- March 27: Ordinary Americans are being denied services by private businesses, who are using lists of suspected terrorists provided by the Treasury Department to check the names of customers and deny access to people with names similar to those on the list.
Anti-terrorism and homeland security
The Office of Foreign Asset Control's list of "specially designated nationals" has long been used by banks and other financial institutions to block financial transactions of drug dealers and other criminals. But an executive order issued by Bush after the 9/11 attacks has expanded the list and its consequences in unforeseen ways. Businesses have used it to screen applicants for home and car loans, apartments and even exercise equipment, according to interviews and a report by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. "The way in which the list is being used goes far beyond contexts in which it has a link to national security," says Shirin Sinnar, the report's author. "The government is effectively conscripting private businesses into the war on terrorism but doing so without making sure that businesses don't trample on individual rights." The report documents over a dozen cases where US customers have had transactions denied or delayed because their names were a partial match with a name on the list, which runs more than 250 pages and includes 3,300 groups and individuals. Few of the people on the list are US citizens; however, anyone who does business with a person or group on the list risks penalties of up to $10 million and 10 to 30 years in prison, a powerful incentive for businesses to comply. The law's scope is so broad and guidance so limited that some businesses would rather deny a transaction than risk criminal penalties, the report finds.
- "The law is ridiculous," says Tom Hudson, a Maryland lawyer who advises car dealers to use the list to avoid penalties. "It prohibits anyone from doing business with anyone who's on the list. It does not have a minimum dollar amount.... The local deli, if it sells a sandwich to someone whose name appears on the list, has violated the law." Treasury Department spokeswoman Molly Millerwise says that businesses face "challenges" in complying with the rules, but insists that the department has extensive guidance on compliance, both on the OFAC Web site and in workshops with industry representatives. She also said most businesses can root out "false positives" on their own. If not, OFAC suggests contacting the firm that provided the screening software or calling an OFAC hotline.
- Tom Kubbany is one citizen victimized by the OFAC list. He is neither a terrorist nor a drug trafficker, just a mental health worker from Northern California with average credit and a successful home-ownership past. He couldn't understand why his mortgage broker told him lenders wouldn't touch him. When he reviewed his loan file, he found an OFAC alert provided by credit bureau TransUnion that said his middle name, Hassan, is an alias for Ali Saddam Hussein, purportedly a "son of Saddam Hussein." The record is unclear about when this Ali Saddam Hussein was born, but it was in either 1980 or 1983. Kubbany was born in Detroit in 1949. OFAC guidelines say that the discrepancy in birth dates signals a false match. Yet, Kubbany says, his broker decided not to proceed. "She just talked with a bunch of lenders over the phone and they said, 'No,'" he recalls. "So we said, 'The heck with it. We'll just go somewhere else.'" Kubbany worries that the alert will pursue him through another loan process. "There's a dark cloud over us," he says. "We will never know if we had qualified for the mortgage last summer, then we might have been in a house now."
- Another victim is Saad Ali Muhammad, an African-American and Islamic convert. Muhammad wasn't able to buy a used car three years ago; a salesman ran his credit report and found a reference to "OFAC search," followed by the names of terrorists including Osama bin Laden. The only apparent connection was the name Muhammad. The credit report, also by TransUnion, did not explain what OFAC was or what the credit report user should do with the information. Muhammad wrote to TransUnion and filed a complaint with a state human rights agency, but the alert remains on his report, Sinnar says.
- The lawyers' committee documented other cases, including that of a couple in Phoenix who were about to close on their first home, only to be told the sale could not proceed because the husband's first and last names -- common Hispanic names -- matched an entry on the OFAC list. The entry did not include a date or place of birth, which could have helped distinguish the individuals. In another case, a Roseville, California couple wanted to buy a treadmill from a home fitness store on a financing plan. A bank representative told the salesperson that because the husband's first name was Hussein, the couple would have to wait 72 hours while they were investigated. Though the couple eventually received the treadmill, they were so embarrassed by the incident they did not want their names in the report.
- The screening has become an "industry standard" in the apartment rental business, says James Maclin, a vice president at the Memphis-based Mid-America Apartment CommunitiesIt began about three years ago, he says, spurred by banks that wanted companies they worked with to comply with the law. Law professor David Cole has studied the list and at one point found only a single US citizen on it. "It sounds like overly cautious companies have started checking the list in situations where there's no obligation they do so and virtually no chance that anyone they deal with would actually be on the list," he says. "For all practical purposes, landlords do not need to check the list." (Washington Post)
- March 27: While it is well known that defense contractor Mitchell Wade paid bribes to convicted GOP House member Randy Cunningham that landed both men in jail, information is only now coming out about the direct connections between Wade's firm and the White House.
Randy Cunningham corruption investigation
In July 2002, Wade signed a contract "to provide office furniture and computers for Vice President Cheney." Wade's company MZM had only been approved for federal contracting two months before, and it appeared odd that the first federal contract it ever landed was with the White House. It has also appeared fishy that Wade has long bragged of his inside connections to Cheney.
- The contract was not for just office furniture and computers, as previously reported. According to the newly released book The Wrong Stuff, by Copley News Service reporters Marcus Stern, Jerry Kammer, Dean Calbreath, and George Condon, the contract was actually for screening the president's mail for anthrax and other biohazards. MZM received the contract just months after the anthrax mail scare shut down several offices on Capitol Hill -- an important contract by any measure.
- The contract might appear merely unusual until one puts together some more facts. In early 2002, Wade was still acting as a cutout for Brent Wilkes, another defense contractor awaiting trial on fraud and corruption charges in the Cunningham case. Wilkes was working hard in Washington to get into the anthrax-mail screening business himself. Wilkes's "in" was Republican House member John Doolittle, through Doolittle's wife Julie. Doolittle had already accepted fat "donations" from Wilkes, and in return greased the skids to get Wilkes, and later Wade, in line for lucrative White House contracts. Wilkes's flagship company, ADCS, was not having much success in selling its horrifically overpriced, underpowered document-scanner technology to the Pentagon, so Wilkes was branching out. Wilkes's idea, "MailSafe," was to have all Capitol Hill mail rerouted to a site in the Midwest, where ADCS employees wearing protective gear would scan the documents into computers and then e-mail it back to washington. Wilkes's idea was rudimentary at best, and the MailSafe company was little more than a crude Web site; he was in competition for federal contracts with several well-established firms who had long demonstrated the ability to scan mail. But those firms didn't have Wilkes's pull. The House Administration Committee, on which Doolittle sat, oversees the congressional mail system. Doolittle told his colleagues about MailSafe and introduced them to Wilkes, but the project never got off the ground. Interestingly, that committee was then chaired by Republican Bob Ney, a close crony of Jack Abramoff who is now serving time for his own fraud and corruption, Ney obligingly read into the House records a screed praising Wilkes -- as he had done before, for Abramoff associate Adam Kidan.
- So how did such a rudimentary, unproven company like MailSafe land a contract to screen the mail of the president and vice president? Questions about Wilkes's connection to Wade, Doolittle's and Ney's roles, and Wade's pull with Cheney, all remain unanswered. Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall writes, "The Wilkes-Wade business model was corrupting members of Congress and the executive branch in order to obtain pricey government contracts, often but not always for worthless products and services, and almost always stashed away in classified programs where the light of day could never expose their corrupt practices. And Wade's first contract was with the White House itself. So whose palm got greased?" (Talking Points Memo)
- March 27: Internal Justice Department documents show that DOJ officials tried to manufacture a number of spurious, but hopefully convincing, reasons why eight US attorneys were fired last year.
US Attorney firings
A November 2006 email between DOJ public affairs director Tasia Scolinos and senior Cheney aide Catherine Martin suggested that one reason could be spun around the controversy over illegal immigration. "The one common link here is that three of them are along the southern border," Scolinos suggested after reviewing a list of six US attorneys the administration was planning to fire. "You could make the connection that DOJ is unhappy with the immigration prosecution numbers in those districts." (At the time, the list of fired attorneys numbered six; a seventh was later added, and the eighth, Arkansas prosecutor Bud Cummins, had already been fired.) "Its only six US attorneys (there are 94) and I think most of them will resign quietly," Scolinos assured Martin. "I don't see it as being a national story -- especially if it phases in over a few months. Any concerns on your end?" Scolinos listed six US attorneys, and suggested that Martin say they were fired over immigration matters. Three of the six -- Arizona's Paul Charlton, Southern California's Carol Lam, and New Mexico's David Iglesias, were from border states.
- Scolinos has insisted that no scheme of any kind was ever in place to justify the firings, and has continued to insist that her boss, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, had nothing to do with the early plans for the firings: "The Attorney General has no recollection of any plan or discussion to replace US attorneys while he was still White House Counsel." Scolinos has never admitted to her own role in the firings. According to documents released to the press from the DOJ, Scolinos sat in on at least eight and a half hours of meetings devoted to the subject, and she was also apparently involved in discussions about how to spin the story before the attorneys were fired in 2006 as well.
- In the case of Lam, the explanation about a failure to aggressively prosecute immigration cases doesn't stand up (it doesn't stand up for Charlton or Iglesias, either). Rather, Lam's firing seems directly related to her successful prosecution of powerful GOP House member Randy Cunningham. Less than a month before Cunningham pled guilty in Lam's prosecution, 19 Republican members of Congress complained to Gonzales that Lam was too lax on prosecuting immigration cases. When Lam notified the DOJ that her investigation of Cunningham's cronies -- in and out of Congress -- would be continuing, and that more high-ranking Republicans might be drawn in. Immediately thereafter, Republican congressman Darrell Issa began waging a media war against Lam. In May 2006, Issa leaked an altered, falsified document to the Associated Press which he claimed demonstrated Lam's laxity towards prosecuting immigration cases. Issa took his bogus allegations to CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight.
- The explanation worked for a brief time after Lam was fired. But newly released documents show that the Department of Justice was prepared to back Lam up in her fight against Issa at a time when immigration was a major political issue. The department had prepared statistics demonstrating that immigration-related prosecutions had gone up under Lam's tenure, to counter the media fallout from the falsified document Issa had leaked. E-mails between key Justice Department officials show that they had clearly taken Lam's side in the matter. Further, official DOJ job reviews indicated that Lam's office, which had devoted fully half of its resources to prosecuting illegal immigration-related cases, had "appropriate" priorities. The DOJ had even hoped to help arrange a meeting between the congressman and Lam in order to, in the words of one DOJ official, "ratchet down the venom coming from Issa." Lam thought the issue was settled, but instead she was fired, supposedly over her handling of immigration cases. (Truthout)
- March 27: FBI agent Dan Dzwilewski, head of FBI's San Diego office, was warned to keep his mouth shut about the firing of US attorney Carol Lam after he told a newspaper reporter her firing would hurt the agency's ongoing investigations and speculated politics was involved.
US Attorney firings
The threat to Dzwilewski came to light during FBI director Robert Mueller's testimony before the Senate today. Mueller defends the warning, saying, "I do not believe it's appropriate for our special agents in charge to comment to the media on personnel decisions that are made by the Department of Justice." Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein retorts, "I profoundly disagree. He was simply saying that it would affect cases that were ongoing. And I think he's entitled to his opinion." Feinstein is the one who relates the incident before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
- During the hearings, Mueller says he isn't aware of any damage to ongoing investigations by Lam's firing. Lam successfully prosecuted former House member Randy Cunningham on an array of high-dollar fraud and corruption charges; since her December 7 firing, the investigation surrounding Cunningham's influence in the defense industry has gone dormant.
- On January 13, the San Diego Union-Tribune quoted Dzwilewski as saying Lam was crucial to ongoing investigations. "I guarantee politics is involved" in her firing, he said. Feinstein says her chief counsel had called the FBI's San Diego office to verify the accuracy of the story. She says the office confirmed it was true "but they also said they'd been warned to say no more." (Reuters/ABC News)
- March 27: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gives a carefully parsed interview to NBC's Pete Williams, in which he stutteringly denies any wrongdoing in the firings of eight US attorneys and attempts to spin the entire controversy into an unwarranted attack on himself and his family.
US Attorney firings
(Interestingly, Gonzales flees a press conference earlier in the day after being peppered with questions about the firings.) The lies and contradictions to his previous statements are, of course, plain to see during the interview. Gonzales begins by whining, "Let me begin with the attacks on my credibility, which really have pained me and my family. You know, I have grown up -- I grew up with nothing but my integrity. And someday, when I leave this office, I am confident that I will leave with my integrity. The United States attorneys that were asked to resign were appointed by this president, they serve, like me, at the pleasure of the president. I asked for their resignation not for improper reasons. I would never have asked for their resignations to interfere with a public corruption case or in any way to interfere with an ongoing investigation. I just wouldn't do that. And if you look carefully at the documentations we've provided to Congress, there's no evidence of that."
- Gonzales repeats the line that his own Office of Professional Responsibility and the DOJ's Inspector General are looking into the firings, not to determine the truth behind the firings, but "to make it clear and reassure the American people that nothing improper happened here." He says, with unintentional humor, "I believe in truth and accountability, Pete. And everything that I've done is supportive of that principle. I directed the department to turn over over 3,000 pages of documents." (He does not address the fact that it took weeks for the DOJ to turn over the documents, and only after subpoenas were threatened; he also ignores the fact that many documents remain undisclosed.) "I've got nothing to hide in terms of what I've done," he says. "And we now want to reassure the American public that number improper happened here. If I find out that, in fact, any of these decisions were motivated, the recommendations to me were motivated for improper reasons to interfere with the public corruption case, there will be swift and -- there will be swift and decisive action. I can assure you that." People will be fired, he assures Williams.
- Williams asks him to explain the contradiction between his assertions of his non-involvement in the firings with recently disclosed e-mails that show he was, indeed, involved (see earlier items). Gonzales instead blames his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson: "When I said on March 13th that I wasn't involved, what I meant was that I -- I had not been involved, was not involved in the deliberations over whether or not United States attorneys should resign. After I became attorney general, I had Kyle Sampson coordinate a department review of the performance of United States attorneys. And I expected him to -- to consult with appropriate Department of Justice officials who had information and knowledge about the performance of United States attorneys. From time to time, Mr. Sampson would tell me something that would confirm in my mind that that process was ongoing. For example, I recall him mention to me that -- inquiry from the White House about where were we in -- in identifying underperformers? And there are other similar type reminders that occurred during this process that I'm going to discuss specifically with the Congress. I was never focused on specific concerns about United States attorneys as to whether or not they should be asked to resign. I was more focused on identify -- or making sure that the White House was a prop -- was appropriately advised of the progress of our review. And I was also concerned to ensure that the appropriate Department of Justice officials, people who know -- knew about the performance of -- of United States attorneys, that they were involved in the process." Gonzales's incoherence does nothing to explain his lies and self-contradictions. He continues, "Now, of course, ultimately at the end of the process or near the end of the process, the recommendations were -- were presented to me. There had been a lot of work done to review the performance of the United States attorneys. And recommendations were presented to me that reflected the recommendations of Kyle Sampson and of others in the department. And so there was obviously a discussion with respect to that -- that recommendation. And, of course -- having decided there will be changes, there was -- there was a discussion about how do we implement this change? And so that is in -- in essence -- the context of my involvement and the substance of my comments on March 13th. ...I was not involved in the deliberations during the process as to who -- who should or should not be -- asked to resign."
- Williams tries to rephrase Gonzales's sashaying, asking, "So you didn't get into the decision about specifically which U.S. attorneys to include on this list until the very end?" Gonzales replies, "Absolutely. Now, that's not to say that during the process I may not have heard about the performance -- or particular matter with respect to the United States attorney. For example -- we've already confirmed that Senator Domenici did call me about the performance of the United States attorney [David Iglesias] in New Mexico. The president -- the White House has already confirmed that there was a conversation with the president, mentioned it to me in a meeting at the Oval Office -- in terms of concerns about -- about the commitment -- to pursue voter fraud cases in -- in three jurisdictions around the country. I don't remember that conversation, but what I'm saying is during the process there may have been other conversations about specifically about the performance of US attorneys. But I wasn't involved in the deliberations as to whether or not a particular United States attorney should or should not be asked to resign. ...I don't recall being involved. Let me -- let me be more — more precise because I know that -- with respect to this particular topic, people parse carefully the words that I use. ...And -- and I wanna be careful about what I say. And, of course, at the end of the day, I will have the opportunity to present my story to the Congress, as will other DOJ officials -- Department of Justice officials.
- In flat contradiction to statements from other officials and from disclosed e-mails and documents, Gonzales says the White House "as far as I know...did not play a role in -- in adding names or taking off names." He then retreats to explaining the obvious: "Now, obviously these are -- appointees of the president. The White House was involved in placing them in their position. The White House would have to be at least informed if a decision was going to be asked -- to ask for people's resignation. There's nothing improper about that. And, of course, there's nothing improper about the White House communi- communicating, as a general matter, complaints about Department of Justice employees. I want to know if, in fact, the White House has received a complaint or has con -- concerns about the performance of a department employee, I would wanna know about it. And I'd like to hear -- I'd like to hear it from the White House."
- Gonzales continues to blame the firings on his underlings, saying, "I depended on the people who knew about how those United States attorneys -- were performing -- people within the department -- who -- who would have personal knowledge of -- about these individuals, who would have, based upon their experience, would know what -- what would be the appropriate standards that a United States attorney should be asked to -- to achieve." But when Williams asks the obvious followup question, "Given that, then how can you be certain that none of these US attorneys were put on that list for improper reasons?" Gonzales asserts, "I know the reasons why I asked you -- these United States attorneys to leave. And it -- it was not for improper reasons. It was not to interfere with the public corruption case. It was not for partisan reasons." In other words, he doesn't know why they were fired, he knows virtually nothing about their firings, but he knows the firings were proper.
- Williams actually drills down a bit, asking, "To put this question another way -- if you didn't review their performance during this process, then how can you be certain that they were fired for performance reasons?" Gonzales continues to two-step: "I -- I've given -- I've given the answer to the question, Pete. I know -- I know the reasons why I made the decision. Again, there's nothing in the documents to support the allegation that there was anything improper here. And there is an internal -- department review to answer that question, to reassure the -- the American people that there was nothing improper that happened here.
- Gonzales then repeats the old assertion that everything to do with the firings isn't in the documents released to Congress: "The -- the -- the evaluations of individual United States attorneys is -- is not solely contained within the documents. Obviously, people have personal observations, personal views that may not be reflected in those documents. Those will -- will be presented -- to the Congress at the appropriate time."
- Tiring of the chase, Williams tosses Gonzales a softball, asking why he has chosen to stay and "fight this issue." Gonzales gives a nicely memorized answer, without the usual stuttering and hesitation: "I think that every Cabinet official has to ask themselves -- every day -- Is it still appropriate for me to lead a Cabinet department? It's something that I've been asking myself more lately than perhaps others. Because at the end of the day, it's not about Alberto Gonzales. It's about this great Department of Justice -- that does so many wonderful things for the American people. And our record here in the past two years in the area of civil rights, in the area of protecting our kids against child predators, protecting the country against terrorism, making our neighborhoods safe from drugs and gangs has really been outstanding. Also about public corruption. Our public corruption record has been tremendous. So we've done some great things. I believe that that can still continue. Obviously have -- I -- we have to deal with this situation with the Congress. We have to reassure the American people that nothing improper happened here. And I'm confident that -- that we'll be able -- be able to do that. But I also believe that -- that we can still move forward and still continue to do great things for the American people. And as long as I have the confidence of the president, I intend to do just that." (MSNBC [link to video], Chicago Tribune)
- March 27: Slate provides a useful table of "who's who" in the US attorney firing scandal.
US Attorney firings
The chart, linked immediately below, focuses on the prime players in the investigation, including Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales, Harriet Miers, Paul McNulty, Kyle Sampson, and Monica Goodling. (Slate)
- March 27: The current media slam on Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is that he refuses to give policy specifics and, therefore, is lacking in substance as a serious candidate.
Media manipulation and marketing by GOP
Today the Associated Press piles on, printing an article headlined "Is Obama All Style and Little Substance?" which falsely claims that Obama, a senator, has "delivered no policy speeches" while campaigning "and provided few details about how he would lead the country." The assertion is a lie. On March 2, Obama delivered what the Chicago Tribune called a "major policy speech on US-Israel policy," and numerous news reports indicate that in campaign speeches across the country, Obama has offered policy proposals on Iraq, education, the environment, energy, and health care.
- The article, written by AP reporter Nedra Pickler, itself disproves the Republican-friendly claim. In a trailing paragraph, Pickler writes, "Obama has offered a plan to get troops out of Iraq, beginning with a drawdown in May that would extended through a March 2008 goal of redeploying all combat troops. The plan is unlikely to become reality with Bush in office, but is what Obama says he would do if he were in the Oval Office today." Obama discussed his Iraq plan during his February 10 address announcing his candidacy.
- His March 2 speech gave a raft of specifics about what he would do to get US troops out of Iraq, how his policies would help "prevent Iraq from becoming a haven for international terrorism and reduce the risk of all-out chaos," and how US troops would remain in the Middle East. Obama's policy plan also includes what he calls "a robust regional diplomatic strategy that includes talking to Syria and Iran -- something this administration has finally embraced." Obama also discussed his plan for dealing with Iran, and went into detailed descriptions of his plan to handle Iran and its nuclear threat.
- Obama has frequently laid out detailed policy plans in the areas of education, environment, energy, and health care. Media Matters gives detailed excerpts to news reports of Obama's speeches, and links to more complete coverage. (Media Matters [multiple sources])