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01.08.06

TOM DELAY, "USEFUL SERVANT":

Wow--Jack Abramoff is this week's Time magazine cover boy. Republicans who think Americans are tuning this out as typical inside-Washington hijinks are deluding themselves. The cover story by Mike Allen and Matt Cooper has some great details.

-White House aides are furiously hunting down any possible photos of Bush with Abramoff, and are combing visitor logs to determine the date and purpose of every Abramoff White House visit.

-The Bushies didn't waste a news cycle before they started dumping on Tom DeLay:

When legal and ethical questions began spinning around House majority leader Tom DeLay last year, President George W. Bush was publicly supportive. Privately, though, he questioned his fellow Texan's mojo.

Bush had scored 10 points higher than DeLay in the Representative's district in 2004, and that was only after Bush had recorded a telephone message to help rally local Republicans. "I can't believe I had to do robocalls for him," the President said bitingly to an Oval Office visitor....

Even before DeLay's announcement that he would abdicate his leadership post, top Bush advisers tell TIME, the President's inner circle always treated DeLay as a necessary burden. He may have had an unmatched grip on the House and Washington lobbyists, but DeLay is not the kind of guy--in background and temperament--the President feels comfortable with. Of the former exterminator, a Republican close to the President's inner circle says, "They have always seen him as beneath them, more blue collar. He's seen as a useful servant, not someone you would want to vacation with."

Gotta love the Bush family! "It's a pity, but we've had to let the butler go. Caught the fellow pinching from the silver drawer, don't you know. He never did strike us as a fully upright sort anyway. Right, ho!"

--Michael Crowley

posted 12:31 p.m.

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01.07.06

DELAY GIVES UP:

John Podhoretz can call this a "failure to understand politics," but I think Tom DeLay is more than finished as majority leader. I think he doesn't even return to Washington next January--whether it's by personal choice, political defeat, or legal doom. Conservatives tend to dismiss this sort of talk as the wishful thinking of liberals, but I say it's a realistic read of DeLay's falling poll numbers back in Texas, a conservative primary challenger on his right, a well-funded Democratic challenger on his left, the encroaching Abramoff investigation, and one too many stomach-turning stories like this one, which should smash any benefit of the doubt people want to give him to smithereens.

--Michael Crowley

posted 2:11 p.m.

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01.06.06

THE BELL TOLLS FOR TOM DELAY:

A brand-new Roll Call story says House Republicans Charlie Bass and Jeff Flake are circulating a petition calling for GOP leadership elections after the House reconvenes on January 31. The petition calls for "a special election to elect permanent representatives for any vacant leadership positions," a Bass spokeswoman says.

UPDATE: The Hotline's blog has some names of Republicans who have signed the letter, and also reports on rumors (denied by DeLay's office) that DeLay might permanently abandon his claim to leadership rather than face a fight.

--Michael Crowley

posted 3:01 p.m.

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RANDY 'BIG PUSSY' CUNNINGHAM:

In case Congressional Republicans weren't nervous enough after the Abramoff plea deal, here's a new article on Time's website, reporting that shortly before the announcement of his own plea deal, Duke Cunnigham pulled a Big Pussy and wore a wire:

Sources familiar with the situation say Cunningham, a California Republican who pleaded guilty Nov. 28 to taking $2.4 million in bribes--including a yacht, a Rolls Royce and a 19th Century Louis-Philippe commode--from a defense contractor, wore a wire at some point during the short interval between the moment he began cooperating with the feds and the announcement of his guilty plea on Nov. 28.

The identity of those with whom the San Diego congressman met while wearing the wire remains unclear, and is the source of furious--and nervous--speculation by congressional Republicans. A Cunningham lawyer, K. Lee Blalack, refused to confirm or deny the story, and wouldn't say whether Cunningham will implicate any other members of Congress. The FBI is believed to be continuing its probe of defense contractors involved in the Cunningham case. An FBI spokesman declined comment. Asked whether Cunningham, an ace Navy fighter pilot decorated for his service in Vietnam, had worn a wire, the spokesman said the response from a higher-up was, "Like I'd tell you."

You especially have to love that last line. The only thing better would have been if Cunningham's response was, "Get the fuck outta here." This really is turning into a Sopranos episode.

UPDATE: Doh! My reading comprehension skills are obviously lacking. A colleague points out that the "Like I'd tell you" line comes from the FBI. I guess I could see Agent Harris saying something like that.

--Jason Zengerle

posted 3:00 p.m.

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MAYHEM IN GAZA, CONTINUED:

I've been energized by the postings of both those who agree with my views expressed on the web in recent days and those who don't. I've also received e-mails from some readers and I want to pass on to you the gist of one of them. In my article, "Mayhem in Gaza," I express some admiration for Sari Nusseibeh. One of my correspondents dissents, pointing out that Nusseibeh had actually written elegiac praise for Umm Nidal Farhat, the mother of three (successful!) Hamas suicide bombers. It appears that raising them to kill Jews for the sake of Allah and Palestine was her purpose in life. Of her son Muhammad, she said: "I asked Allah to give me 10 [Israelis] for Muhammad, and Allah granted my request and Muhammad made his dream come true, killing 10 Israeli settlers and soldiers." This apparently moved Nusseibeh very much, and he said of the lady: "When I hear the words of the suicide bomber's mother, I recall the Koranic verse stating that 'Paradise lies under the feet of mothers.' All respect is due to this mother. It is due to every Palestinian mother and every female Palestinian who is a jihad fighter on this land." Forgive me, Sari, this is madness.

As for whether there is mayhem in Palestine or not, The Washington Post published this morning an AP dispatch by Ibrahim Barzak reporting that Palestinian authorities have released from prison and without charges Alaa al-Hams, a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, part and parcel of Mahmoud Abbas's own Fatah movement, who had kidnapped a British aid worker in Gaza and her parents. Of course, it was on al-Hams's behalf that hundreds of Palestinians broke down the barrier between Gaza and Egypt, a mob action in which two Egyptian soldiers were killed and some 30-odd injured. If the P.A. can't detain a kidnapper, it can do nothing.

Editorializing on Ariel Sharon's precarious perch between life and death, The New York Times opinion page finally came to its senses about the Palestinians: "Unfortunately, the failure of the Oslo accords and the Palestinians' own inability to rein in their self-defeating attacks on Israel have understandably left many Israelis with little appetite for more talk. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and his ruling Fatah Party seem ill equipped even to hold proper local elections, let alone negotiate a peace deal." And more: The Sharon approach to an arrangement "didn't depend much on whether the Palestinians ever got their act together--something they appear bent on proving themselves incapable of doing." If this is not mayhem in Palestine, what is? And if Israel has no partners with which to talk, it must move unilaterally, which is exactly what Ariel Sharon did.

Every time I see Jack Shafer's name, as I did on The Plank this morning, I recall him writing a nasty squib about me in the Washington City Paper some 20-odd years ago apropos my obsession with the Syrians thinking that Lebanon and other independent states (including Turkey and Israel) were actually parts of Greater Syria. Squib, squat. Now, Shafer knows just about squat of the Middle East, let alone the Syrians' view of their historic destiny. But recent events--like the Syrian assassination of Rafik Hariri after the nearly three decades occupation of poor Lebanon--also stirred my memory of Shafer's haughty ignorance. Did you, dear reader, know for example that Syria never had an ambassador in Lebanon? What does that mean about Syria's ambitions and designs?

--Martin Peretz

posted 1:31 p.m.

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THE ZARQAWI EFFECT:

After Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, Al Qaeda's man in Iraq, bombed two Amman hotels in November, Eli Lake observed that the terrorist had "made a strategic mistake." Namely, Zarqawi stoked outrage--significantly, Islamic outrage--among the people he seeks to mobilize for his holy war. Yesterday, after terrorist bombings killed 140 in Ramadi, an insurgent hotbed, the Zarqawi Effect apparently struck again. As The Washington Post reports, furious residents of Ramadi "did something they had never publicly done: They blamed al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgent movement led by Abu Musab Zarqawi":

The Ramadi residents responded to the attack with fury. Nearly everyone at the scene said they believed it had been ordered by Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq, considered the most ruthless and best-organized faction in the insurgent movement.

"People in this city helped Zarqawi a lot, and I hope this would make them change their minds," said Saad Abid Ali, a captain in the Iraqi army hit by shrapnel in the legs.

For the last several months, stories have dribbled out about discontent between Ramadi's Sunni-nationalist insurgents and Al Qaeda. In March, for instance, Iraqi insurgents kidnapped and killed a Zarqawist crew. And when Zarqawi recently staged a march in Ramadi to say he was the boss, a number of locals bristled to reporters. Anti-Zarqawi sentiment has also manifested in Sunni cities like Falluja and Latifiyah. It's a reassuring sign that the more Iraqis (and Arabs generally) get to know Al Qaeda, the more they want to kidnap and shoot its operatives. Good job there, Zarqawi.

All of this has two larger implications. First, Bush is wrong to say that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would "hand Iraq over to enemies who have pledged to attack us"--meaning Zarqawi, since Bush correctly seeks to draw the other Sunni insurgents into the political process. Not only would Al Qaeda fail to dominate the Shia south and the Kurdish north, there are increasing indications that the Sunni center-west wouldn't tolerate Zarqawi, either. That's very good news for us. Second, and relatedly, just because Sunnis are growing to hate Zarqawi doesn't mean they're growing to love the U.S. or the Iraqi political process we sponsor. Exploiting any Sunni-Zarqawi split requires far more political inclusion than the Shia and Kurdish leadership has so far been willing to provide (sometimes reasonably so). It also probably requires taking away the cardinal reason why Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda have been able to find common cause: our presence in Iraq.

--Spencer Ackerman

posted 12:10 p.m.

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MCCAIN'S STRANGE PARTISAN:

Earlier this week Hotline excerpted a dispatch on a forthcoming John McCain visit to South Carolina. Buried inside there was a stunning revelation. It quoted McCain's spokesman, one Richard Quinn. He described McCain as a "strong advocate for the [Martin Luther] King Day" in Arizona. What makes this so stunning? In the 2000 race, McCain took heat for working with Quinn, who once edited the neo-Confederate journal The Southern Partisan. You may recall that this journal published apologias for slavery and that Quinn once advocated voting for David Duke. During McCain's contentious primary race with Bush, McCain declined to distance himself from Quinn. He claimed no knowledge of Quinn's writings. But a lot of time has passed since then. By now, McCain should have taken the opportunity to thumb through Quinn's work. I'm sure that McCain very badly wants the presidency. Does he really want it this badly? (Here's a People for the American Way dossier on Quinn's revanchist politics that McCain might want to check out.)

--Franklin Foer

posted 11:16 a.m.

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SHAFER GETS RESULTS:

Jack Shafer says jump. The Wall Street Journal editorial page says how high?

--Jason Zengerle

posted 10:13 a.m.

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EXIT DELAY, ENTER BOEHNER:

The Washington Post reports that Tom DeLay has basically been embalmed by his colleagues--at least as it applies to his leadership post--and that John Boehner is ready to make a move against Roy Blunt to fill it. Last fall I wrote up a quick take on the man many Republicans consider a future House Speaker.

--Michael Crowley

posted 12:03 a.m.

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01.05.06

DEFINING CORRUPTION:

Today's Washington Post says it's tough to nail public officials for bribery, thanks to a key Supreme Court decision:

The legal standard for proving bribery is high because of a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in 1999 requiring prosecutors to show that gifts were given for specific government action. In the case, the court threw out the conviction of Sun-Diamond, a California cooperative accused of illegally showering Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy with sports tickets, meals and other gifts. The court said it was not enough that the cooperative had two regulatory issues before the department.

"The standard that was set forth in the Espy case set a very high bar for quid pro quo and corrupt intent," Gross said.

But was that really the last word? A federal case in Florida which occurred after that Espy decision suggests that the law is still murky--and that the earlier Espy ruling didn't seem to bother the Justice Department, which still proposed a very broad definition of corruption. I touched on this in an October TNR piece :

Most devastating for DeLay would be if the government could prove bribery: a direct quid pro quo in which DeLay carried legislative water for Abramoff in return for a junket. Given that DeLay and Abramoff were longtime personal friends and political allies, however, isolating specific favor-trading beyond the two men's symbiotic relationship won't be easy. But, even without proof of such a clear transaction, DeLay could be vulnerable to prosecution under what is known as federal "gratuity law," which requires a lower standard of evidence for conviction but still brings a penalty of up to two years in prison. (Bribery can bring a 15-year sentence.) "Federal gratuity law is extraordinarily broad," says former federal prosecutor Seth Rodner of the Tampa-based firm Fowler White Boggs Banker.

A gratuity-law prosecution might only require the government to show that Abramoff had some business interest in which DeLay was in a position to help. The feds would not need smoking-gun proof like, say, an e-mail from DeLay promising a House vote in exchange for a golf trip. For instance, in a 2001 case involving corruption by a Florida housing official, the Justice Department argued that, if an official accepted a gift from someone with an identifiable business interest, "the jury is free to find that a criminal violation occurred, even with no evidence of wrongdoing, inflated contract prices or other suspect dealings." Two of the three defendants were convicted. At the time of DeLay's British junket, Abramoff had countless business interests before DeLay's House, from bills that might regulate his gambling clients to proposed labor laws threatening his sweatshop patrons in the Pacific Marianas Islands. In that context, the 2000 British golf trip alone could be grounds for gratuity charges against DeLay.

As I understand it, the convictions in that Florida case were not based on any explicitly visible quid-pro-quo (no "smoking gun" email, for instance), but rather on a highly suspiciously link in timing between the awarding of Tampa housing authority contracts and financial transactions benefitting the head of the housing authority. You can read much more detail on this case here (scroll down past the photos). It would seem to have plenty of relevance to what's happening now. What I don't know is whether this ruling would have stood up to a Supreme Court challenge, and whether the Justice Department would dare apply a similarly broad definition of criminality in a case as high-profile as the Abramoff prosecution. I'd love to hear from any lawyers with thoughts on all this.

--Michael Crowley

posted 6:52 p.m.

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WHEN W. MET ARIK:

This small bit of insight into the Bush-Sharon relationship from today's Washington Post makes me think more highly of Bush than I have in a while--which is not saying much, I guess, but it's not nothing either.

Bush's statement last night referring to Sharon as a man of peace echoed an unscripted comment by the president in 2002 in which he publicly called the Israeli leader a "man of peace" during an especially tough crackdown on the Palestinians. Arab leaders at the time reacted with outrage at Bush's comment.

During a meeting months later, when the Israeli leader--who tends to speak in platitudes in formal sessions--began to say that he was a "man of peace and security," Bush interrupted Sharon.

"I know you are a man of security," Bush said, according to a witness to the conversation. "I want you to work harder on the peace part."

Then, using colloquial language that first seemed to baffle Sharon, Bush jabbed: "I said you were a man of peace. I want you to know I took immense crap for that."

There's a level of candor and self-awareness here that I didn't really think Bush was capable of.

--Noam Scheiber

posted 6:29 p.m.

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OUT OF THE MAINSTREAM:

My critique of the liberal blogosphere, I've noticed, has received a flurry of responses, not all of them friendly. Many of the criticisms can be answered by reading my original piece on the subject. It's not such a radical position, just a call for greater rhetorical precision and a modicum of argumentative restraint. (Kos has come to agree.) But there's one point that I didn't make clearly, or that I may have couched in too many ironic layers. People have taken my coinage "Mainstream Blogosphere" seriously. But I'll be the first to concede that it's a dumb, adolescent term. I simply wanted to highlight the stupidity of the ubiquitous "Mainstream Media." There are, of course, lots of liberal bloggers that I respect (e.g. Marshall, Yglesias, Drum) for their reporting, analytical capabilities, and writing. And they shouldn't be lumped with the likes of the ranters and cheap shot artists who I have critiqued. Similarly, CNN, NPR, and The Washington Post are very different beasts, who don't deserve to be polemically lumped together so often. That's just sloppy.

--Franklin Foer

posted 2:57 p.m.

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A MCCAINIAC'S LAMENT:

Matt Yglesias has a post gently chastising McCain for not pushing the Abramoff investigation harder. To which I say, amen. It is true that McCain and his committee propelled the story forward by releasing e-mail from Casino Jack's hard drive. And without his hearings, the spotlight might not be shining quite so brightly on this story. On the other hand... McCain has access to the mother lode of evidence--those hard drives--and has only released a small portion of its contents to the public. The whole story is lying there, and he hasn't given it to us. In my opinion, he wimped out by not calling Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed to a testify. There had been much talk that they would appear before his committee. In other words, McCain had the power to properly frame this issue: to expose Abramoff as a symptom of broader corruption. And, on this important count, he whiffed.

One other point. Yglesias credits Democrats with pushing this story. Other than the venerable George Miller, I'm not sure this is true. Certainly, on McCain's committee, no Democrat distinguished himself with tough questions. So, why aren't Democrats picking on other corrupt lobbyists? I'm not saying they have done nothing. But they haven't done much more than that.

--Franklin Foer

posted 2:31 p.m.

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THE POWER OF FAITH:

The Reverend Herbert H. Lusk II is an outspoken proponent of President Bush's faith-based initiative. He'll also be the host of a major rally this Sunday on behalf of Sam Alito--even though, as Lusk concedes to The New York Times, he's not exactly an Alito supporter:

"I don't know enough about him to say I actually think he's the right man to do the job," Mr. Lusk said in a telephone interview on Wednesday about Judge Alito. "I'm saying I trust a friend of mine who promised me that he would appoint people to the justice system that would be attentive to the needs I care about"--stopping same-sex marriage, assisted suicide and abortions for minors, and supporting prayer and Christmas celebrations in schools.

Talk about faith-based.

--Jason Zengerle

posted 11:06 a.m.

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SHIA VICTIMS IN IRAQ--AGAIN:

The gruesome Sunni killings of Shia go on and on. They went on today when some 50 innocents were murdered at prayer in Karbala. The truth is that there is no outrage or even polite disapproval from the Sunni world where this bloodlust nests. It is a fact of life, and we are by now accustomed to thinking it immutable. Like Sunni Palestinians kill Israeli Jews, Sunni Arabs also kill Shia Arabs. But in much greater numbers. After all, the latter are heretics. So why not? And, of course, the Shia do not have a Mossad. And they do not have checkpoints or barriers. To be sure, many people think that every conflict can be pacified by sufficient goodwill and ingenuity. Some American commentators believe, for example, that if only the Sunni receive their "fair" share of Iraq's oil revenues and their "fair" share of representation in the government in Baghdad and their "only fair" veto rights the mass murders will stop--that 30 Shia will no longer be bombed to death in a funeral procession at Miqdadiya. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq are not victims of anything except their delusions that they--in reality, a small minority of the country--were meant to govern because they are Allah's people and a majority besides.

--Martin Peretz

posted 10:29 a.m.

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BLOWN COVERAGE:

Here's how the Associated Press reported Middle East coverage of the grave stroke affecting Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon: "A politician and general widely despised among Arabs, Sharon received straightforward news coverage in most Arab papers and television services." And, from what I could gather, that's exactly the way it was. But straightforward is not how National Public Radio (NPR), sometimes called National Palestine Radio, covered the latest news from Israel. Ken Tomlinson was not wrong on this point at least. (He wasn't wrong on others either.) NPR's Jerusalem correspondent, the relentless Linda Gradstein--relentless in her animus to Israel, that is--had two guests speaking about Sharon. One was Hanan Ashrawi, the shrill and very marginal Christian Arab English professor from Ramallah, who spoke as if Sharon and his successor, Ehud Olmert, had not radically shifted Israeli policies about the territories. And, instead of what one might think would have been from the "other side," at least in elementary fairness, NPR presented the misanthropic left-wing Israeli novelist David Grossman sputtering the bile that only a very few still feel for Sharon in Israel. Grossman is a very isolated man in his own country. The great Israeli center--from the Labor left to the Likud center--had no representation on Gradstein's program. But it rarely does. Of course, haughty NPR doesn't deign to respond to its critics. But you can read what its critics say: www.camera.org. Often quite devastating.

--Martin Peretz

posted 09:32 a.m.

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01.04.06

JACK DRESSES DOWN:

For his latest plea down in Miami, Jack Abramoff had the good sense to trade in his black fedora for a tan baseball cap. He gets mixed results on dignity--now he resembles a not-quite-hip dot-com mogul. But at least he doesn't look like a hit man anymore.

P.S. John Podhoretz contends that yesterday's hat was Orthodox Jewish attire.

--Michael Crowley

posted 4:44 p.m.

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HYPERLINKED GRIEF:

In a story about the dozen dead West Virginia coal miners, CNN.com currently features a video link which reads, "Watch relatives weep over 'a miracle taken away' -- 3:21." Yeah, but cook up some popcorn first! Really, I've never understood why people sobbing after a tragedy even allow cameras in their faces; personally, I suspect I might berate, if not actually assault, the cameraman in that situation. But maybe people are just too overwhelmed to resist. All the more reason to grant them their privacy. At a minimum, can we not hyperlink to their agony?

--Michael Crowley

posted 4:37 p.m.

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JONAH, JACK AND AL:

Over at the Corner, which has generally blown off the Abramoff scandal, Jonah Goldberg professes to find the whole thing, well, kinda boring. "As it stands now, it's your basic K-Street corruption story," he writes. But when it ensnares a party figure as senior as Tom DeLay, when it promises to be a central theme of the midterm elections, when several members of Congress risk losing their seats--or even going to jail--how can that possibly be anything but riveting for a political junkie? I just don't get it.

Also at the Corner today, meanwhile, is an account of a rather bizarre (though seemingly admirable) appearance Al Gore made today at Grover Norquist's famous "Wednesday Group" meeting. I can't decide whether to interpret this as a sign that Gore definitely will run for president or that he definitely won't. Thoughts?

UPDATE: National Review has just posted an editorial calling for DeLay to abandon his ambitions to return to the House GOP leadership unless and until he can clear his name. It's nice to see that, institutionally, at least, NR is taking this scandal seriously. That said, I can't help but note that their editorial is framed largely in political and not moral terms. "[I]t would be a substantial political risk for Republicans to bring DeLay back to the leadership while the Abramoff cloud is hanging over him," the editors write, adding: "Republicans underestimate the potential impact of the Abramoff scandal at their peril." But it seems to me that the accumulation of evidence--none of it yet proven in court, I'll grant--reveals that DeLay was up to his neck in awfully unseemly activities, from shady financial transactions to an absurdly regal junketeering lifestyle, and that he richly deserves to be judged on those grounds, not simply on political optics.

--Michael Crowley

posted 4:03 p.m.

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A PICTURE OF JACK AND GEORGE?:

Although Jack Abramoff raised at least $100,000 for George W. Bush's reelection campaign, White House spokesman Scott McClellan is trying to put as much distance as possible between the lobbyist and the President. Per the Associated Press:

McClellan said Bush does not know Abramoff personally, although it's possible that the two met at holiday receptions. Abramoff attended three Hanukkah receptions at the White House, the spokesman said.

Of course, it's almost inconceivable that all Abramoff came away with from those parties was a stomach full of latkes. At some point, he must have managed to get his photo snapped with Bush. After all, that's the number one reason a lobbyist goes to those White House holiday parties: to stand in line and wait to get his picture taken with the president, so he can then hang that picture on the power wall at his office and impress his clients.

In other words, somewhere out there, there must be photographic evidence that Bush and Abramoff did in fact meet. Now we just need someone to produce the photograph. Did I hear the word bounty? Hey, if US Weekly can pay for pictures of Brad and Angelina, we can pay for pictures of Jack and George. A free subscription to the TNR Historical Society for the first person who sends us a pic of Abramoff and the president.

P.S. Mike Crowley points out that, while not quite as good as a picture of Bush and Abramoff, last night ABC showed some excellent video of DeLay arriving in the Saipan airport wearing a ridiculous Pacific-Islander cap and being greeted by Abramoff in the terminal with a big grin and a huge bear hug.

P.P.S. At today's press briefing, McClellan was specifically asked whether the White House would release any photos of Bush and Abramoff from the Hanukkah receptions. His answer: "I haven't thought about that. I'll take it under consideration." C'mon, Scott. That free TNR Historical Society subscription could be yours!

--Jason Zengerle

posted 1:43 p.m.

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HASTERT ENIGMA RESOLVED:

For years a debate has raged among the D.C. pundit class: Is Dennis Hastert an evil genius--secretly orchestrating every step of the GOP's congressional juggernaut--or is he every bit the schlub he looks like in public? I think that same Post piece Jason linked to settles the question once and for all:

With Abramoff's plea, that may change. In November, The Post detailed a fundraiser held by Hastert at one of Abramoff's restaurants that netted from the lobbyist's law firm and tribal clients at least $21,500 for the speaker's political action committee. Since then, numerous lawmakers from both parties have returned such donations, but only yesterday did Hastert join the line.

"While these contributions were legal, he believes that it is appropriate to donate the money to charity," said Ron Bonjean, Hastert's spokesman.

Turns out Denny Hastert is the only man in America who didn't realize this Abramoff thing was going to look bad when the Justice Department finally played its hand. Fortunately he's only, you know, second in line for the presidency.

--Noam Scheiber

posted 11:04 a.m.

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REVENGE IS A DISH BEST SERVED COLD:

So Newt Gingrich is calling for Tom DeLay's scalp. The Washington Post reports:

And former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called on House Republicans to elect a new majority leader to permanently replace Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Abramoff's most powerful ally in Washington, who faces a trial on unrelated criminal charges of violating Texas campaign laws.

"Unequivocally, the House Republicans need to select a new majority leader in late January or early February," said Gingrich, who cited revelations in The Washington Post that a public advocacy group organized by DeLay associates had been largely financed by Russian energy interests.

How psyched is Newt? Remember, DeLay was part of the failed coup that tried to remove Newt as Speaker in 1997--and after he was busted, he wasn't exactly Mr. Contrition. "The problems that created this are still there," DeLay said. "The next time this happens it will be even worse." Don't think Newt has forgotten. Well, at least there's one Republican who isn't too upset about yesterday's news.

--Jason Zengerle

posted 09:38 a.m.

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WOE IS NEY:

As if things weren't bleak enough for Bob Ney, now even the National Republican Congressional Committee is hanging him out to dry. NRCC spokesman Carl Forti, trying to spin that Republicans aren't nervous about Abramoff's plea deal, tells The New York Times: "I think there may have been some nervousness, but after reading the plea agreement today and seeing that only one person was named, there's got to be a little bit of relief out there." Yeah, relief if you're not that one person. At what point does the NRCC tap Ney on the shoulder and tell him that maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea after all to run for reelection this November? Or did they just do that?

--Jason Zengerle

posted 08:27 a.m.

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EXPANDING THE PLANK'S CIRCLE OF FREEDOM:

Acute observers of this blog will have noticed a new "Comment" link beneath each post. Yes, we finally have a space for you to talk smack to us. We wanted this new feature as badly as you. Please, feel free to tell us how much you adore our work.

--Franklin Foer

posted 07:05 a.m.

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01.03.06

ANOTHER WRINKLE:

Something that may be worth emphasizing: Tom DeLay was not cited in today's Abramoff plea deal. But a more detailed version of the plea released late today by the Justice Department appears to allege that one of DeLay's top aides was, for lack of a more artful phrase, on the take--while he was a senior figure on DeLay's staff. Some media outlets, most notably the Washington Post, have touched on this angle before. But I think this latest court document expands and advances it.

Let's start with the assumption of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that a certain "Staffer A" named in today's plea is the former senior DeLay aide Tony Rudy. The official bio at Rudy's lobbying firm notes that he was "a top aide to" DeLay "for over five years," and held such positions as policy director and deputy chief of staff. According to news reports, Rudy left DeLay's office in January 2001 to go work for Abramoff. Now, let's go to the expanded plea document:

[B]eginning at least in 1999 through January 2001, Abramoff and others sought Staffer A's agreement to perform a series of official acts, including assisting in stopping legislation regarding internet gambling and opposing postal rate increases. With the intent to influence those official acts, Abramoff provided things of value including, but not limited to, from June 2000 through February 2001, ten equal monthly payments totaling $50,000 through a non-profit entity to the wife of Staffer A. The total amount paid to the wife of Staffer A was obtained from clients that would and did benefit from Staffer A's official actions regarding the legislation on internet gambling or opposing postal rate increases.

There's been a fair amount of attention paid to Rudy's lobbying once he left DeLay's office. But this passage suggests that, in return for fifty grand* paid to his wife, Rudy quite explicitly did Abramoff's bidding while he still worked for DeLay. (Note that the document says Abramoff's clients "did benefit" from Staffer A's "official acts"; i.e., this wasn't a quid without a quo.)

Now, it's possible that Rudy, as a senior House leadership aide, had the power to make or break the legislation in question on his own. But doesn't it seem possible, perhaps even more than possible, that this would have required the complicity of Rudy's boss? At a minimum, the charge here is that Rudy turned DeLay's office into a vehicle for public corruption; could DeLay have been completely unaware of what was happening just beneath him? Throw into this mix a report that Rudy is considering a plea deal of his own, and the possibilities get tantalizing.

P.S. Reading the Post linked above more closely, I see that Rudy seems to have aided Abramoff by feeding him inside information on the fate of the internet gambling bill. I don't know if that constitutes what the Justice Department describes as an "official act," but it would admittedly be the sort of thing Rudy could have done without DeLay's knowledge. On the other hand, there's this very interesting passage from the Post article:

Abramoff's team realized there was no way to win enough support for a simple majority because they were down more than two dozen votes. Instead, they had to persuade the leadership to keep the bill off the House floor, despite intense pressure from [Rep. Robert] Goodlatte [R-Va.] and another backer, Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.).

On July 21, DeLay's legislative director, Kathryn Lehman, e-mailed Rudy: "Goodlatte and Tauzin asked Tom [DeLay] what they needed to do to get his vote, and Tom said to talk to you!"

*UPDATE: I initially misread this as ten payments of $50,000 each. My bad. (Thanks to several readers--the polite ones, at least!)

--Michael Crowley

posted 7:20 p.m.

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ABRAMOFF WRAP-UP:

The Justice Department's afternoon press conference on Abramoff was basically a waste of time. The principal spokeswoman, assistant attorney general Alice Fisher, had almost nothing new to add to the plea deal made public earlier today. I did note that one of her soundbite talking points seemed to be an insistence to follow the investigation "wherever it may lead," which was perhaps an implicit response to suspicions that political pressure could limit the investigation. But Fisher also revealed a somewhat troubling unfamiliarity with the pronunciation of Abramoff's name. (It's AY-bruh-moff--the first syllable rhymes with "hay," or, if you prefer: "Ney." Fisher kept saying it, as people often do, although not ones leading a massive federal investigation into the man, like the beginning of the word "after.")

So I was mainly struck by tangential things--like the realization, upon stepping out of my taxi, that the Justice Department lies directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from a fine dining establishment called... Signatures! Also, I was amazed at how complicated it is to visit the DOJ. After getting special passes, visitors line up outside a contiguous row of plastic portals--which look a bit like rounded phone booths--in the department's main lobby. After putting your bags through a metal detector, the sliding doors to your booth open and you step in. Only after one set of doors have closed do the others open, allowing you to pass through to the elevators (in the presence of an escort). During that brief moment when I was sealed in my glass booth, I half-expected to be cloned, or perhaps beamed onto the starship Enterprise. Even upon exiting visitors must pass through a similar security booth before reaching the street. These people are not kidding around.

One other frivolous thought from the day: Could Abramoff possibly have dressed for his court appearance any more like a gangland goon?

--Michael Crowley

posted 5:27 p.m.

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THE HOUSE THAT KANN BUILT:

Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal's parent company, has a new CEO. His name is Richard Zannino. Is this development good for journalism? He appeared in a piece that I wrote for New York on the company. This is how I described him:

In the building, some refer to [Zannino] as "The Garmento." That's a dig alluding to his prior career as an executive at Liz Claiborne and Saks Fifth Avenue, and to his supposed ignorance of the values of journalism. "They think I'm a digit-head," Zannino says. "People have a misconception of me." When I met him in the Dow Jones conference room, he looked every part the Saks veteran, down to his silver cuff links. This alone sets him apart from his fellow executives. Steven Goldstein, a former head of Dow Jones corporate communications, says, "When I was there, he was the person most likely to shop at Bergdorf."

I asked Zannino to describe the differences between Liz Claiborne and Dow Jones. "There are far more similarities than differences," he began. "They are all about serving readers, which are customers, understanding those wants and needs and doing it with a purpose in mind, doing it consistent with enhancing earnings and producing shareholder value." He paused a beat, realizing that he had skipped the all-important caveat. "The biggest difference is the impact publishing has on the world."

The outgoing husband-and-wife-team that ran the place, Peter Kann and Karen House, had many shortcomings. They couldn't come up with a decent plan to turn a profit, for instance. But they were part of the great Dow Jones tradition of elevating journalists to the corporate suite. Zannino represents a break with this tradition. In a way, it makes me sad to see the end of this practice. Nobody understands the expense and rhythm of journalism like a journalist. On the other hand, a newspaper needs to make money. Perhaps, Zannino will be able to do this. Since the Journal is a great paper, I hope he can.

--Franklin Foer

posted 4:21 p.m.

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MORE ON JACKAPALOOZA:

Two key grafs from the Washington Post about where things go from here:

Prosecutors are expected to seek information from Abramoff about official actions performed for his clients by the lawmakers, including DeLay, the former House majority leader, as well as by the former top Interior official, congressional aides and federal employees. ...

Investigating DeLay, who is facing separate campaign finance charges in Texas, could take up to a year and require the cooperation of other witnesses before issues surrounding the Texas Republican are resolved, according to people familiar with the case.

Like I said earlier, today is apparently just the beginning, not the climax some people had expected. Meanwhile, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington points out the likely identities of two unnamed characters in today's plea agreement: "Staffer A is likely Tony Rudy, former Deputy Chief of Staff to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Staffer B is Neil Volz, former Chief of Staff to Bob Ney."

--Michael Crowley

posted 2:33 p.m.

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ABRAMOFF'S DAY IN COURT:

I just came back from the federal courthouse where Jack Abramoff entered his plea. (Unfortunately the not-very-large courtroom filled up right before I arrived and I spent much of the hearing cooling my heels in the hallway. But I did catch the end, which was apparently the most dramatic part.)

I'm still trying to sort through just what's happened today. But basically today seems to be the beginning and not the end. Although Abramoff's plea doesn't contain any bombshells--no mention or even allusion to Tom DeLay, for instance--he's not finished talking. At one point this afternoon Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle said she would "defer sentencing until such a time as the defendant has completed his cooperation." To which Abramoff's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, added: "The plea envisions that Mr. Abramoff will continue his cooperation."

Abramoff himself looked haggard--paler and heavier than when I interviewed him last April. That look of ultra-contrition he's mastered--the furrowed brow, the I've- been-a-bad-boy frown--was on full display. At the hearing's climactic moment, soon after Abramoff agreed to surrender his passport, he stood to address the judge, and, in a soft and almost pleading voice, declared his "profound regret" for the things he had done. "Words will not be able to express my sorrow for this and other actions," Abramoff said. "For all my remaining days, I'll feel tremendous sorrow." Abramoff, who has always presented himself as an extremely religious man, added that he's seeking "forgiveness from the Almighty." From where I sat, judge Huvell looked distinctly unimpressed--impatient, even--with this show of remorse.

After that, Abramoff donned a black trench coat and, with a black fedora in hand (perhaps not the wisest fashion symbolism), marched past a huge gauntlet of reporters outside the courtroom. If I heard correctly he was released on a $2 million bond. He looked straight ahead and took no questions; Lowell made no statement. With the hacks and cameramen in fast pursuit, Abramoff and Lowell ducked into a black sedan and drove off.

P.S. A 3 p.m. Justice Department press conference should shed more light on things. I'm hoping to attend.

--Michael Crowley

posted 1:34 p.m.

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ABRAMOFF'S PLEA:

Excerpts from the "criminal information" filed by the Justice Department this morning:

From at least as early as 1997 through at least 2004, in the District of Columbia and elsewhere, the defendant, Jack A. Abramoff, did knowingly conspire and agree with [Michael] Scanlon and others to ...

corruptly give, offer and promise things of value, including money, meals, trips and entertainment, to public officials and their relatives to influence, and in return for agreements to perform, official acts benefitting defendant ABRAMOFF, Scanlon, and their clients. ...

knowingly cause former senior Congressional staff members to make, with the intent to influence, communications to and appearances before Members of Congress, their employees and employees of Congressional Committees, on matters on which the former congressional staff members were seeking official action on behalf of other persons within one year of the Congressional staff members' employment by those Members of Congress or Congressional Committees. ...

Having given the document a quick first read, it looks to me like mainly a summary of the Abramoff-Scanlon scam of Indian tribes. The above passages hint at widespread political corruption, but there are few other details. The one short section that gets specific about "Bribery and Honest Services Fraud Involving Public Officials" seems to deal specifically with Representative Bob Ney, who was already more or less slaughtered by Michael Scanlon's plea agreement of a few weeks ago. I'm not sure what this means. But I'm headed down to the courthouse for Abramoff's plea--more when I'm back.

P.S. Josh Marshall has linked to the whole document. Our lawyer-readers are more than encouraged to send thoughts.

MORE: Here's a clearer wording of one of the charges excerpted above. It seems the feds are going after some former Hill staffers for violating the federal one-year "cooling off" period required before former staff can lobby:

Defendant ABRAMOFF and others would hire senior congressional staff members as lobbyists, and those former congressional staff members, with the knowledge and encouragement of defendant ABRAMOFF and others despite the federal one year lobbying ban, would communicate with their former employers, either Members of Congress or Congressional Committees, and their staffs, in order to influence official action.

--Michael Crowley

posted 11:32 a.m.

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ABRAMOFF MAKES A DEAL:

The Times has a fresh report up saying that Jack Abramoff has reached a plea deal. No word yet on whom he may implicate--but one of the three charges he's reportedly copping to is "public corruption," which presumably means there are specific public officials he's admitting to having corrupted. Needless to say we'll be following this closely.

--Michael Crowley

posted 09:43 a.m.

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THE CONTINUING ADVENTURES OF MARION BARRY:

Call me cynical, but something tells me there will be more to this story.

--Jason Zengerle

posted 09:38 a.m.

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THE MSB STRIKES BACK:

Atrios and Armando have taken the bait and responded to my critique of the MSB. This is the nub of Atrios's response: "The Left wants to the press to do a better job, the Right wants to undercut their credibility." In theory, he might be right. But in practice... well, let's just examine other posts on Atrios's site yesterday. He says, "Our media elite are so goddamn clueless. Or liars. I can't even tell." In another post, he adds, "2005 was the year the president declared he was the law, and few of our elite opinion makers and shapers bothered to notice, or care."

For the record, I agree with much of his brief. The press was slow to comprehend the radicalism of the Bush administration. It was lazy in pointing out its lies, especially in the Bush economic agenda. But, here's the thing. Atrios's splenetic rhetoric about the press is so sweeping, so over-the-top that it does "undercut" the media's credibility--and his own intellectual bona fides. With that kind of imprecise populism, I frankly have a hard time separating Atrios from Bernie Goldberg.

Finally, Atrios goes ad hominem. (What took you so long, fella?) He writes, "I think at this point the only explanation is that the New Republic is about to go belly up and all their writers are angling for jobs. I know Foer in particular is smarter than this." Thanks for the compliment. And excellent scoop on TNR. I hadn't heard that. But Atrios has such a long record of breaking stories that I can't afford to ignore him. Luckily, I've kissed the Times' ass by publishing this famous puff piece on Judy Miller and wrote this love letter to Pinch.

--Franklin Foer

posted 07:14 a.m.

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01.02.06

THE COUNTERINSURGENCY, UP CLOSE:

This week's U.S. News has a very good article by Julian Barnes (who, full disclosure, is married to our deputy editor Kate Marsh) about the successful efforts of an American Army Major to crack an insurgent cell in Mosul. It's not always a pretty picture: to get usable intelligence from one captured insurgent, the American Major goes against the wishes of his superiors and hands the detainee over to an Iraqi colleague who was once an interrogator in Saddam's army; Barnes raises the possibility that the Iraqi interrogator tortures the detainee in order to get him to talk. But it's a realistic picture of how the war is being fought right now. It's also a great read. You can check it out here.

--Jason Zengerle

posted 3:20 p.m.

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SAM ALITO: SO WHAT IF HE DOESN'T "CHANGE HIS UNDERWEAR"?:

Today's Times has some interesting spin from an Alito supporter close to the White House:

[T]wo of Judge Alito's supporters who participated in the murder boards, speaking about the confidential sessions on condition of anonymity for fear of White House reprisals, said they emerged convinced that his demeanor was a political asset because it gave him an Everyman appeal.

"He will have a couple hairs out of place," one participant said. "I am not sure his glasses fit his facial features. He might not wear the right color tie. He won't be tanned. He will look like he is from New Jersey, because he is. ..."

The supporter went on to allow that, "Maybe the American people don't want a Supreme Court justice who 'makes babies cry,' who 'drinks maple syrup straight from the bottle,' and 'leaves old dried-up deoderant cakes under his arm for weeks at a time.' ... But I think they're going to like this guy."

--Noam Scheiber

P.S. As my colleague Mike Crowley notes, the White House seems pretty intent on lowering expectations for Alito. Judging from this article, the effort should be considered a success.

posted 12:06 p.m.

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OY, THE MSB:

Last month, I wrote a column against the Mainstream Blogosphere. I argued that the MSB has made a grave mistake in relentlessly attacking the credibility of the New York Times and Washington Post. For decades, conservatives have been trying to shred these institutions. Now, the left-wing bloggers have made common cause with the media's conservative critics, trying to bring down the "mainstream media." The NSA domestic spy story has provided a powerful case study in why the left's attack is so dangerous. Here, the Times has exposed an important example of Bush's imperial presidency, a potentially pernicious violation of civil liberties. Instead of praising the Times for excellent reportage and bravely bucking presidential pleas to bury the story, the MSB has heaped disdain on the Times. They have trashed the Times for sins ranging from throwing the election to Bush to turning a blind eye to these abuses. (Hey, Atrios: When was the last time that you exposed such a big story?)

These attacks should be meaningless, except they're not. The administration has now launched an investigation into the leak that produced the Times story. This is a dangerous case that could seriously threaten the ability of reporters to do their jobs. And liberals should be apoplectic about the threat it represents. But instead of apoplexy, many in the MSB are sitting on their hands. The Bush administration has opened a new front in its war on the press, and the press has no defenders. Thanks to the MSB's sweeping, reckless criticisms, the Times has lost much of the credibility and authority that it needs to mount a robust defense. For this, the bloggers deserve some credit. Well done, guys.

--Franklin Foer

posted 09:36 a.m.

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THE JEWISH CORLEONE:

I've been vacationing and am just catching up with my Washington Post reading. Boy, have they killed their competition on the Jack Abramoff story. Last week's biographical piece on the disgraced lobbyist begins with the following anecdote:

Jack Abramoff liked to slip into dialogue from "The Godfather" as he led his lobbying colleagues in planning their next conquest on Capitol Hill. In a favorite bit, he would mimic an ice-cold Michael Corleone facing down a crooked politician's demand for a cut of Mafia gambling profits: "Senator, you can have my answer now if you like. My offer is this: nothing."

Abramoff's character has always fascinated me. And this lede captures the fascinating essence of the man: He was a greedy son-of-a-bitch, but lust for money wasn't his prime motivation. Above all, he wanted to be a player, a Jewish Corleone. He wanted to help his friends and show the world his power. One source told me that he remembered Abramoff driving around D.C. in a big Cadillac convertible during the early '80s. His lavish Goodfellas suits were distinctly out-of-step with the prevailing fashions of Gucchi Gulch. In part, this may be a Mafioso fantasy that he began harboring in his Atlantic City youth, as he frolicked beneath the gambling tables.

Knowing this mobster streak helps unlock much of the Abramoff story. For starters, it explains his obsession with gambling. And if you want to play the role of gangster, then you will soon find yourself implicated in a story involving Gambino-bookies and day-light whacks. It also explains his sloppiness--his crude language, his braggadocio, his unnecessarily baroque money laundering schemes. Even when he had no need for front groups, he created them. They were, after all, great fun.

I'm so pleased that the Abramoff story is now breaking, but I wish that the press would jump on its broader implication. Abramoff's rise is amazing. But it says less about the man than the conservative movement. How did this obvious thief become one of the most powerful men in Republican Washington? What made the G.O.P. so vulnerable to his tricks and charms? That's the story that I want to read in the paper.

One last point. Back in the '90s Sue Schmidt took a lot of shit for her reporting on Clinton. Many liberals accused her of being a right wing shill. But she has written some of the best and most important Abramoff stories, pushing a scandal that could exact enormous damage on the Republican party. Now, I think her critics owe her an apology.

--Franklin Foer

posted 08:54 a.m.

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SERVANT OF JUSTICE?:

I can't believe I'm about to write this, but is it possible that John Ashcroft was a conscientious objector in the Bush administration's war on terror? I ask the question because of a coupleof recent articles in The New York Times. Yesterday, the Times reported that in March 2004, while Ashcroft was recuperating from pancreatitis, his deputy at the Justice Department, James Comey, refused to sign off on the continued use of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program. Comey's refusal prompted White House Chief of Staff Andy Card and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez to visit Ashcroft in the intensive care unit to see if they could get his approval, as was required under White House procedures set up to oversee the program. The Times reports:

Accounts differed as to exactly what was said at the hospital meeting between Mr. Ashcroft and the White House advisers. But some officials said that Mr. Ashcroft, like his deputy, appeared reluctant to give Mr. Card and Mr. Gonzales his authorization to continue with aspects of the program in light of concerns among some senior government officials about whether the proper oversight was in place at the security agency and whether the president had the legal and constitutional authority to conduct such an operation.

It is unclear whether the White House ultimately persuaded Mr. Ashcroft to give his approval to the program after the meeting or moved ahead without it.

Whatever transpired in Ashcroft's hospital room, it was around the time of his meeting with Card and Gonzalez that the domestic surveillance program was suspended for several months; when the program resumed, it did so under more stringent requirements--which suggests that Ashcroft played a role in trying to at least rein in domestic surveillance.

That wouldn't be shocking, given another recent Times article, this one a profile of John Yoo, who as a lawyer in the Justice Department provided the legal reasoning to justify the White House's warrantless domestic surveillance. According to the Times, Yoo wasn't a favorite of Ashcroft's:

Mr. Yoo built particularly strong working relationships with several key legal officials in the White House and the Pentagon. Some current and former government officials contend that those relationships were in fact so close that Mr. Yoo was able to operate with a degree of autonomy that rankled senior Justice Department officials, including John Ashcroft, then the attorney general.

Now I don't want to overstate the case, but it does appear that Ashcroft wasn't in complete lockstep with the White House on how to fight the war on terror. Which is disconcerting, since Ashcroft's successor, Gonzalez, is such a Bush toady. In other words, if the White House was doing this stuff when there was an attorney general who was exercising some nominal independence and providing at least a little pushback, imagine what it might be doing when the AG is so completely in the tank.

--Jason Zengerle

posted 08:21 a.m.

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