Friday, September 15, 2006

Ney Becomes First Lawmaking Casualty of Abramoff

Well, here we go. Looks like Bob Ney, the Republican rep from Ohio, is pleading guilty. I'm curious to see exactly what kind of deal he might have cut. I have an incredibly hard time believing that a Republican Justice Department would have cut a deal that incriminates other Republicans, but we'll just have to wait and see.

Representative Ney to Plead Guilty in Abramoff Case, People Say

By Kristin Jensen and Michael Forsythe

Sept. 15 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Representative Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, will become the first lawmaker to plead guilty to charges in connection with the investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, people with knowledge of the probe said.

The U.S. Justice Department called a news conference for 10:30 a.m. in Washington to announce what it said was a development in a public corruption case. Phone calls and e-mails from Bloomberg News to Ney's office and his lawyer, William Lawler, weren't returned. Ney in the past denied wrongdoing in the case.

The plea agreement may include charges of conspiracy and making false statements, the New York Times reported.

Ney, 52, announced in August that he wouldn't seek re- election, citing the Abramoff probe and its effect on his family. Prosecutors have been building a case against Ney by getting Abramoff and three of the lobbyist's former colleagues to plead guilty to improperly influencing him. In court papers, the government alleged that Ney helped Abramoff clients in exchange for gifts such as a golf outing to Scotland.

Former Ney aide Neil Volz on May 8 pleaded guilty to violating lobbying rules and conspiring to corrupt public officials. Volz was Ney's chief of staff before going to work for Abramoff in 2002. Volz testified in court on May 30 that Ney routinely helped Abramoff's team.

``We had a champion in the Congress,'' Volz said of Ney during the criminal trial of former Abramoff colleague David Safavian. Champions, Volz said, were ``people that operate at a higher level. They can provide much better information -- inside information.''

Federal Subpoena

Ney disclosed in November 2005 that he received a subpoena for documents from Justice Department investigators leading a federal task force examining Abramoff's activity. In January, the congressman gave up his post as chairman of the House Administration Committee, citing the ``distraction'' of the probe.

In leading the Administration Committee, Ney was a powerful figure in the House of Representatives. The panel's jurisdiction covers federal elections and day-to-day operations of the House, such as doling out coveted parking spots and playing a role in contracts awarded for work in the Capitol.

Ney drew national attention after his name surfaced in e- mails released by a Senate committee investigating Abramoff's work for American Indian tribes. On March 20, 2002, Abramoff wrote to his partner Michael Scanlon, ``Just met with Ney!!! We're f'ing gold!!! He's going to do Tigua.''

Reopen Casino

Abramoff was referring to language that Ney agreed to insert in federal legislation to allow an Abramoff client, the Tigua Indians of El Paso, Texas, to reopen a casino closed by state authorities. Six days later, Abramoff sent an e-mail to a tribal representative seeking $32,000 in campaign donations for Ney and his political action committees.

The Tigua provision didn't make it into the final measure, and Ney later said he was deceived by Abramoff. Ney's former spokesman, Brian Walsh, said in May that the lawmaker agreed to help Abramoff's team after being told that Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, favored the measure.

Ney had also agreed to attach a provision that would help Abramoff obtain federal land for a school, according to Volz's May 30 testimony. When Abramoff's team didn't get the needed information in time, Ney suggested another piece of legislation as a vehicle for the language, Volz said.

Helpful to Abramoff

Ney had helped Abramoff before. In 2000, Ney placed two statements into the Congressional Record helpful to Abramoff's purchase of SunCruz Casino, a Florida casino ship company. Abramoff in January pleaded guilty to separate fraud charges in connection with that acquisition.

Ney's trip to Scotland with Abramoff has received the most attention. The 2002 outing also included Ney aides Will Heaton and Paul Vinovich, Christian activist Ralph Reed, lobbyist Volz and Safavian, at the time the chief of staff at the General Services Administration. Abramoff arranged for a private jet that cost more than $91,000 to take the group over to Scotland's famed St. Andrews golf course.

Safavian in June was found guilty of lying and obstructing justice in connection with Abramoff and the Scotland trip. The jury found Safavian guilty of hiding help he gave Abramoff with GSA properties when seeking permission to accept the outing from the lobbyist and then obstructing an inquiry into his actions.

Tom DeLay

In 2000, another congressman went on an Abramoff golf trip - - then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who has become mired in the lobbying scandal as well. Former Abramoff associates Scanlon and Tony Rudy, who have also pleaded guilty, previously worked for DeLay, 59, a Republican from Texas.

DeLay has denied wrongdoing. He resigned from Congress on June 9 after saying he didn't want Republicans to lose his Texas seat in a campaign battle focused in part on Abramoff. DeLay had already given up his leadership post because of an indictment in a separate campaign fund-raising-abuse case.

Ney was the only member of Congress to accept donations from both Abramoff and Scanlon between 2001 and 2004. He took at least $61,225 in that period from Abramoff's associates and the lobbyist's tribal clients.

That's more than all but three of more than 170 members of Congress who received contributions from Abramoff's lobbying team and the tribes during that time, according to Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service records.

Posted by crimnos @ 10:25 AM :: (0) comments

Thursday, September 14, 2006

National Security Surveillance Act: What the hell is this shit?

Specter is hilarious. He's very upset and deeply troubled over the warrantless wiretapping, so he champions a bill allowing for more of it.

A bill radically redefining and expanding the government's ability to eavesdrop and search the houses of U.S. citizens without court approval passed a key Senate committee Wednesday, and may be voted on by the full Senate as early as next week.

By a 10-8 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved SB2453, the National Security Surveillance Act (.pdf), which was co-written by committee's chairman Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) in concert with the White House.

The committee also passed two other surveillance measures, including one from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), one of the few senators to be briefed on the National Security Agency program. Feinstein's bill, which Specter co-sponsored before submitting another bill, rebuffs the administration's legal arguments and all but declares the warrantless wiretapping illegal.

In contrast, Specter's bill concedes the government's right to wiretap Americans without warrants, and allows the U.S. Attorney General to authorize, on his own, dragnet surveillance of Americans so long as the stated purpose of the surveillance is to monitor suspected terrorists or spies.

Lisa Graves, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the bill "stunning."

"The administration has taken their illegal conduct in wiretapping Americans without court orders, in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Constitution, and used it as springboard to not only get FISA changed to allow the Terrorist Surveillance Program, but to actually, going forward, not give protections to Americans' privacy rights," Graves said.

Jim Dempsey, the policy director for the more moderate Center for Democracy and Technology, described the bill's passage out of committee as "light years or miles beyond the Patriot Act."

"What started out as Sen. Specter wanting to rein in the president's program has turned on its head and is now not just a legislative ratification of the program, but an expansion of warrantless wiretapping of Americans," Dempsey said. "It would allow the NSA to turn its vacuum cleaners on even domestic phone calls and e-mails of citizens.

"They do all of this in Alice in Wonderland fashion by defining all kinds of categories of surveillance to be not surveillance," said Dempsey.

Specter, who called NSA's warrantless surveillance a "festering sore on our body politic," champions his bill, since it allows, but does nor require, the administration to submit the whole surveillance program to review by a secretive court. Specter says President Bush promised to submit the NSA program to the court, if the bill passes.

The bill also strikes from U.S. law a requirement that all surveillance of suspected spies and terrorists be done in accordance with FISA. But an aide for Specter disputes that this radically changes FISA or the balance of powers: Specter considers this to be an update to FISA that moves the law toward where technology is now, according to the aide, who spoke on background.

Bush has acknowledged the NSA program monitors Americans' international phone calls and e-mails without court authorization, but says the program only targets communications where one side or the other has suspected terrorist connections.

Feinstein says her briefings lead her to believe the current system needs only minor changes, such as increasing the number of judges that issue warrants.

"I have been briefed on the terrorist-surveillance program, and I have come to believe that this surveillance can be done, without sacrifice to our national security, through court-issued individualized warrants for content collection on U.S. persons under the FISA process," Feinstein said Wednesday in a press release.

That program has recently been declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in Detroit, and is being challenged by more than 20 lawsuits across the country.

The bill:

* Redefines surveillance so that only programs that catch the substance of a communication need oversight. Any government surveillance that captures, analyzes and stores patterns of communications such as phone records, or e-mail and website addresses, is no longer considered surveillance.
* Expands the section of law that allows the attorney general to authorize spying on foreign embassies, so long as there's no "substantial likelihood" that an American's communication would be captured.
* Repeals the provision of federal law that allows the government unfettered wiretapping and physical searches without warrants or notification for 15 days after a declaration of war. The lack of any congressional restraint on the president's wartime powers arguably puts the president at the height, rather than the ebb, of his powers in any time of war, even an undeclared one.
* Repeals the provision of federal law that limits the government's wartime powers to conduct warrantless wiretapping and physical searches to a period of 15 days after a declaration of war.
* Repeals the provision of federal law that puts a time limit on the government's wartime powers to conduct warrantless wiretapping and physical searches against Americans. Under current law, the president has that power for only 15 days following a declaration of war.
* Allows the attorney general, or anyone he or she designates, to authorize widespread domestic spying, such as monitoring all instant-messaging systems in the country, so long as the government promises to delete anything not terrorism-related.
* Moves all court challenges to the NSA surveillance program to a secretive court in Washington, D.C., comprised of judges appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Only government lawyers would be allowed in the courtroom.

* Allows the government to get warrants for surveillance programs as a whole, instead of having to describe to a judge the particular persons to be monitored and the methods to be used.

A markup of the corresponding House bill, sponsored by Rep. Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico) was scheduled for Wednesday, but was canceled.

Specter has moved to have his bill voted upon next week by voice vote, called a unanimous consent motion, according to the ACLU's Graves. Such a procedure would leave no record of who voted for or against the bill.

Posted by crimnos @ 11:12 AM :: (0) comments

Report from Maryland Election Judge on September 12th Election

This story really puts the exclamation point on Maryland's election debacle. What a nightmare.

My Day at the Polls - Maryland Primary '06

By Avi Rubin

I don't know where to start. This primary today is the third election that I have worked as an election judge. The last two elections were in 2004, and I was in a small precinct in Timonium, MD. This time, I was in my home precinct about 1/2 a mile from my house. We had 12 machines, over 1,000 voters and 16 judges. I woke up at 5:30 in the morning and was at the precinct before 6:00. It is now 10:18 pm, and I just got home a few minutes ago. As I have made it my custom, I sat down right away to write about my experience while everything was still fresh. In anticipation of this, I took some careful notes throughout the day.

The biggest change over the 2004 election was the introduction of electronic poll books that we used to check in voters. I was introduced to these in election judge training a few weeks ago. These are basically little touchscreen computers that are connected to an Ethernet hub. They each contain a full database of the registered voters in the county, and information about whether or not each voter has already voted, in addition to all of the voter registration information. The system is designed so that the machines constantly sync with each other so that if a voter signs in on one of them and then goes to another one, that voter will already be flagged as having voted. That was the theory anyway. These poll books turned out to be a disaster, but more on that later.

Around 7:15, when we had been open for business for 15 minutes already, a gentlemen shows up saying that he is a judge from another precinct nearby and that they did not receive any smartcards, so that they could not operate their election. We had 60 smartcards, and the chief judge suggested that we give them 20 so that they could at least get their election started. As she was handing them over, I suggested that we had to somehow verify his claim. After all, anyone could walk in off the street and claim this guy's story, and we would give them 20 access cards. The chief judge agreed with me. The guy pulled out his driver's license to prove who he was, but I told him that we were not doubting who he was, we just wanted to verify that we should give him the cards. He seemed to understand that. After calling the board of elections, we were told to give him the cards and we did. A little later, several voters who came in informed us that news reports were saying that in Montgomery county, there was a widespread problem of missing smatcards. I could only imagine what a nightmare that was for those poll workers because as it was, our precinct did not have this problem, and as you'll see, it was still tough going.

My precinct uses Diebold Accuvote TS, the same one that we analyzed in our study 3 years ago. The first problem we encountered was that two of the voting machine's security tag numbers did not match our records. After a call to the board of elections, we were told to set those aside and not use them. So, we were down to 10. We set up those machines in a daisy chain fashion, as described in the judge manual, and as we learned in our training. We plugged the first one into the wall and taped the wire to the floor with electric tape so nobody would trip over it. About two hours into the voting, I noticed that the little power readout on the machines was red, and I thought that this meant that the machines were on battery power. I pointed this out to one of the chief judges, but she said this was normal. An hour later, I checked again, and this time, the machines were on extremely low power. This time, I took the plug out to of the wall and tried another outlet nearby. The power icon turned green. I showed several of the judges, and we confirmed that the original outlet was indeed dead. Had I not checked this twice, those machines would have died in the middle of the election, most likely in the middle of people voting. I hate to think about how we would have handled that. A couple of hours later, the board of elections informed us that we should use the two voting machines with the mismatched tags, so we added them and used them the rest of the day (!).

When we were setting up the electronic poll books, I took over because I was more comfortable with the technology, and the others quickly deferred to me. So, a couple of hours into the election, when one of the poll books seemed to be out of sync with the others, the judges came and brought me to have a look. It appeared that this poll book was not getting synced with the others. I tested it by waiting for someone to sign in with a different poll book, and then a few minutes later trying to sign in that voter on the one in question. The voter was shown as having not voted yet. I repeated this test for about 20 minutes, but it never registered that voter as having voted, and the poll book was falling behind - about 30 by then - the other poll book machines. I suggested rebooting that machine, and we tried that, but it did not change anything. I pointed out to the chief judges who were huddled around me as I experimented, that as time went by, this poll book was going to fall further and further behind the others, and that if someone signed in on the others, they would be able sign in again on this one and vote again. After a call to the board of elections, we decided to take this one out of commission. This was very unfortunate, because our waiting lines were starting to get very long, and the check-in was the bottleneck. The last few hours of the day, we had a 45 minute to an hour wait, and we had enough machines in service to handle the load, but it was taking people too long to sign in.

The electronic poll books presented an even bigger problem, however. Every so often, about once every 15-25 minutes, after a voter signed in, and while that voter's smartcard was being programmed with the ballot, the poll book would suddenly crash and reboot. Unfortunately, the smartcard would not be programmed at the end of this, so the poll worker would have to try again. However, the second time, the machine said that the voter had already voted. The first few times this happened, we had some very irate voters, and we had to call over the chief judge. Soon, however, we realized what was happening, and as soon as the poll book crashed, we warned the voter that it would come up saying that they had already voted, but that we knew they hadn't. Then, the chief judge would have to come over, enter a password, and authorize that person to vote anyway. Then we had to make a log entry of the event and quarantine the offending smartcard. Unfortunately, the poll books take about 3 minutes to reboot, and the chief judges are very scarce resources, so this caused further delays and caused the long line we had for most of the afternoon and evening while many of the machines were idle. Another problem was that the poll book would not subtract a voter from its total count when this happened, so every time we had an incident, the poll book voter count was further off the mark. We had to keep track of this by hand, so we could reconcile it at the end of the day.

At times, the remaining two poll books were way out of synch, but after a while, they caught up with each other. When the lines got really long, we considered the idea of trying to use the third one that had caused problems, but we all agreed that we would feel very stupid if all of them started crashing more. I was worried that synching three of these on an Ethernet hub was more complex than 2, and in fact, they were crashing a bit less often when we had only 2. The whole time I was worried about what we would do if these thing really died or crashed so badly and so often that we couldn't really use them. We had no backup voter cards, so the best we could have done would have been to start letting everybody vote by provisional ballots. However, we had two small pads of those ballots, and we would have run out quickly. I can't imagine basing the success of an election on something so fragile as these terrible, buggy machines.

Throughout the early part of the day, there was a Diebold representative at our precinct. When I was setting up the poll books, he came over to "help", and I ended up explaining to him why I had to hook the ethernet cables into a hub instead of directly into all the machines (not to mention the fact that there were not enough ports on the machines to do it that way). The next few times we had problems, the judges would call him over, and then he called me over to help. After a while, I asked him how long he had been working for Diebold because he didn't seem to know anything about the equipment, and he said, "one day." I said, "You mean they hired you yesterday?" And he replied, "yes, I had 6 hours of training yesterday. It was 80 people and 2 instructors, and none of us really knew what was going on." I asked him how this was possible, and he replied, "I shouldn't be telling you this, but it's all money. They are too cheap to do this right. They should have a real tech person in each precinct, but that costs too much, so they go out and hire a bunch of contractors the day before the election, and they think that they can train us, but it's too compressed." Around 4 pm, he came and told me that he wasn't doing any good there, and that he was too frustrated, and that he was going home. We didn't see him again.

I haven't written at all about the Accuvote machines. I guess I've made my opinions about that known in the past, and my new book deals primarily with them. Nothing happened today to change my opinion about the security of these systems, but I did have some eye opening experiences about the weaknesses of some of the physical security measures that are touted as providing the missing security. For example, I carefully studied the tamper tape that is used to guard the memory cards. In light of Hursti's report, the security of the memory cards is critical. Well, I am 100% convinced that if the tamper tape had been peeled off and put back on, nobody except a very well trained professional would notice it. The tamper tape has a tiny version of the word "void" appear inside it after it has been removed and replaced, but it is very subtle. In fact, a couple of times, due to issues we had with the machines, the chief judge removed the tamper tape and then put it back. One time, it was to reboot a machine that was hanging when a voter was trying to vote. I looked at the tamper tape that was replaced and couldn't tell the difference, and then it occurred to me that instead of rebooting, someone could mess with the memory card and replace the tape, and we wouldn't have noticed. I asked if I could play with the tamper tape a bit, and they let me handle it. I believe I can now, with great effort and concentration, tell the difference between one that has been peeled off and one that has not. But, I did not see the judges using that kind of care every time they opened and closed them. As far as I'm concerned, the tamper tape does very little in the way of actual security, and that will be the case as long as it is used by lay poll workers, as opposed to CIA agents.

As we were computing the final tallies towards the end of the evening, one of the Diebold machines froze. We had not yet printed the report that is used to post the results. One of the judges went to call the board of elections. She said she was transfered and then disconnected. We decided to do a hard reboot of it after we closed down the other machines. When we finished the other machines, we noticed that the problem one had somehow recovered, and we were able to finish. Strange because it was frozen for about 10 minutes.

So, this day at the polls was different from my two experiences in 2004. I felt more like an experienced veteran than a wide eyed newbie. The novelty that I felt in 2002 was gone, and I felt seasoned. Even the chief judges often came to me asking advice on how to handle various crises that arose. Several other suggested that I should apply to be a chief judge in the next election cycle, and I will probably do that. The least pleasant part of the day was a nagging concern that something would go terribly wrong, and that we would have no way to recover. I believe that fully electronic systems, such as the precinct we had today, are too fragile. The smallest thing can lead to a disaster. We had a long line of "customers" who were mostly patient, but somewhat irritated, and I felt like we were not always in a position to offer them decent customer service. When our poll books crashed, and the lines grew, I had a sense of dread that we might end up finishing the day without a completed election. As an election judge I put aside my personal beliefs that these machines are easy to rig in an undetectable way, and become more worried that the election process would completely fail. I don't think it would have taken much for that to have happened.

One other thing struck me. In 2004, most voters seemed happy with the machines. This time around, many of them complained about a lack of a paper trail. Some of them clearly knew who I was and my position on this, but others clearly did not. I did not hear one voter say they were happy with the machines, and a dozen or so expressed strong feelings against them.

I am way too tired now (it's past 11 pm) to write any kind of philosophical ending to this already too long blog entry. I hope that we got it right in my precinct, but I know that there is no way to know for sure. We cannot do recounts. Finally, I have to say a few words about my fellow poll workers. We all worked from 6 a.m. to past 10 p.m. These volunteers were cheerful, pleasant, and diligent. They were there to serve the public, and they acted like it. I greatly admire them, and while the election technology selection and testing processes in this country make me sick, I take great hope and inspiration from a day in the trenches with these people.

Posted by crimnos @ 11:00 AM :: (0) comments

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Maryland Primary Election: What the hell, Maryland?

I don't know how well-covered this was outside of this area, but it's stunning how incompetent the Maryland board of elections proved themselves yesterday. It's not as if this was some surprise election or something. Amazing. I don't care if it was the fault of Democrats or Republicans; all I know is someone needs to lose their job over this shit. Raffles are run better than this.

Election Board Workers' Error Hinders Voting

By Christian Davenport and Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 13, 2006; Page A01

The most basic of human errors threw Maryland's primary election into chaos yesterday: Someone forgot the wallet-size plastic cards needed to operate the voting machines in Montgomery County, frustrating early morning voters who lined up outside polling places and often were turned away without voting.

Courts ordered polls to remain open an extra hour in the county and in Baltimore, where at least two dozen polling places opened late, but it seemed doubtful that the extensions would resolve the confusion.

Some Montgomery County polling places didn't receive word of the order to remain open until minutes before 8 p.m., when they had been scheduled to close. Others ran short on the paper ballots that the court instructed be used during the extended hour of voting, with voters scribbling their choices on scraps of paper in Takoma Park.

"You had to laugh. It got more and more ludicrous," said Dennis Desmond, who cast his "vote" on a discarded flier handed to him by election officials after ballots ran out in Takoma Park.

He said election workers rushed to a nearby pharmacy to buy envelopes in which the makeshift ballots could be sealed.

The number of paper ballots cast won't be known until today. They will not be counted until Monday.

When all of the county's 238 polling places opened in Montgomery, the state's most populous jurisdiction, the electronic voting machines were inoperable. Many precincts handed out provisional paper ballots as soon as the precinct doors opened at 7 a.m., but at some polls those ballots ran out, and at others election officials didn't know that paper ballots were an option. They just told people to come back later.

Although the cards necessary to activate most of the voting machines arrived by 8:30, election officials said some of the machines weren't working until 10 a.m. -- three hours after polls opened. Voters said some didn't start operating until even later.

Partisan bickering broke out, with the governor blaming the Democratic legislature, and the Democrats pointing the finger at the governor.

Nancy H. Dacek, who was appointed as president of the county's Board of Elections by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), apologized for the error.

"We regret what happened this morning. It was just a fluke," Dacek said. "There was a glitch. It's now been taken care of."

The cards that went astray are called voter access cards and look like white ATM cards with a golden computer chip embedded in them. They are issued to voters once election judges verify they are registered to vote. When the cards are placed into the voting machines, the ballot appears on the touch screen.

Posted by crimnos @ 10:12 AM :: (0) comments

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Rove back to his Disgusting Tricks

Whoah, two Andrew Sullivan articles in one year. What the hell is going on?

Anyway, Rove's strategy is...well, he's intending to attack those who oppose torture and abuse of the Constitution, including those in the Republican party. Absolutely disgusting. Can someone kill this bastard already?

Next week, I'm informed via troubled White House sources, will see the full unveiling of Karl Rove's fall election strategy. He's intending to line up 9/11 families to accuse McCain, Warner and Graham of delaying justice for the perpetrators of that atrocity, because they want to uphold the ancient judicial traditions of the U.S. military and abide by the Constitution. He will use the families as an argument for legalizing torture, setting up kangaroo courts for military prisoners, and giving war crime impunity for his own aides and cronies. This is his "Hail Mary" move for November; it's brutally exploitative of 9/11; it's pure partisanship; and it's designed to enable an untrammeled executive. Decent Republicans, Independents and Democrats must do all they can to expose and resist this latest descent into political thuggery. If you need proof that this administration's first priority is not a humane and effective counter-terror strategy, but a brutal, exploitative path to retaining power at any price, you just got it.

Posted by crimnos @ 9:36 AM :: (0) comments

GOP Plans to get Personal

When you can't run on successes, sling mud, I guess. I like to think that this will fail, that the people are sick and tired of negative campaigning, but I also thought that Bush would lose in 2004, so I'm obviously not a very good predictor of the American people. But please, people, PLEASE prove me right. Please prove to me that enough is enough, that you understand that this negative crap has nothing to do with representing our interests.

Republicans are planning to spend the vast majority of their sizable financial war chest over the final 60 days of the campaign attacking Democratic House and Senate candidates over personal issues and local controversies, GOP officials said.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which this year dispatched a half-dozen operatives to comb through tax, court and other records looking for damaging information on Democratic candidates, plans to spend more than 90 percent of its $50 million-plus advertising budget on what officials described as negative ads.

The hope is that a vigorous effort to "define" opponents, in the parlance of GOP operatives, can help Republicans shift the midterm debate away from Iraq and limit losses this fall. The first round of attacks includes an ad that labeled a Democratic candidate in Wisconsin "Dr. Millionaire" and noted that he has sued 80 patients.

"Opposition research is power," said Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), the NRCC chairman. "Opposition research is the key to defining untested opponents."

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has enlisted veteran party strategist Terry Nelson to run a campaign that will coordinate with Senate Republicans on ads that similarly will rely on the best of the worst that researchers have dug up on Democrats. The first ad run by the new RNC effort criticizes Ohio Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) for voting against proposals designed to toughen border protection and deport illegal immigrants.

Because challengers tend to be little-known compared with incumbents, they are more vulnerable to having their public image framed by the opposition through attacks and unflattering personal revelations.

And with polls showing the Republicans' House and Senate majorities in jeopardy, party strategists said they have concluded that their best chance to prevent big Democratic gains is a television and direct-mail blitz over the next eight weeks aimed at raising enough questions about Democratic candidates that voters decide they are unacceptable choices.

"When you run in an adverse political environment, you try to localize and personalize the race as much as you can," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said.

In a memo released last week, Cole, who is running to succeed Reynolds at the NRCC, expanded on that strategy. The memo recommended that vulnerable incumbents spend $20,000 on a research "package" to find damaging material about challengers and urged that they "define your opponent immediately and unrelentingly."

GOP officials said internal polling shows Republicans could limit losses to six to 10 House seats and two or three Senate seats if the strategy -- combined with the party's significant financial advantage and battled-tested turnout operation -- proves successful. Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to win control of the House and six to regain power in the Senate.

Against some less experienced and little-known opponents, said Matt Keelen, a Republican lobbyist heavily involved in House campaigns, "It will take one or two punches to fold them up like a cheap suit."

Republicans plan to attack Democratic candidates over their voting records, business dealings, and legal tussles, the GOP officials said.

John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University and the author of a book on negative advertising, said Republicans and Democrats alike lack positive issues on which to run because of divisions over the war and economic policy. This will be a "very negative campaign and probably a more negative campaign than any in recent memory," Geer said.

As Republicans try to localize races, Democrats' hopes for the most part hinge on being able to nationalize the election and turn it into a referendum on the Iraq war, President Bush, and the performance of the Republican Congress -- all faring poorly in polls this year.

Bush will try to make terrorism the issue nationally, casting the election as a choice between two distinct approaches for protecting the nation from attack. Beyond that, however, most Republicans want to distance their elections from the national context.

That strategy is born of necessity. Republicans are alarmed by the large number of House and Senate incumbents who are trailing or tied in their internal polling. Many are attracting the support of less than 45 percent of likely voters -- a danger zone for any incumbent 60 days before an election. The political rule of thumb is that incumbents rarely draw a majority of voters who make up their minds in the days shortly before Election Day.

History shows how the combination of opposition research and negative advertising can work. In 2000, Republicans unleashed a furious attack on the spending practices of Democratic House candidate Linda Chapin, including her purchase of an $18,500 bronze frog as a legislator in Florida. Chapin, then the favorite to win an open Florida House seat, lost to Republican Ric Keller. That same election cycle, Republicans dug up a tape of state Rep. Eleanor Jordan (D-Ky.) asking to speed up a vote so she could attend a fundraiser, an image that destroyed her chances of knocking off Rep. Anne M. Northup (R).

This year, the challenge is tougher, as national polling shows voters dissatisfied with the party in power and ready for a change.

"When all [Republicans] do is launch potshots, they look like they're trying to cover up the fact that they have no solutions" said Phil Singer, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

As in past elections, the bulk of negative advertising this year probably will be delivered by party committees -- a strategy that allows the candidates to distance themselves from the trash-talking messages that turn off some voters.

Wisconsin's 8th District offers an example. Earlier this summer, the NRCC sent a young staff member to the district for one week to look through court records, government and medical documents, and local newspapers to find embarrassing information about physician Steve Kagen, one of the leading Democratic candidates in an important swing district, an NRCC aide said. The researcher discovered that Kagen's allergy clinic has sued more than 80 patients, mostly for failing to pay their bills.

A new NRCC ad airing in the Green Bay area, the district's main media market, warns: "What Dr. Millionaire doesn't want you to know is his clinic left more than 80 patients behind -- suing them. That's right, suing more than 80 patients."

In recent elections, Democratic officials have complained that Republicans are much better at opposition research. But Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who chair the Democrats' House and Senate campaign committees, have invested more heavily in research. Notably, the researchers dig not only into Republicans, but also their own candidates. This allows Democrats to anticipate what is coming and be ready to respond quickly.

One Democratic research success this year came when Emanuel's staff combed though the archives of several universities to find a copy of an article Colorado Republican candidate Rick O'Donnell wrote for an obscure publication in the mid-1990s. A researcher eventually found the article at George Washington University. In it, O'Donnell argued that Social Security should be abolished -- a revelation that was highlighted in three sharply worded DSCC mailings in the district.

Direct-mail appeals often carry the most negative and potentially damaging messages. Dan Hazelwood, a leading GOP direct mail consultant, said that if a hypothetical Democratic candidate favors the establishment of a garbage dump in a section of the district, for instance, it makes more sense to "narrow-cast" this message by mail to the people most affected rather than buying an expensive, districtwide television ad.

The RNC's expanded role in part reflects concerns that Senate Republicans may not have enough money to take the fight to Democrats. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, under Chair Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), had $15 million less to spend than the DSCC at the end of July. But, the RNC is planning to make up the difference. The committee ended July with nearly $44 million in the bank, four times what the Democratic National Committee had on hand.

In setting up a separate arm to spend money on Senate races, the RNC is altering its past practice. In the past, the RNC simply transferred a large sum of money to the House and Senate campaign committees and let the chairmen decide how to spend it. This year, Nelson -- a former top official in the Bush reelection effort and political strategist for House Republicans -- will work with consultants Tony Feather and Curt Anderson to oversee the TV and direct-mail campaign, which by law must remain independent of coordination directly with candidates.

Posted by crimnos @ 9:29 AM :: (0) comments

Monday, September 11, 2006

Marines Chief Intelligence Officer: Anbar Province is a lost cause

Al-Anbar is really big. How could we lose control of all of it? Are things really that bad? Wait, don't answer that.

I think the best thing we can do at this point is guard the border of Al-Anbar the best we can and try to stop the transfer of arms and guerillas in and out of the territory. It probably won't work at all, but I can't think of much else at this point.

Situation Called Dire in West Iraq
Anbar Is Lost Politically, Marine Analyst Says

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006; A01

The chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps in Iraq recently filed an unusual secret report concluding that the prospects for securing that country's western Anbar province are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there, said several military officers and intelligence officials familiar with its contents.

The officials described Col. Pete Devlin's classified assessment of the dire state of Anbar as the first time that a senior U.S. military officer has filed so negative a report from Iraq.

One Army officer summarized it as arguing that in Anbar province, "We haven't been defeated militarily but we have been defeated politically -- and that's where wars are won and lost."

The "very pessimistic" statement, as one Marine officer called it, was dated Aug. 16 and sent to Washington shortly after that, and has been discussed across the Pentagon and elsewhere in national security circles. "I don't know if it is a shock wave, but it's made people uncomfortable," said a Defense Department official who has read the report. Like others interviewed about the report, he spoke on the condition that he not be identified by name because of the document's sensitivity.

Devlin reports that there are no functioning Iraqi government institutions in Anbar, leaving a vacuum that has been filled by the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has become the province's most significant political force, said the Army officer, who has read the report. Another person familiar with the report said it describes Anbar as beyond repair; a third said it concludes that the United States has lost in Anbar.

Devlin offers a series of reasons for the situation, including a lack of U.S. and Iraqi troops, a problem that has dogged commanders since the fall of Baghdad more than three years ago, said people who have read it. These people said he reported that not only are military operations facing a stalemate, unable to extend and sustain security beyond the perimeters of their bases, but also local governments in the province have collapsed and the weak central government has almost no presence.

Those conclusions are striking because, even after four years of fighting an unexpectedly difficult war in Iraq, the U.S. military has tended to maintain an optimistic view: that its mission is difficult, but that progress is being made. Although CIA station chiefs in Baghdad have filed negative classified reports over the past several years, military intelligence officials have consistently been more positive, both in public statements and in internal reports.

Devlin, as part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) headquarters in Iraq, has been stationed there since February, so his report isn't being dismissed as the stunned assessment of a newly arrived officer. In addition, he has the reputation of being one of the Marine Corps' best intelligence officers, with a tendency to be careful and straightforward, said another Marine intelligence officer. Hence, the report is being taken seriously as it is examined inside the military establishment and also by some CIA officials.

Not everyone interviewed about the report agrees with its glum findings. The Defense Department official, who worked in Iraq earlier this year, said his sense is that Anbar province is going to be troubled as long as U.S. troops are in Iraq. "Lawlessness is a way of life there," he said. As for the report, he said, "It's one conclusion about one area. The conclusion on al Anbar doesn't translate into a perspective on the entire country."

No one interviewed would quote from the report, citing its classification, and The Washington Post was not shown a copy of it. But over the past three weeks, Devlin's paper has been widely disseminated in military and intelligence circles. It is provoking intense debate over the key finding that in Anbar, the U.S. effort to clear and hold major cities and the upper Euphrates valley has failed.

The report comes at an awkward time politically, just as a midterm election campaign gets underway that promises to be in part a referendum on the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war. It also follows by just a few weeks the testimony of Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee early last month that "it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war."

"It's hard to be optimistic right now," said one Army general who has served in Iraq. "There's a sort of critical mass of tough news," he said, with intensifying violence from the insurgency and between Sunnis and Shiites, a lack of effective Iraqi government and a growing concern that Iraq may be falling apart.

"In the analytical world, there is a real pall of gloom descending," said Jeffrey White, a former analyst of Middle Eastern militaries for the Defense Intelligence Agency, who also had been told about the pessimistic Marine report.

Devlin, who is in Iraq, could not be reached to comment. Col. Jerry Renne, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said Saturday that "as a matter of policy, we don't comment on classified documents."

Anbar is a key province; it encompasses Ramadi and Fallujah, which with Baghdad pose the greatest challenge U.S. forces have faced in Iraq. It accounts for 30 percent of Iraq's land mass, encompassing the vast area from the capital to the borders of Syria and Jordan, including much of the area that has come to be known as the Sunni Triangle.

The insurgency arguably began there with fighting in Fallujah not long after U.S. troops arrived in April 2003, and fighting has since continued. Thirty-three U.S. military personnel died there in August -- 17 from the Marines, 13 from the Army and three from the Navy.

A second general who has read the report warned that he thought it was accurate as far as it went, but agreed with the defense official that Devlin's "dismal" view may not have much applicability elsewhere in Iraq. The problems facing Anbar are peculiar to that region, he and others argued.

But an Army officer in Iraq familiar with the report said he considers it accurate. "It is best characterized as 'realistic,' " he said.

"From what I understand, it is very candid, very unvarnished," said retired Marine Col. G. I. Wilson. "It says the emperor has no clothes."

One view of the report offered by some Marine officers is that it is a cry for help from an area where fighting remains intense, yet which recently has been neglected by top commanders and Bush administration officials as they focus on bringing a sense of security to Baghdad. An Army unit of Stryker light armored vehicles that had been slated to replace another unit in Anbar was sent to reinforce operations in Baghdad, leaving commanders in the west scrambling to move around other troops to fill the gap.

Devlin's report is a work of intelligence analysis, not of policy prescription, so it does not try to suggest what, if anything, can be done to fix the situation. It is not clear what the implications would be for U.S. forces if Devlin's view is embraced by top commanders elsewhere in Iraq. U.S. officials are wary of simply abandoning the Sunni parts of Iraq, for fear that they could become havens for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

One possible solution would be to try to turn over the province to Iraqi forces, but that could increase the risk of a full-blown civil war. Shiite-dominated forces might begin slaughtering Sunnis, while Sunni-dominated units might simply begin acting independently of the central government.

Posted by crimnos @ 10:35 AM :: (0) comments

Earthquake in the Gulf

Haven't seen this reported too many places, but it certainly begs the question of what a more powerful tsunami might do to the region. And what aftershocks might we see?

Central Floridians have a new natural disaster to contend with: earthquakes.

A strong and unusual earthquake Sunday morning in the Gulf of Mexico sent ripples through Central Florida. It was felt south in Miami and north as far as coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and northern Georgia.

The U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors seismic activity, recorded the earthquake at 10:56 a.m., about 260 miles southwest of Tampa. It reached magnitude 6, the strongest and most widely felt of only about a dozen temblors that have been recorded in the Gulf in 30 years.

No injuries or property damage had been reported, and the operations of Central Florida theme parks, ports and airports were not disrupted by the sudden shocks. No resulting tsunami was reported in the Gulf, and none was expected, the National Weather Service said.

But many residents experienced chandeliers swinging and walls shaking. They filed thousands of incident reports at the USGS Web site.

"I had never heard of an earthquake in Florida," Eleanor Loke, a retiree from New Jersey who has lived in Clermont 10 years, said Sunday afternoon.

Loke was at home with her husband, Bill, when he alerted her to an unusual shaking around him.

"He got really worried thinking that it was his pacemaker [causing the shaking]," Eleanor Loke said. "But then we realized the lamp was shaking, too, and we knew it had to be something else."

Scientists had a better explanation.

"Earthquakes are very unusual for the Gulf," said Don Blakeman, a seismologist with the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo., which is part of the USGS. "One of this magnitude is even more uncommon."

Before Sunday's earthquake, the most recent temblor in the Gulf was Feb. 10 and was a magnitude 5.2, USGS data show.

That another one followed seven months later puzzled scientists even more. "It's just usually not an active area," Blakeman said.

There are occasional earthquakes off Florida's coast, but rarely are they felt on shore. Strong quakes were felt in St. Augustine and Daytona Beach in 1879 and in northwest Florida in 1780.

Some of Central Florida's worried residents called 911 on Sunday, police agencies across the region confirmed.

"People called to say they had felt a tremor," said Barbara Miller, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Sheriff's Office. She didn't have a specific number of callers.

Ann Harvey, 82, of Sanford was home alone when she felt the earthquake and called 911.

"I wasn't sure what was going on," Harvey said. "I wondered if it was a sinkhole opening up, so I called wondering if I'd be needing help."

Others called their loved ones in panic.

Carolyn Beno was working on the top floor of a six-story building near Mall at Millenia when "it almost felt like the building swayed." Thinking a building nearby had collapsed, she called her boyfriend, scared.

"He said, I was just imagining things and I must have been tired," she said. "He said to not worry, I must have gotten dizzy or something, to go eat."

She didn't find out there had been an earthquake until hours later, when a co-worker came in to begin her shift.

Meanwhile, meteorologists with the National Weather Service were keeping a watchful eye on the Gulf, looking for any abnormality.

"Our primary concern is the development of a tsunami," said Scott Kelly, a meteorologist with the Weather Service in Melbourne. "Fortunately, there hasn't been any indication of that."

Kelly explained that for a tsunami, or fast-moving tidal wave, to develop, the seismic activity usually has to reach magnitude 6.5 or higher. It is possible, however, for such waves to develop at lower magnitudes. Aftershocks, he said, also are a concern.

William Beem, a Sanford resident, said he hopes earthquakes continue to be a fluke and not the norm in the Sunshine State. He was working at his home office when he felt the tremors.

"It dawned on me, the ground's shaking," he said. At first he thought it was an airplane flying too low.

"We get hurricanes and tourists," he said. "I don't want earthquakes to add to the list."

Posted by crimnos @ 10:18 AM :: (0) comments