975, as a Nixon administration "loyalist" who struggled with his role as minority counsel. "I would try to walk a fine line between a good-faith pursuit of the investigation and a good-faith attempt to insure balance and fairness," Thompson wrote.

When Dean began testifying on June 25, he implicated Nixon in the break-in and cover-up. But his testimony had little legal impact because it was his word against the president's.

During Dean's testimony, Baker asked the question that became the embodiment of the Watergate scandal: "What did the president know and when did he know it?" Thompson is sometimes credited with supplying the question to Baker.

The question was widely perceived at the time as an example of Baker's willingness to press for truth at the expense of his party's leader. Historian Kutler, however, said he believes that in the context of Dean's testimony, the question was Baker's attempt to point out that the evidence hinged on one witness's word.

It was not until three weeks later — after the disclosure of the existence of tape recordings that might either corroborate or disprove Dean's testimony — that Baker's question took on new meaning, Kutler said.

At a hearing on July 16, Thompson asked former White House aide Alexander Butterfield: "Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?"

Butterfield's confirmation of the recordings set off a cascade of events that led to Nixon's resignation 13 months later.

The question made Thompson instantly famous. His political Web site — — prominently notes: "Friends in Tennessee still recall seeing the boy they'd grown up with on TV, sitting at the Senate hearing-room dais. He gained national attention for leading the line of inquiry that revealed the audio-taping system in the White House Oval Office."

What rarely is mentioned is that Thompson knew the answer to the question before he asked it. Investigators for the committee had gotten the information out of Butterfield during hours of behind-the-scenes questioning three days earlier, on July 13.

Thompson was not present, but a Republican investigator immediately tracked him down at the Carroll Arms Hotel bar where he was meeting with a reporter. Thompson called Buzhardt over the weekend to tip off the White House that the committee knew about the tapes.

"Legalisms aside, it was inconceivable to me that the White House could withhold the tapes once their existence was made known. I believed it would be in everyone's interest if the White House realized, before making any public statements, the probable position of both the majority and the minority of the Watergate committee," Thompson wrote in his book.

Scott Armstrong, a Democratic investigator for the committee who was part of the Butterfield questioning, said he was outraged by Thompson's tip-off.

"When the prosecutor discovers the smoking the gun, he's going to be shocked to find that the deputy prosecutor called the defendant and said, 'You'd better get rid of that gun,'" Armstrong said in an interview.

The committee chairman, Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C., had agreed to allow Thompson to question Butterfield first at the July 16 hearing as a show of bipartisanship because a GOP investigator had elicited the initial information from Butterfield.

"Fred (Thompson) and Baker carried water for the White House, but I have to give them credit — they were watching out for their interests, too," Kutler said. "They weren't going to mindlessly go down the tubes for this guy."


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