Another Bush Administration Official Indicted Over Abramoff

June 29, 2006

From The Washington Post:

An Interior Department official who has acknowledged receiving meals and tickets to sporting events from former lobbyist Jack Abramoff has been charged with filing a false financial disclosure report.

Roger G. Stillwell, an employee of the department’s Insular Affairs Office, was charged with a single misdemeanor count of making a false filing, according to papers filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court. Federal officials said he is expected to enter a guilty plea at a court appearance set for July 21 before Magistrate Deborah A. Robinson.

Stillwell is an officer on the desk that handles the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory whose government hired Abramoff as a lobbyist. The Washington Post reported in December that Stillwell was among the Interior officials whom Abramoff’s team tried to cultivate.

Stillwell could not be reached to comment yesterday, and his lawyer, Justin Murphy, did not return a telephone call seeking comment. Stillwell is accused of falsely certifying that he did not receive gifts from a prohibited source in a financial disclosure report filed in October 2004 covering the previous fiscal year.

Stillwell told The Post last year that he accepted dinners at Abramoff’s restaurant, Signatures, and tickets to Washington Redskins games. He justified those actions by saying they occurred while he was a contract employee at Interior, not a federal employee.

He told The Post that he had sent Abramoff copies of e-mails he sent to his boss. Stillwell said he saw “nothing wrong with doing that” because they did not contain confidential information. “I don’t feel it was a conflict of interest,” Stillwell told The Post.

During the 1990s, before Stillwell joined the Interior Department, his communications firm did work for the Marianas government, according to an audit by the island government.

Stillwell, a Democrat, said in the interview with The Post that he worked closely with Abramoff when their representation of the island government overlapped beginning in 1995.

Stillwell is the first Interior official charged in the probe. The case against him is being brought by the Justice Department task force investigating the Abramoff lobbying scandal, which includes criminal investigators from the office of Interior’s inspector general. Abramoff and three lobbying associates have pleaded guilty in the wide-ranging corruption investigation, which focuses in part on their dealings with the Interior Department and with Congress on behalf of their tribal and territorial clients.


Bush Administration Now Spying On Banking, Without A Warrant

June 23, 2006

From The New York Times:

Under a secret Bush administration program initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, counterterrorism officials have gained access to financial records from a vast international database and examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States, according to government and industry officials.

The program is limited, government officials say, to tracing transactions of people suspected of ties to Al Qaeda by reviewing records from the nerve center of the global banking industry, a Belgian cooperative that routes about $6 trillion daily between banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other institutions. The records mostly involve wire transfers and other methods of moving money overseas or into and out of the United States. Most routine financial transactions confined to this country are not in the database.

Viewed by the Bush administration as a vital tool, the program has played a hidden role in domestic and foreign terrorism investigations since 2001 and helped in the capture of the most wanted Qaeda figure in Southeast Asia, the officials said. The program, run out of the Central Intelligence Agency and overseen by the Treasury Department, “has provided us with a unique and powerful window into the operations of terrorist networks and is, without doubt, a legal and proper use of our authorities,” Stuart Levey, an undersecretary at the Treasury Department, said in an interview Thursday. The program is grounded in part on the president’s emergency economic powers, Mr. Levey said, and multiple safeguards have been imposed to protect against any unwarranted searches of Americans’ records.

The program, however, is a significant departure from typical practice in how the government acquires Americans’ financial records. Treasury officials did not seek individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions, instead relying on broad administrative subpoenas for millions of records from the cooperative, known as Swift.

That access to large amounts of sensitive data was highly unusual, several officials said, and stirred concerns inside the administration about legal and privacy issues.

“The capability here is awesome or, depending on where you’re sitting, troubling,” said one former senior counterterrorism official who considers the program valuable. While tight controls are in place, the official added, “The potential for abuse is enormous.”

The program is separate from the National Security Agency’s efforts to eavesdrop without warrants and collect domestic phone records, operations that have provoked fierce public debate and spurred lawsuits against the government and telecommunications companies. But all the programs grew out of the Bush administration’s desire to exploit technological tools to prevent another terrorist strike, and all reflect attempts to break down longstanding legal or institutional barriers to the government’s access to private information about Americans and others inside the United States.

Officials described the Swift program as the biggest and most far-reaching of several secret efforts to trace terrorist financing. Much more limited agreements with other companies have provided access to A.T.M. transactions, credit card purchases and Western Union wire payments, the officials said.

Nearly 20 current and former government officials and industry executives discussed aspects of the Swift operation with The New York Times on condition of anonymity because the program remains classified. Some of those officials expressed reservations about the program, saying that what they viewed as an urgent, temporary measure had become permanent nearly five years later without specific Congressional approval or formal authorization.

Data from the Brussels-based banking consortium, formally known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, has allowed officials from the C.I.A., the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies to examine “tens of thousands” of financial transactions, Mr. Levey said.

While many of those transactions have occurred entirely on foreign soil, officials have also been keenly interested in international transfers of money by individuals, businesses, charities and other organizations under suspicion inside the United States, officials said. A small fraction of Swift’s records involve transactions entirely within this country, but Treasury officials said they were uncertain whether any had been examined.

Swift executives have been uneasy at times about their secret role, the government and industry officials said. By 2003, the executives told American officials they were considering pulling out of the arrangement, which began as an emergency response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the officials said. Worried about potential legal liability, the Swift executives agreed to continue providing the data only after top officials, including Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, intervened. At the same time, new controls were introduced.

Among the program’s safeguards, government officials said, is an outside auditing firm that verifies that the data searches are based on a link to terrorism intelligence. Swift and Treasury officials said they were aware of no abuses. But Mr. Levey, the Treasury official, said one person had been removed from the operation for conducting a search considered inappropriate.

“We are not on a fishing expedition,” Mr. Levey said. “We’re not just turning on a vacuum cleaner and sucking in all the information that we can.”

Treasury officials said Swift was exempt from American laws restricting government access to private financial records because the cooperative was considered a messaging service, not a bank or financial institution.

But at the outset of the operation, Treasury and Justice Department lawyers debated whether the program had to comply with such laws before concluding that it did not, people with knowledge of the debate said. Several outside banking experts, however, say that financial privacy laws are murky and sometimes contradictory and that the program raises difficult legal and public policy questions.

The Bush administration has made no secret of its campaign to disrupt terrorist financing, and President Bush, Treasury officials and others have spoken publicly about those efforts. Administration officials, however, asked The New York Times not to publish this article, saying that disclosure of the Swift program could jeopardize its effectiveness. They also enlisted several current and former officials, both Democrat and Republican, to vouch for its value.

Bill Keller, the newspaper’s executive editor, said: “We have listened closely to the administration’s arguments for withholding this information, and given them the most serious and respectful consideration. We remain convinced that the administration’s extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest.”

Swift declined to discuss details of the program but defended its role in written responses to questions. “Swift has fully complied with all applicable laws,” the consortium said. The organization said it insisted that the data be used only for terrorism investigations and had narrowed the scope of the information provided to American officials over time.

A Crucial Gatekeeper

Swift’s database provides a rich hunting ground for government investigators. Swift is a crucial gatekeeper, providing electronic instructions on how to transfer money between 7,800 financial institutions worldwide. The cooperative is owned by more than 2,200 organizations, and virtually every major commercial bank, as well as brokerage houses, fund managers and stock exchanges, uses its services. Swift routes more than 11 million transactions each day, most of them across borders.

The cooperative’s message traffic allows investigators, for example, to track money from the Saudi bank account of a suspected terrorist to a mosque in New York. Using intelligence tips about specific targets, agents search the database in what one official described as a “24-7” operation. Customers’ names, bank account numbers and other identifying information, can be retrieved, the officials said.

The data does not allow the government to track routine financial activity, like A.T.M. withdrawals, confined to this country, or to see bank balances, Treasury officials said. And the information is not provided in real time – Swift generally turns it over several weeks later. Because of privacy concerns and the potential for abuse, the government sought the data only for terrorism investigations and prohibited its use for tax fraud, drug trafficking or other inquiries, the officials said.

The Treasury Department was charged by President Bush, in a September 2001 executive order, with taking the lead role in efforts to disrupt terrorist financing. Mr. Bush has been briefed on the program and Vice President Dick Cheney has attended C.I.A. demonstrations, the officials said. The National Security Agency has provided some technical assistance.

While the banking program is a closely held secret, administration officials have conducted classified briefings to some members of Congress and the Sept. 11 Commission, the officials said. More lawmakers were briefed in recent weeks, after the administration learned The Times was making inquiries for this article. Swift’s 25-member board of directors, made up of representatives from financial institutions around the world, was previously told of the program, but it is not clear if other participants know that American intelligence officials can examine their message traffic.

Because Swift is based overseas and has offices in the United States, it is governed both by European and American laws. Several international regulations and policies impose privacy restrictions on companies that are generally regarded as more stringent than those in this country. United States law establishes some protections for the privacy of Americans’ financial data, but they are not ironclad. A 1978 measure, the Right to Financial Privacy Act, has a limited scope and a number of exceptions, and its role in national security cases remains largely untested.

Several people familiar with the Swift program said they believed they were exploiting a “gray area” in the law and that a case could be made for restricting the government’s access to the records on Fourth Amendment and statutory grounds. They also worried about the impact on Swift if the program were disclosed.

“There was always concern about this program,” a former official said.

One person involved in the Swift program estimated that analysts have reviewed international transfers involving “many thousands” of people or groups in the United States. Two other officials also placed the figure in the thousands. Mr. Levey said he could not estimate the number.

The Swift data has provided clues to terror money trails and ties between possible terrorists and organizations financing them, the officials said. In some instances, they said, the program has pointed them to new suspects, while in others it has buttressed cases already under investigation.

Among the successes was the capture of a Qaeda operative, Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, believed to be the mastermind of the 2002 bombing of a Bali resort, several officials said. The Swift data identified a previously unknown figure in Southeast Asia who had financial dealings with a person suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda; that link helped locate Hambali in Thailand in 2003, they said.

In the United States, the program has provided financial data in investigations into possible domestic terrorist cells as well as inquiries of Islamic charities with suspected of having links to extremists, the officials said.

The data also helped identify a Brooklyn man who was convicted on terrorism-related charges last year, the officials said. The man, Uzair Paracha, who worked at a New York import business, aided a Qaeda operative in Pakistan by agreeing to launder $200,000 through a Karachi bank, prosecutors said.

In terrorism prosecutions, intelligence officials have been careful to “sanitize,” or hide the origins of evidence collected through the program to keep it secret, officials said.

The Bush administration has pursued steps that may provide some enhanced legal standing for the Swift program. In late 2004, Congress authorized the Treasury Department to develop regulations requiring American banks to turn over records of international wire transfers. Officials say a preliminary version of those rules may be ready soon. One official described the regulations as an attempt to “formalize” access to the kind of information secretly provided by Swift, though other officials said the initiative was unrelated to the program.

The Scramble for New Tools

Like other counterterrorism measures carried out by the Bush administration, the Swift program began in the hectic days after the Sept. 11 attacks, as officials scrambled to identify new tools to head off further strikes.

One priority was to cut off the flow of money to Al Qaeda. The Sept. 11 hijackers had helped finance their plot by moving money through banks. Nine of the hijackers, for instance, funneled money from Europe and the Middle East to SunTrust bank accounts in Florida. Some of the $130,000 they received was wired by people overseas with known links to Al Qaeda.

Financial company executives, many of whom had lost friends at the World Trade Center, were eager to help federal officials trace terrorist money. “They saw 9/11 not just as an attack on the United States, but on the financial industry as a whole,” said one former government official.

Quietly, counterterrorism officials sought to expand the information they were getting from financial institutions. Treasury officials, for instance, spoke with credit card companies about devising an alert if someone tried to buy fertilizer and timing devices that could be used for a bomb, but they were told the idea was not logistically possible, a lawyer in the discussions said.

The F.B.I. began acquiring financial records from Western Union and its parent company, First Data Corporation. The programs were alluded to in Congressional testimony by the F.B.I. in 2003 and described in more detail in a book released this week, “The One Percent Doctrine,” by Ron Suskind. Using what officials described as individual, narrowly framed subpoenas and warrants, the F.B.I. has obtained records from First Data, which processes credit and debit card transactions, to track financial activity and try to locate suspects.

Similar subpoenas for the Western Union data allowed the F.B.I. to trace wire transfers, mainly outside the United States, and to help Israel trace the financing of about a half-dozen possible terrorist plots there, an official said.

The idea for the Swift program, several officials recalled, grew out of a suggestion by a Wall Street executive, who told a senior Bush administration official about Swift’s database. Few government officials knew much about the consortium, which is led by a Brooklyn native, Leonard H. Schrank, but they quickly discovered it offered unparalleled access to international transactions.

Swift, a former government official said, was “the mother lode, the Rosetta stone” for financial data.

Intelligence officials were so eager to exploit the Swift data that they discussed having the C.I.A. covertly gain access to the system, several officials involved in the talks said. But Treasury officials resisted, the officials said, and favored going to Swift directly.

At the same time, lawyers in the Treasury Department and the Justice Department were considering possible legal obstacles to the arrangement, the officials said.

In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that Americans had no constitutional right to privacy for their records held by banks or other financial institutions. In response, Congress passed the Right to Financial Privacy Act two years later, restricting government access to Americans’ banking records. In considering the Swift program, some government lawyers were particularly concerned about whether the law prohibited officials from gaining access to records without a warrant or subpoena based on some level of suspicion about each target.

For many years, law enforcement officials have relied on grand-jury subpoenas or court-approved warrants for such financial data. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the F.B.I. has turned more frequently to an administrative subpoena, known as a national security letter, to demand such records.

After an initial debate, Treasury Department lawyers, consulting with the Justice Department, concluded that the privacy laws applied to banks, not to a banking cooperative like Swift. They also said the law protected individual customers and small companies, not the major institutions that route money through Swift on behalf of their customers.

Other state, federal and international regulations place different and sometimes conflicting restrictions on the government’s access to financial records. Some put greater burdens on the company disclosing the information than on the government officials demanding it.

Among their considerations, American officials saw Swift as a willing partner in the operation. But Swift said its participation was never voluntary. “Swift has made clear that it could provide data only in response to a valid subpoena,” according to its written statement.

Indeed, the cooperative’s executives voiced early concerns about legal and corporate liability, officials said, and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control began issuing broad subpoenas for the cooperative’s records related to terrorism. One official said the subpoenas were intended to give Swift some legal protection.

Underlying the government’s legal analysis was the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which Mr. Bush invoked after the Sept. 11 attacks. The law gives the president what legal experts say is broad authority to “investigate, regulate or prohibit” foreign transactions in responding to “an unusual and extraordinary threat.”

But L. Richard Fischer, a Washington lawyer who wrote a book on banking privacy and is regarded as a leading expert in the field, said he was troubled that the Treasury Department would use broad subpoenas to demand large volumes of financial records for analysis. Such a program, he said, appears to do an end run around bank-privacy laws that generally require the government to show that the records of a particular person or group are relevant to an investigation.

“There has to be some due process,” Mr. Fischer said. “At an absolute minimum, it strikes me as inappropriate.”

Several former officials said they had lingering concerns about the legal underpinnings of the Swift operation. The program “arguably complies with the letter of the law, if not the spirit,” one official said.

Another official said: “This was creative stuff. Nothing was clear cut, because we had never gone after information this way before.”

Treasury officials would not say whether a formal legal opinion was prepared in authorizing the program, but they said they considered the government’s authority to subpoena the Swift records to be clear. “People do not have a privacy interest in their international wire transactions,” Mr. Levey, the Treasury under secretary, said.

Tighter Controls Sought

Within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks, Swift began turning over records that allowed American analysts to look for evidence of terrorist financing. Initially, there appear to have been few formal limits on the searches.

“At first, they got everything – the entire Swift database,” one person close to the operation said.

Intelligence officials paid particular attention to transfers to or from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates because most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were from those countries.

The volume of data, particularly at the outset, was often overwhelming, officials said. “We were turning on every spigot we could find and seeing what water would come out,” one former administration official said. “Sometimes there were hits, but a lot of times there weren’t.”

Officials realized the potential for abuse, and soon narrowed the program’s targets and put in more safeguards. Among them were the auditing firm, an electronic record of every search and a form documenting the intelligence that justified each data search. Mr. Levey said the program was used only to search the records of individuals or entities, not for broader data searches.

Despite the controls, Swift executives became increasingly worried about their secret involvement with the American government, the officials said. By 2003, the cooperative’s officials were discussing pulling out because of their concerns about legal and financial risks if the program were revealed, one government official said.

“How long can this go on?” a Swift executive asked, according to the official.

Even some American officials began to question the open-ended arrangement. “I thought there was a limited shelf life and that this was going to go away,” the former senior official said.

In 2003, administration officials asked Swift executives and some board members to come to Washington. They met with Mr. Greenspan, Robert S. Mueller III, the F.B.I. director, and Treasury officials, among others, in what one official described as “a full-court press.”

The executives agreed to continue supplying records after the Americans pledged to impose tighter controls. Swift representatives would be stationed alongside intelligence officials and could block any searches considered inappropriate, several officials said. The procedural change provoked some opposition at the C.I.A. because “the agency was chomping at the bit to have unfettered access to the information,” a senior counterterrorism official said. But the Treasury Department saw it as a necessary compromise, the official said, to “save the program.”


Bush Administration Spent $30 Million Last Year On Illegally Obtained Personal Data

June 21, 2006

From the AP, Via Yahoo! News:

Federal and local police across the country — as well as some of the nation's best-known companies — have been gathering Americans' phone records from private data brokers without subpoenas or warrants.

These brokers, many of whom market aggressively across the Internet, have broken into customer accounts online, tricked phone companies into revealing information and sometimes acknowledged that their practices violate laws, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Legal experts and privacy advocates said police reliance on private vendors who commit such acts raises civil liberties questions.

Those using data brokers include agencies of the Homeland Security and Justice departments — including the FBI and U.S. Marshal's Service — and municipal police departments in California, Florida, Georgia and Utah. Experts believe hundreds of other departments frequently use such services.

"We are requesting any and all information you have regarding the above cell phone account and the account holder … including account activity and the account holder's address," Ana Bueno, a police investigator in Redwood City, Calif., wrote in October to PDJ Investigations of Granbury, Texas.

An agent in Denver for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Anna Wells, sent a similar request on March 31 on Homeland Security stationery: "I am looking for all available subscriber information for the following phone number," Wells wrote to a corporate alias used by PDJ.

Congressional investigators estimated the U.S. government spent $30 million last year buying personal data from private brokers. But that number likely understates the breadth of transactions, since brokers said they rarely charge law enforcement agencies.

A lawmaker who has investigated the industry said Monday he was concerned about data brokers.

"There's a good chance there are some laws being broken, but it's not really clear precisely which laws, said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., head of the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee that plans to begin hearings Wednesday.

Documents gathered by Whitfield's committee show data brokers use trickery, impersonation and even technology to try to gather Americans' phone records. "They can basically obtain any information about anybody on any subject," Whitfield said.

James Bearden, a Texas lawyer who represents four such data brokers, likened the companies' activities to the National Security Agency, which reportedly compiles the phone records of ordinary Americans.

"The government is doing exactly what these people are accused of doing," Bearden said. "These people are being demonized. These are people who are partners with law enforcement on a regular basis."

Many of the executives summoned to testify before Congress this week plan to refuse to answer questions, invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination.

Larry Slade, PDJ's lawyer, said no one at the company violated laws, but he acknowledged, "I'm not sure that every law enforcement agency in the country would agree with that analysis."

PDJ always provided help to police for free. "Agencies from all across the country took advantage of it," Slade said.

The police agencies told AP they used the data brokers because it was quicker and easier than subpoenas, and their lawyers believe their actions did not violate the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unlawful search and seizure.

Some agencies, such as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, instructed agents to stop the practice after congressional inquiries. Police in Orem, Utah, likewise plan to end the practice because of concerns about "questionable methods" used by the data brokers, Lt. Doug Edwards said.

The records also list some of America's most famous corporate names — from automakers to insurers to banks — as purchasing information on private citizens from data brokers, which often help companies track down delinquent customers.

For instance, a 2003 customer list for data broker Universal Communications Company listed Ford Motor Credit Co., the automaker's lending arm, as the single largest purchaser of phone toll records, paying $17,435 to buy such data that year. In all, Ford's lending arm spent more than $50,000 with that data broker that year. Ford also paid $9,000 to another such company, Global Information Group, in 2004, the records state.

Also on UCC's or Global Information's paying client list was the insurer State Farm's banking arm, Chrysler's consumer lending arm, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and banking giants Wells Fargo and Wachovia Financial Services.

At least 50 departments of Wachovia made data requests in 2004, accumulating thousands of dollars in charges. Most of the companies could not provide an immediate explanation when called for comment Tuesday.

Ford Motor Credit spokeswoman Meredith Libby said Tuesday her company used the vendors in the past to help locate customers who weren't paying and had disappeared but the companies "are no longer on our approved vendor lists."

Asked why Ford would need phone toll records, Libby said her company "did not necessarily say (to the vendor), `Give us this specific piece of data, but rather help us to find this person,'" and the charges for phone records were part of the process.

None of the police agencies interviewed by AP said they researched their data brokers to determine how they gather sensitive information like names associated with unlisted numbers, records of phone calls, e-mail aliases — even tracing a person's location using their cellular phone signal.

"If it's on the Internet and it's been commended to us, we wouldn't do a full-scale investigation," Marshal's Service spokesman David Turner said. "We don't knowingly go into any source that would be illegal. We were not aware, I'm fairly certain, what technique was used by these subscriber services."

At Immigration and Customs Enforcement, spokesman Dean Boyd said agents did not pay for phone records and sought approval from U.S. prosecutors before making requests. Their goal was "to more quickly identify and filter out phone numbers that were unrelated to their investigations," Boyd said.

Targets of the police interest include alleged marijuana smugglers, car thieves, armed thugs and others.

The data services also are enormously popular among collection agencies, bails bondsmen, private detectives and suspicious spouses. Customers included:

– A U.S. Labor Department employee who used her government e-mail address and phone number to buy two months of personal cellular phone records of a woman in New Jersey.

– A buyer who received credit card information about the father of murder victim Jon Benet Ramsey.

– A buyer who obtained 20 printed pages of phone calls by pro basketball player Damon Jones of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"I'm very disappointed," Jones told AP on Tuesday. "I paid for a service and that service is being violated. I've been an upstanding guy, never been in any trouble or anything like that. I was shocked, and I really want to get to the bottom of this."

Privacy advocates bristled over data brokers gathering records for police without subpoenas.

"This is pernicious, an end run around the Fourth Amendment," said Marc Rotenberg, head of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center which advocates tougher federal regulation of data brokers. "The government is encouraging unlawful conduct; it's not smart on the law enforcement side to be making use of information obtained improperly."

Legal experts said law enforcement agencies would be permitted to use illegally obtained information from private parties without violating the Fourth Amendment as long as police did not encourage crimes to be committed.

"If law enforcement is encouraging people in the private sector to commit a crime in getting these records, that would be problematic," said Mark Levin, a former top Justice Department official under President Reagan. "If, on the other hand, they are asking data brokers if they have any public information on any given phone numbers, that should be fine."

Levin said he nonetheless would have advised federal agents to use the practice only when it was a matter of urgency or national security and otherwise to stick to a legally bulletproof method like subpoenas for everyday cases.

Congress subpoenaed thousands of documents from data brokers describing how they collected telephone records by impersonating customers.

"I was shot down four times," data broker employee Michele Yontef complained in an e-mail in July 2005 to a colleague. Yontef was among those ordered to appear at this week's hearing.

Another company years ago even acknowledged breaking the law.

"We must break various rules of law in acquiring all the information we achieve for you," Touch Tone Information Inc. of Denver wrote to a law firm in 1998 that was seeking records of calls made on a calling card.


Safavian Guilty

June 21, 2006

From The Washington Post:

David H. Safavian, a former Bush administration official with close ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, was found guilty today in federal court of four of five felony charges against him in connection with the Abramoff corruption and influence-peddling scandal.

The verdict was announced shortly after the jury of two men and 10 women began their fifth day of deliberations in Washington following the trial of Safavian on charges of making false statements to federal officials and obstruction of justice.

Safavian, 38, a former chief of staff of the General Services Administration and top federal procurement officer, was accused of lying about a 2002 golfing trip to Scotland with Abramoff and obstructing an investigation by the GSA inspector general and other investigators. He was also charged with concealing his efforts to help Abramoff acquire control of two federally managed properties in the Washington area.

He became the first person to be put on trial in connection with Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to fraud and conspiracy charges. Four other former Abramoff associates also have pleaded guilty so far. As part of their plea deals, they have agreed to cooperate in an investigation of Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and other lawmakers allegedly embroiled in a broad public corruption scandal involving the acceptance of various inducements in return for official acts. Ney denies any wrongdoing.

The jury found Safavian guilty of three counts of making false statements — to the GSA Office of Inspector General, a GSA ethics official and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee — and one count of obstructing the GSA inspector general's investigation. He was acquitted of another charge of obstructing an investigation by the Indian Affairs Committee.

Each count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Safavian thus faces up to 20 years in prison for the four counts. He is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 12 by U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman.

Safavian, an Iranian American from Detroit, worked with Abramoff at a Washington lobbying firm in the 1990s, representing the Mississippi Choctaw Indian tribe among other clients. In 1997, he formed an ideologically conservative lobbying group with Grover Norquist, a leading anti-tax lobbyist and prominent Republican activist.

Safavian became chief of staff of the GSA, the federal government's property management agency, in 2002. The following year, President Bush nominated him to be administrator for federal procurement policy at the Office of Management and Budget in the White House. He began that job in November 2004.

Safavian resigned from the post last September and was placed under arrest after a federal grand jury returned an indictment against him.

The charges against Safavian stemmed from a federal probe that originally focused on Abramoff's dealings with Indian tribes, which brought Abramoff and an associate at least $82 million in fees. The investigation by an interagency federal task force turned up a trove of information about Abramoff's aggressive efforts to obtain favors for clients from members of Congress and top Bush administration bureaucrats.

One such endeavor, an August 2002 trip by chartered jet to Scotland, included golf at the Old Course at St. Andrews and other historic courses. Safavian, then the GSA's chief of staff, was one of nine people, including Abramoff, who went on the trip. Among the others were Ney, then chairman of the House Administration Committee; Ralph Reed, a lobbyist and former leader of the Christian Coalition; and Neil G. Volz, a lobbying associate of Abramoff's who formerly worked on Ney's staff. The total cost of the trip came to more than $130,000.

In keeping with GSA rules that prohibit the receipt of a gift from any person seeking official action by the agency, Safavian assured a GSA ethics officer in writing that Abramoff had "no business before GSA" at the time of the trip. Based on that pledge, Safavian was given permission to go on the trip.

However, according to the indictment, Abramoff by then had repeatedly contacted Safavian about the possibility of leasing the Old Post Office, a century-old Washington building managed by the GSA, for his clients. Abramoff also had secretly enlisted Safavian in an effort to acquire 40 acres of land on the site of the GSA-managed Naval Surface Warfare Center – White Oak, a 600-acre property in Silver Spring, Md. Abramoff wanted the land to use as a campus for a Hebrew school he had founded.

According to a criminal complaint, Safavian lied about his contacts with Abramoff on three occasions after his initial false statement to the GSA ethics officer about the trip to Scotland.

In addition to Abramoff, the former associates who have pleaded guilty so far in the corruption probe are Volz, Adam Kidan, Michael Scanlon and Tony C. Rudy. Kidan was Abramoff's partner in a Florida casino cruise ship company that was purchased with the help of a fraudulently obtained bank loan. Scanlon and Rudy are lobbying associates who formerly worked for Tom DeLay, the once-powerful Republican congressman from Texas and former House majority leader who left office June 9.

DeLay, who was enlisted by Abramoff to help defeat efforts to rein in labor and human rights abuses in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a former Abramoff client, was indicted last year in Texas in a separate case involving the alleged laundering of political contributions. DeLay has denied the charges.


Muslims Whine (Again), Ghana Caves In, FIFA Hides…

June 21, 2006

I'm wondering how the Muslim community might have reacted if the player in question had been playing for an Islamic country, and pulled out a flag for that, or another, Islamic country?  The double standard set by these people is almost incomprehensible.  Since when did the Muslim community set the world standard for political corectness?  Why should anyone have to apologize for displaying an Israeli flag?  But because Israel is involved, the whole Muslim world starts to whine and spread conspiracy theories. 

From Aljazeera:

Ghana's World Cup team have apologised to fans who say they were offended when defender John Pantsil waved an Israeli flag on the pitch to celebrate his team's 2-0 win over the Czech Republic.

Pantsil, who plays for Israeli club Hapoel Tel Aviv, celebrated both goals in Ghana's match on Saturday by pulling an Israeli flag out of his sock and waving it at the cameras.

The flag waving raised some eyebrows, not least in the Arab and Muslim world, and sparked several emails from fans to Aljazeera.net – some critical, and others merely puzzled as to the connection between the Ghanaian player and Israel.

Explaining the incident on Monday, a Ghana team spokesman, Randy Abbey, said that Pantsil's action was "a thank you to his fans in the Israeli league".

"It was naive, he was not aware of the consequences of his actions," Abbey said. "We apologise to everyone who felt offended by this.

"It was not an official message from the Ghanaian team. We do not represent Israeli politics or the politics of any other country. We are just here to play football."

In Egypt, which played host to the African Nations Cup this year, newspaper commentators let rip with a barrage of insults and fury against Panstil.

"The ignorant and stupid Pantsil, who spent 20 days in Egypt  during the last African Nations Cup, plays for Hapoel," wrote sports commentator Alaa Sadek in the daily Al-Akhbar newspaper.

Some papers described 25-year-old Pantsil as a "Mossad agent", others said "an Israeli had paid him to do it", but the most elaborate theory was offered by the state-owned daily Al-Ahram.

'Abused'

Writing in the paper, sports analyst Hassan el-Mestekawi said that many Ghanaian players attend football training camps set up by an Israeli coach who "discovered the treasure of African talent, and abused the poverty of the continent's children" with the ultimate goal of selling them off to European clubs.

During the match itself the live commentator on the Arab satellite channel ART broadcasting all World Cup matches in the region abruptly cut short his trademark "goooaaaaaaal!" when Pantsil brought out the flag.

"What are you doing, man?" the bewildered commentator said.

Football's governing body FIFA said it had taken note of the flag-waving and that, although there was nothing in the rules to prevent it, it hoped not to see a repetition.


Hastert Makes $2 Million Off Of His Own Earmark

June 16, 2006

Original story, broke by the Sunlight Foundation can be found here.

Reporting from The Blotter, at CBS News: 

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) realized an estimated $2 million dollar profit last year on an Illinois land deal that included acreage near a future interstate highway Hastert pushed to build.

The land was sold just five months after Hastert inserted a $207 million appropriation bill for the Prairie Parkway highway during a closed-door Congressional budget conference.

The deal, representing a 300 per cent return on investment, was reported in Hastert's financial disclosure form filed this week, although the role of a secret trust set up by Hastert to sell the land was not disclosed.

A spokesman for Hastert, Ron Bonjean, confirmed the details, which were first reported by Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, an on-line political watchdog group. The Speaker's spokesman said land in the Plano, Illinois area is "booming," and the future highway had no impact on the price.

Hastert and partners sold the land to developers who plan a large residential sub-division about five miles from the new highway.

Local citizens fighting the highway project were outraged to learn of the Hastert deal. "I think he clearly has his own personal interest and not the public's by buying and selling land to developers for personal profit, when it has a negative long-range effect on the community," said Jan Strasma, head of community group Citizens Against the Sprawlway.

Hastert's spokesman said that Hastert had been a proponent of the highway for 20 years, and there was nothing improper in the deal.

According to Hastert's disclosure form and county property records, a 69-acre parcel was put into a trust, Little Rock Trust #225, on May 2, 2005.

Two months later, in July 2005, Hastert pushed the highway appropriation bill through a conference committee.

On Aug. 6, 2005 President Bush appeared with Hastert at a ceremony in Illinois to celebrate the new highway's funding.

On Dec. 7, 2005 the trust sold the parcel of land to the developers.

The spokesman said, for tax reasons, Hastert used part of his $2 million profit to buy a 275-acre farm in Wisconsin that Hastert intends to use as a future retirement home.


T.E. Lawrence On The British Disaster In Baghdad

June 9, 2006

It appears Bush did not learn from history…

The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.

The sins of commission are those of the British civil authorities in Mesopotamia (especially of three 'colonels') who were given a free hand by London. They are controlled from no Department of State, but from the empty space which divides the Foreign Office from the India Office. They availed themselves of the necessary discretion of war-time to carry over their dangerous independence into times of peace. They contest every suggestion of real self-government sent them from home. A recent proclamation about autonomy circulated with unction from Baghdad was drafted and published out there in a hurry, to forestall a more liberal statement in preparation in London, 'Self-determination papers' favourable to England were extorted in Mesopotamia in 1919 by official pressure, by aeroplane demonstrations, by deportations to India.

The Cabinet cannot disclaim all responsibility. They receive little more news than the public: they should have insisted on more, and better. They have sent draft after draft of reinforcements, without enquiry. When conditions became too bad to endure longer, they decided to send out as High commissioner the original author of the present system, with a conciliatory message to the Arabs that his heart and policy have completely changed.

Yet our published policy has not changed, and does not need changing. It is that there has been a deplorable contrast between our profession and our practice. We said we went to Mesopotamia to defeat Turkey. We said we stayed to deliver the Arabs from the oppression of the Turkish Government, and to make available for the world its resources of corn and oil. We spent nearly a million men and nearly a thousand million of money to these ends. This year we are spending ninety-two thousand men and fifty millions of money on the same objects.

Our government is worse than the old Turkish system. They kept fourteen thousand local conscripts embodied, and killed a yearly average of two hundred Arabs in maintaining peace. We keep ninety thousand men, with aeroplanes, armoured cars, gunboats, and armoured trains. We have killed about ten thousand Arabs in this rising this summer. We cannot hope to maintain such an average: it is a poor country, sparsely peopled; but Abd el Hamid would applaud his masters, if he saw us working. We are told the object of the rising was political, we are not told what the local people want. It may be what the Cabinet has promised them. A Minister in the House of Lords said that we must have so many troops because the local people will not enlist. On Friday the Government announce the death of some local levies defending their British officers, and say that the services of these men have not yet been sufficiently recognized because they are too few (adding the characteristic Baghdad touch that they are men of bad character). There are seven thousand of them, just half the old Turkish force of occupation. Properly officered and distributed, they would relieve half our army there. Cromer controlled Egypt's six million people with five thousand British troops; Colonel Wilson fails to control Mesopotamia's three million people with ninety thousand troops.

We have not reached the limit of our military commitments. Four weeks ago the staff in Mesopotamia drew up a memorandum asking for four more divisions. I believe it was forwarded to the War Office, which has now sent three brigades from India. If the North-West Frontier cannot be further denuded, where is the balance to come from? Meanwhile, our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the wilfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Baghdad. General Dyer was relieved of his command in India for a much smaller error, but the responsibility in this case is not on the Army, which has acted only at the request of the civil authorities. The War Office has made every effort to reduce our forces, but the decisions of the Cabinet have been against them.

The Government in Baghdad have been hanging Arabs in that town for political offences, which they call rebellion. The Arabs are not at war with us. Are these illegal executions to provoke the Arabs to reprisals on the three hundred British prisoners they hold? And, if so, is it that their punishment may be more severe, or is it to persuade our other troops to fight to the last?

We say we are in Mesopotamia to develop it for the benefit of the world. All experts say that the labour supply is the ruling factor in its development. How far will the killing of ten thousand villagers and townspeople this summer hinder the production of wheat, cotton, and oil? How long will we permit millions of pounds, thousands of Imperial troops, and tens of thousands of Arabs to be sacrificed on behalf of colonial administration which can benefit nobody but its administrators?